Grading the Bechdel test

Flying colours: Thelma & Louise is one popular movie that passes the Bechdel test.

Swedish cinemas are challenging the idea that two women talking on screen is diametrically opposed to film quality.

FOUR independent Swedish cinemas now tell audiences if the films they screen pass the Bechdel test – which require that a film (1) feature two named female characters who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than men. Films that meet these criteria get a seal of approval, or an A rating.

The test owes its name to the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose 1985 Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip drew attention to how few films appeal to viewers who take pleasure in female “sociality” – forms of social bonding between women.

Twenty-eight years later, cinemas are turning Bechdel’s black humour into policy in order to raise consciousness among audiences about gender imbalance. Indeed, their action has prompted huge national and international debate in recent weeks.

Film critics and scholars, however, have been quick to reject the A rating as “the final sacrifice of meaningful cultural criticism at the altar of honorable stupidity”, as Jan Holmberg, CEO of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, put it in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.

They argue that the test encourages a simplified view of film (reduced to script and characters), threatens quality (by focusing on quantifiable features), and sidesteps other aspects of gender inequality in film.

The test has been deemed “simple and catchy”, but ultimately hindering rather than fostering critical discussion. “It is not how art and culture should be measured,” said one critic. This rejection is too hasty, disregarding crucial dimensions. Rather than ridiculing the test, we suggest taking the challenge it poses seriously. The A rating has proved to be an activist provocation that works, and it is important to ask why.

It has caused critics to warn against increased simplicity, as if the idea of two named women talking to each other was diametrically opposed to the notion of quality. This criticism evokes a long history of devaluing women’s genres and women as readers, viewers, and media consumers. Be it 19th-century woman-centred novels, 1940s Hollywood melodramas, daytime television, or feminist counter-cinema, few critics were initially willing to take these genres seriously.


To emphasise the dichotomy between quality and narratives focusing on women, critics have suggested that films by great female directors such as Claire Denis or Chantal Akerman would not pass the test, but a simple porn flick would. It is unclear what kind of porn they refer to, but it is unlikely that girl-on-girl interaction involving dirty talk would feature named women and a verbal exchange amounting to a “conversation” of more than a minute (a criterion sometimes added to the test).

It is relevant to consider why pornography comes to these critics’ minds when imagining scenarios in which women talk to each other. It is a rhetorical move presupposing a cultural hierarchy (in which porn is the opposite of a quality film) and ridicules those behind the A rating for not knowing that potentially, it gives them precisely what feminists are supposed not to want: porn.

The critique evokes a fear of women interacting with each other that goes back to early cinema caricatures of suffragettes, in which women working together for the right to vote descends into drinking, smoking and fighting.

It also brings to mind the renowned Swedish critic Bo Stromstedt, who, upon watching Mai Zetterling’s The Girls in 1968, exclaimed: “What a case of clogged up menses!” Zetterling and her film have now been revalued and given a central place in Swedish film history.

Disregarded in this debate is the fact that there is an audience that is very interested in movies featuring women interacting with each other in interesting ways. There is a great fan base for films such as Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), Foxfire (Annette Haywood-Carter, 1996) and The Heat (Paul Feig, 2013).

Audience pleasure can’t be reduced to the ability to identify with or desire a “strong woman”. The A rating is not about classifying films as feminist or non feminist. It aims to alert viewers who find female sociality compelling to films they might like, and so challenge the industry to make more such films.

This is an old desire, as Bechdel notes in her blog, where she points to Virginia Woolf’s work A Room Of One’s Own as inspiration. Woolf mocked gender hierarchies in literature by imagining a novel by a female writer in which two women are friends, a thought so radical that reading the sentence “Chloe likes Olivia” might feel like a scandal. The debate over the A rating shows that the scandal Woolf joked about persists.

Complex issues

The Bechdel test is of course not a magical solution to all critical questions around gender and cinema. There are many possible levels – division of labour in film production, audiovisual language, characters, narrative – at which a film could be said to be feminist or, at a very basic level, interested in women.

The Bechdel test is not a substitute for critical interpretation. And questions of race/ethnicity, sexuality and class are as relevant and complex as ever. But it is equally reductive to deem the A rating as “damaging to the way we think about film”, as Robbie Collin, the chief film critic of the Telegraph, contends.

Analysing narrative, characters, dialogue, and what counts as “representation” is a complex intellectual, affective, and social practice, not at all the simplistic attitude that some critics claim. Furthermore, attention to these features in no way excludes an in-depth analysis of cinematic language. Films that pass the test have the potential to provide a representation of women as agents and social subjects with differences between them, instead of falling back on universalising ideas about womanhood. This is important given the still dominant mythological narratives that assign to women only the functions of obstacle, victim or gift on the path of the male hero.

Instead of rejecting the Bechdel test and the A rating as simplistic, critics should focus on the obvious. What does it mean that, in film, women can barely be imagined to have important things to say to each other? Does this have anything to do with implicit criteria of quality and taste? Why not take the challenge to push one’s imagination outside the conventionals that come most easily to mind? This is a call for producers, distributors, critics and audience alike. – Guardian News & Media

Anu Koivunen is a professor of cinema studies; Laura Horak and Ingrid Ryberg are postdoctoral researchers in the department of media studies at Stockholm University.

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Grading the Bechdel test


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