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Bridesmaids and the Bechdel Test

May 25, 2011

Sometime last year, I read Fun Home, a memoir by Alison Bechdel. Bechdel is a talented cartoonist and author living in New York. In 1983 she started the lesbian-centric comic Dykes to Watch Out For which ran for 25 years. In 2006 she published Fun Home as graphic-novel detailing her life growing up the daughter of a funeral director in rural Pennsylvania. Among other things, the book deals frankly with the author’s growing awareness of her own sexual orientation as well as that of her father. It is a fascinating and deeply moving story.

Soon after reading Fun Home, I heard of something known as the Bechdel Test. The concept sprang from a Dykes to Watch Out For comic called “The Rule” that was first published in 1985. It provides a quick way to determine if a movie (or other storytelling medium) includes a compelling female presence in the narrative. In simplified form, the Bechdel Test states the following:

  1. it has to have at least two women in it (this is further clarified to mean two named characters with lines)…
  2. who talk to each other…
  3. about something besides a man

Once the parameters of the Bechdel Test were laid out before me, I found myself thinking about various movies I’d seen and whether they passed the test. Films like The A-Team and Predators fail the test because there are fewer than two named female characters. Let Me In and Tron:Legacy fail because, while there are at least two women, they don’t talk to each other. Perhaps surprisingly, Sucker Punch passes while Shrek fails.

Tvtropes.org breaks it down better than I could:

A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. Conversely, it’s also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. What’s a problem is that it becomes a pattern — when so many movies fail the test, while very few show male characters whose lives seem to revolve around women, that says uncomfortable things about the way Hollywood handles gender.

Now, that is not to say that all movies must pass the test to be considered “feminist approved.” There are plenty of great movies that have legitimate reasons for their lack of female characters; The Shawshank Redemption and Das Boot to name two. The Bechdel Test merely provides a guide, a macro lens through which we can view Hollywood’s output as a whole and see how gender roles and differences are presented. In general, that whole does not look good.

That said, it is gratifying that a mainstream comedy can be a box office success while passing the Bechdel Test. Bridesmaids is such a movie. Much has been said to date about this excellent new comedy (seriously, go see this movie.) The reviews are almost all positive and the box office numbers reflect its popularity with the hoi polloi. I’ve seen it twice. Regarding plot details and commentary about its portrayal of funny women doing physical and intellectual comedy, I can’t really add anything that other reviews have not already touched on. However, I will say that it IS mainstream. It IS popular. And it DOES pass the Bechdel Test. This is a rarity, though increasingly less so.

Some folks have argued that the setting of Bridesmaids in the context of a wedding fails the third part of the test, since in discussing wedding plans a man is, by association, a topic of discussion. I disagree, mostly because the discussions and conflicts portrayed in Bridesmaids are about the main character’s life crisis, the stress of planning a big, important event (regardless of what the event is), and the fear that she is falling behind her best friend in the progression of their lives.

There is a romantic male lead who has significant screen time, as well as an obnoxious man-child (who is most certainly not a positive male character), but most of the male characters have few or no lines. One of the bridesmaids’ husbands is spoken of but never seen. Another is seen and has a few brief lines. Another is seen but never speaks a word. The same goes for the groom, who I am given to understand is a significant part of most weddings. Regardless, as one reviewer on BechdelTest.com put it: “The Bechdel Test is about whether women talk about something besides men, not whether a movie exists in an alternate reality, hermetically sealed from the existence of men.”

The majority of conversations between the women in Bridesmaids are about either themselves or each other. They discuss their relationships with each other. They discuss their histories. They discuss their fears and their desires. Even if we are to allow for the “spirit” of the Test rather than the letter, Bridesmaids passes with the proverbial flying colors. Perhaps this bodes well for Hollywood’s approach to gender. We shall see.

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8 Comments
  1. T. Stump permalink
    May 25, 2011 8:57 pm

    Damn, Paul, I was just thinking about this topic. Xtine and I saw Bridesmaids a few days ago, and I couldn’t agree more with your take.

    Chris was disappointed that they did not actually get to Las Vegas, as she hoped to see the cast get thrown into some Gert Him To The Greek-type revelry. While I could agree on a few levels, if they actually made it to Vegas, it becomes a completely different film. I kinda like the dark tone of the second act, although I can’t quite elucidate the exact reason.

    • Paul permalink*
      May 26, 2011 3:21 pm

      Fear not, for Bridesmaids 2 cometh…

  2. bechdel tester permalink
    June 17, 2011 2:49 am

    of all things to reply about forgive me if this is too snarky. i associate a macro lens with zooming in on something, like an insect. the opposite of viewing some vast thing like Hollywood’s output as a whole. i guess it’s misleading, being called “macro,” there might be some optics reason for that.

    • Paul the Geek permalink
      June 22, 2011 2:04 pm

      You are probably right. I guess I was using “macro” in the same context as it is used in “macroeconomics,” which is viewing something from a few steps back, so you can see the proverbial big picture. I am aware that, in a photography context, a macro lens is used for viewing something way up close and getting all the little details. I certainly did not mean to confuse and I appreciate your comment.

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