It was pointed out to me that I tweet a lot of feminist critiques of pop culture and that some of my followers would like an introduction or 101 of the concepts I use. Be warned: this series of posts will ruin your enjoyment of popular culture forever. You will go back to your favourite movie or book or TV show and it will never be the same. Proceed at your own peril.
The way this is going to work is that I’ll cover – briefly – some of the key concepts. I will try to give examples (many bad, hopefully some good), and I will try to link you to some further reading. Let’s start by setting the bar as low as it gets, with a couple of numerical methods of analysis: the Bechdel Test, the Austen Exemption and the Sexy Lamp Test.
The Bechdel Test
Coined by Alison Bechdel, the test checks a piece of popular culture (originally movies but works just as well for books and TV shows) for three things:
- Does it have more than one named female character in it?
- Do these female characters at any point in the plot meet and have a conversation?
- Is that conversation about something other than a man?
What is utterly terrifying about this is that the vast majority of our current mainstream cultural output fails this, often at Step 1. Think about the last movie you went to see at the cinema. Mine was Pacific Rim. That has Mako and the Russian mech pilot who did have a name which however escapes me. They never talk to each other. Fail. I actually tracked the Bechdel pass/fail rate in books I read for about a year. Barely half of them passed, and for some of them you really had to squint to see it.
The reason the Bechdel Test is important is that our culture by and large does not tell women’s stories. And stories do two things: they tells us how the world is, but they also tell us how the world should be. They tells us what our society as a whole has decided is good, beautiful, valuable, important and true. Women are romantic interests, tokens, side kicks, objects (we’ll come to all those later). Women are not heroes of their own stories. This is, according to the stories we are telling right now, how the world should be.
Let’s be clear though, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t get you a feminist gold star. Acknowledging in your work that women exist and are human beings just like men is the bare minimum of human decency. Once you’ve managed that, there’s a whole lot of other issues to contend with, which we will cover in more detail throughout the rest of this series.
A Bechdel Test movie guide
The Bechdel Test on TV Tropes
10 famous films that surprisingly fail the Bechdel Test
The Austen Exemption
This is my very own personal corollary to the Bechdel Test, and it’s that Jane Austen gets a free pass. Why does she need one? Well, her books do have plenty of named female characters who all talk to each other, but on the face of it at least they only ever talk about men.
Except that when Jane and Elizabeth and Charlotte talk about Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, they talk about £5,000 and £10,000 a year respectively. These are conversations about economics and sociology much more than they are conversations about men. They are conversations about whether you will be able to survive after your parents die and whether the man whom you will be utterly dependent on for said survival will treat you halfway decently. If anything, it is Bingley, Darcy and the like who are utterly objectified in Austen’s novels, and this amuses me somewhat.
No further reading on this one I’m afraid, as I made it up. But feel free to collect your own examples of the Austen Exemption and post them in the comments.
The Sexy Lamp Test
Another test, this was was coined fairly recently by comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. It asks a simple question: for any given female character, could you replace her with a sexy lamp without affecting the story? Every Bond girl ever is a sexy lamp. So is Lieutenant Uhura in most of Star Trek (a point beautifully made in Galaxy Quest).
There are subtle differences between the Bechdel Test and the Sexy Lamp Test. It is possible for a work to pass one but not the other. The Harry Potter books, for instance, pass the Bechdel Test easily, but plenty of female characters (Cho Chang comes to mind) are sexy lamps. The converse can also be true: In Run Lola Run, Lola never speaks to another woman through the entire movie, yet she is anything but a sexy lamp.
The Sexy Lamp Test effectively checks for agency (which we’ll come to later, but which essentially means “Does the character do stuff of their own accord?”). Of course the risk here is that we end up with a few token strong women among an army of male characters. The Bechdel Test checks for tokenisation (“Do we only have one female character?”) and encourages more rounded female characters who break out of the “romantic interest” mould, but it can sometimes be passed on a technicality by really rather unremarkable characters.
It’s not that one test is more appropriate or better than the other. Frankly, they are both very basic and crude forms of analysis. The fact that so much of our cultural output still fails one or both of these tests, however, tells me that we might not be ready for anything much more sophisticated.
In Part 2 I will (probably) cover tokenisation, othering and the Smurfette Principle.