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What is the Bechdel test? A shorthand for measuring representation in movies

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After this year's Oscars, some are still celebrating historic victories for inclusion, as well as critiquing what and who are still missing from the silver screen. One test has become a convenient shorthand for measuring representation in movies - the Bechdel Test. The hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline talked to the Bechdel creator about its value and its limits. Here are Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: It's 1985. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel is living in New York in a shoebox-size apartment, working on her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: One day, she sits down and starts to draw.

ALISON BECHDEL: Two dykey-looking (ph) women, a Black woman and a white woman walking down the street together.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Want to see a movie and get popcorn?

BECHDEL: As they talk, they're trying to decide what movie to go see.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I only go to the movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...Who, two...

BECHDEL: Who talk to each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...About, three, something besides a man.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BECHDEL: And the punch line is...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Last movie I was able to see was "Alien." The two women in it talk to each other about the monster.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREECH)

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: The monster is a punch line, but for Alison, the fact that the women in her comic could only watch "Alien" captured a bigger truth about the American culture she'd grown up in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Equality.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Equality.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

BECHDEL: I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, so my childhood is very aligned with that decade. And the thing I remember, very powerful force in my life was just seeing all the rampant misogyny that was going on in the culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: ...In recent years that in order to bring about any change in women's rights, women must be convinced that in a male-oriented society, they deserve equality.

BECHDEL: As a kid, it was just like this, you know, assault on women that I took kind of personally.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: As Alison got older, it wasn't just misogyny that she witnessed.

BECHDEL: One thing that's really hard to convey to young people today is how really nasty people were to gay people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Mystery disease known as the gay plague has become an epidemic unprecedented in the history of American medicine.

ABDELFATAH: Alison was drawing her comic during the AIDS epidemic and saw how mainstream news and politicians treated AIDS like a punishment gay people had coming to them. So she always had this idea in the back of her mind that she wanted herself and her queer friends to be seen and to be seen as human.

BECHDEL: I was like, oh, if we can make ourselves visible to the world, which doesn't seem to recognize us or see us, then how can they not help but like us? How can they not want to, like, give us civil rights? That was the thinking, you know? We just have to make ourselves visible. That's the first step. It would turn out to be a much more complicated and much more complex dance, as I would learn over the ensuing decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAM JONES: The Bechdel Test.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: But then I looked at the test, and I thought, OK, it doesn't seem too unreasonable. And then I looked at my films, and I realized not one of my films has passed that test.

ARABLOUEI: The Bechdel Test started to blow up in the early 2000s, as feminist film students picked it up and started writing about it online. And by now, passing the Bechdel Test actually seems like a pretty low bar to clear. Many of this year's best picture nominees pass the test - "Everything Everywhere All At Once," "Avatar: The Way Of Water," and even "Top Gun: Maverick."

ABDELFATAH: And this is all great news - right? - that finally we can have multiple movies with at least two women talking to each other about something other than men. But is that all? Alison Bechdel doesn't actually think so.

BECHDEL: If you think about it, they're pretty superficial criteria. It would be easy to make a movie that fulfilled them in name but kind of missed the point. There can be movies that completely fail the Bechdel Test that are great feminist movies or at least have a feminist perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRE ISLAND")

JOEL KIM BOOSTER: (As Noah) Well, no offense to my girl Jane Austen, but not every single man is looking for a wife. We're going to Fire Island, fun for the whole gay family.

ARABLOUEI: "Fire Island" came out in the summer of 2022. It's a rom-com about a group of gay men who spend a weeklong vacation on Fire Island, N.Y. The film's only major female character is their friend whose house they stay at, and it took some flack after a journalist tweeted about it.

ABDELFATAH: Quote, "So 'Fire Island' gets an F-minus on the Bechdel Test in a whole new way."

ARABLOUEI: But Alison came to its defense.

BECHDEL: It did seem ridiculous that a movie about Asian gay men should be criticized for not passing the Bechdel Test 'cause it did so many other wonderful things. You know, the men talked about women writers in the movie. The whole movie was based, like, on a Jane Austen plot. So I thought it was pretty feminist in its way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Over time, the way Alison thinks about representation has changed.

BECHDEL: When I was young, I thought it was simple. The more visibility, the more rights - boom. But what I've seen over the course of my career is that representation is a two-way street. Once you see yourself represented in a movie or in a television show, you're being co-opted in a sense, you know? Even if it's a genuine - maybe especially if it's an authentic representation, you're being, like, chewed up in this capitalist cultural machine and turned into a product. I think the real question is how do we make stories that are as complicated as real people and that don't oversimplify what it means to be human, what it means to be alive?

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MARTIN: That's Alison Bechdel speaking to Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, the hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline. You can hear the whole episode wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rund Abdelfatah
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.