Have you heard of the Bechdel test? It was developed to formalize an observation made by Virginia Woolf about the simplicity of women’s characters in literature. A piece of fiction passes the test if, and only if, three conditions are met:
- The work has at least two women in it
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
Given the simplicity of the test, it is surprising how few films pass it – less than 60%. A higher percentage of films pass today than decades ago but still only 60% of the films released as recently as 2013 passed.
For fun, I decided to apply the test to the script I’m presently writing. It passed.
It’s only half complete.
Well, that didn’t seem too hard. After all, I wasn’t even thinking about the test when I started the work.
Beginner’s luck? Perhaps. So I tried it on another script I wrote a few years back. It’s a bonding tale of two men, one a Native American, and it centers around horses. Despite the story clearly revolving around guys, this script passed the test as well. (Surprise, surprise: the women talked about horses.)
Now I’m really thinking. Why do so many films fail the Bechdel test? I’m not even trying and my scripts pass with ease.
Then I remembered a production I wrote and directed. It was a series of sketches thematically centered on love or, more generally, the Eternal War between Tops and Bottoms. All the characters were middle class and articulate. Their names in each sketch were “He” and “She.” Average in every way. The casting call was for men and women, ages 21-30, with race unspecified.
The troupe I assembled consisted of 3 women (1 black, 2 white) and 2 men (1 black, 1 white). I had wanted my cast both talented and visually diverse. It’s boring to have to watch all blonds, for example, no matter how attractive. Over the course of the evening, every possible male/female pairing from the cast would appear in at least one sketch. And, because of this rotation and the fact that the sketches were thematically about love, there were several scenes where black and white actors kissed one another.
After performances, people remarked to me how strange it was to see interracial couples on stage kissing when the text wasn’t commenting on the fact that these were interracial couples on stage kissing. The people making the remarks were artists and socially progressive. They lived in the liberal city of Los Angeles. And one of these people was involved in an interracial relationship. And all of this took place just when a person of color could be elected President of the United States which presumably indicated the country was in a post-racial state of mind.
And yet these people thought I was trying to make a political statement.
I wasn’t. Any more than my scripts passing the Bechdel test is a political statement. One of the female characters in my current work is a scientist. Not because I’m hoping to inspire women to go into science. Just because I happen to know a lot of women in science. I had a Native American in the buddy script because the gentleman who taught me how to ride horses was a Native American. My choices are based on artistic considerations. I’m more interested in what serves my story than my politics.
We live in the 21st century where older, stereotyped boundaries are being erased. As societal positions open to the previously disenfranchised, we are finding – unsurprisingly – that character trumps gender, race, and orientation. When President George HW Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall, he hid a political agenda under the guise of race and inclusiveness. When we assume powerful women political leaders will naturally speak against a “patriarchy,” are we thinking of Sen. Joni Ernst, Gov. Jan Brewer, Sec. Condoleezza Rice, Gov. Nikki Haley, or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Many of the Native American tribes had as much political turmoil among themselves as did the warring European nations across the Atlantic – sharing a common continent apparently does not brothers and sisters make.
Kindness and maliciousness. Progressive and conservative. Aggressive and complacent. Curiosity and disinterest. No genetic configuration is associated with only one behavior of each dichotomy. Creating and casting characters independent of superficial physical appearance provides a richness of opportunity for actors, of course. But it also provides the audience a chance to focus on the universality of human behavior without the distraction of outward manifestations. It’s more important for the audience to see my female character as an overworked government scientist than as an inspiration for her gender or race. When increasing numbers of artists create a banal vision where character appearance need not be commented upon, society will more commonly evaluate people based on their inner light rather than their outer wrapper.
Originally published April 4, 2016 in Footlights.