When we go to watch a movie, there are certain standards that we unconsciously examine it on. Whether the dialogues are up to the mark? Whether the actors deliver a credible performance? (Did you, for example, compare Shahid’s performance in Padmavat to that of Hritik’s in Jodha Akbar?)
However, there also exist certain predetermined standards, one of which we take up in this article- called the Bechdel Test.
How did it all begin?
The Bechdel Test or the Bechdel – Wallace Test (named after its creators, American cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend, Liz Wallace and the writings of Author Virginia Woolf) aims to objectively measure the level of objectification of women in the media. It first appeared in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip in 1985, called “Dykes to watch out for”. Wherein one of the two women explain that she only watches movies that conform to the rule (which later came to be known as the Bechdel test.)
The test directly calls attention to the stark gender inequality across the entertainment industry by laying down three simple requirements that any movie must fulfil in order to pass it :
1) The movie must have at least two women in it,
2) Who talk to each other (for at least sixty seconds)
3) About something besides a man.
Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? After all, haven’t Brooke Shields and Marylyn Monroe singlehandedly turned drab stories into crowd pullers with their Oomph factor? But that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the point that the test tries to illustrate. It isn’t the size of the role of the female lead that matters, but the depth of her character in the movie and the importance that it holds to the plotline.
A movie like Sex and the City, for example, that literally revolves around the lives of four women in the city of New York, has evidently failed the Bechdel test. Again, a movie like 300 would not even get past the first requirement.
A fair Standard?
Even though the requirements of the Bechdel Test seem harmless enough, mainstream cinema does not generally fare well. This has a lot to do with the rigidity of the standard, and the shortage of interpretations on offer. It only indicates whether women are present in the movie, but does not automatically disentitle any movie that may have other negative factors.
A movie may have content that is deeply sexist but still manage to pass the test by simply fulfilling its three-pronged criteria. Conversely, a movie may revolve around a woman, but fail the test. (Point in case – Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider. The movie fails the test as there is no other woman in the movie with whom Jolie’s character might have a conversation. The same also holds true for the Matrix series, which is not sexist by any measure.)
It is not surprising then, that the test has often been criticised as being to narrow and not taking into account the quality of the work that it analyses.
Bollywood and Bechdel
You would think that most Bollywood blockbusters would automatically fail the test, with the likes of Dabangg and Judwa 2 being a part of our three hundred crore club. But remember, dear reader, that we are also the land of Mother India and English Vinglish.
The past decade of Hindi cinema has seen a reassuring spurt in women-centric movies, thanks in large parts to female actors and directors. Movies like Kahani, Dangal, Tanu Weds Manu, The Dirty Picture have had no qualms about being female-centric. (Heck, Katrina even got her own solo fight scene minus Bhaijaan in Tiger Zinda Hai. Aint that something? :p)
Having said that, it is also pertinent to factor in the various movies wherein our so-called female leads, (who happen to be a little more than an item girl and a little less than a character of relevance) do nothing more than prancing about in pretty clothes and fluttering their eyelashes a little.
But are the results always justified?
However, the limitations that apply to the credibility of the test in Hollywood, hold true back in India, as well. The Dirty Picture, a movie revolving around the life of Silk Smitha would fail the test. As would Alia Bhatt starring Highway (lack of other female characters). Both are clearly female-driven movies. As would the cult classic Sholay, or even Mughal-e-Azam. On the other hand, a movie like Housefull-3 might just manage to pass the test, considering its plethora of starlets.
While applying the test and analysing its results, one should remember that the Bechdel Test does not claim to provide a solution to the meagre meaningful representation of women in movies. What it aims to do, however, is draw attention to the problem with a very simple procedure. Is it possible that a movie might fail the test and still have female-centric content? Absolutely.
That is why it is essential that it not be made a sine qua non for movies, for it might prompt makers to fill screen space with extra characters with random dialogues simply to conform to the Bechdel standard.
The Silver Lining
The test wasn’t formulated to draw a line between movies that were good or bad, feminist or sexist. If anything, it serves simply as a reminder of the fact that patriarchy is a problem with which the society deals as a whole, glitz and glamour notwithstanding.
The good news? Slowly but steadily, with movements across the globe like “#Metoo” and “Time is up”, glass ceilings have been evaporating, if not shattering. Our mediums are gradually becoming more transparent. The glaring differences between the pay scales of men and women have become a problem that is brought into the limelight. Acceptance, after all, is the first step to reformation.