CFC: Bechdel Tests, Fire Island, and the lack of nuance in pop culture criticism

From Mav: So I hate the Bechdel Test. I think it’s stupid. See what I’m doing here is saying something kind of outrageous to start an article and then going into a more nuanced discussion where I try to make a larger point but that will be ignored by a lot of people who just read the headline and the first sentence. People like easy simple hot takes. But even for those people who do read the whole article often sort of miss the forest for the trees. The Bechdel test is stupid, because in “trying to pass a test” you sort of trivialize the whole point that the test was trying to make in the first place.

Ok, so if you’re reading our blog, you likely know what the Bechdel test is, but just in case, it’s a test of gender equality in media representation (originally movies, but it’s been used for other stuff). With three parts:

  1. Does it have at least two female characters?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. About something other than a man?

And then we all get to marvel at how often Hollywood movies “fail” the test…. and then we write think pieces about how crappy the movies that “fail” are… because they “failed”. Yay content!

Except there are a few problems with this. See, the Bechdel test isn’t really a “test.” It’s got no real cultural theory behind it. It’s more an amusing observation from a comic strip! It originally appeared in Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For as a one-off joke (and as Bechdel frequently points out… she stole it from her friend Liz Wallace). It’s not even really a three requirement test. It’s really only one. It would be much cleaner to say “does this film have two female characters talking to each other about something other than a guy?” That’s much closer to how people actually talk. But it had to be broken up in order to fit the three part comedic structure necessary to make it a good comic strip joke.

And it is a good comic strip joke. It’s an amusing observation about the world that can lead to a thought provoking conversation about inequality in media. Except that doesn’t happen. Instead it becomes a binary thing where people just try to say “hey, this thing is sexist because it fails this arbitrary test” without thinking about the point of the test.

This is what I think is going on right now with the whole Fire Island thing. For those who haven’t heard, there’s a movie that came out recently called Fire Island. It is a gay retelling send up of Pride & Prejudice staring Bowen Yang of SNL fame. Some people on the internet, starting with author Hanna Rosin started complaining with the hot take that the movie “fails the Bechdel test and therefore sucks”. Ignoring that it fails the test because… it’s a movie about gay men — specifically, gay Asian men, who are quite ignored by Hollywood in general — and that it is doing its best to tell a different story that doesn’t happen to be about women (there’s only really one woman in the whole cast). Eventually, Alison Bechdel stepped in and offered a corollary rule that it’s okay because it happens to be about a Jane Austen novel… but she was having fun there too. Bechdel should HAVE to step in because the rule is not the be all end all of representation. It was supposed to start a conversation… not be a tool for shutting conversation down! Intersectionality is hard. Not everything needs to be for all people! If a film like Fire Island fails your test aimed at increasing gender representation then maybe the problem is how you’re using your test.

And I think it’s stupid anyway. Aside from the way I pointed out that the three rules are really just one, the flaw has always been that the rules don’t actually scale. The key example is always Gravity which fails because there’s only really two characters in the entire film, and even though the main character is female, since she’s essentially alone for the majority of the movie, it necessarily fails the test. Also, movies like Waiting to Exhale and Promising Young Woman fail because they’re about women dealing with problematic men. Of course tries to argue that Promising Young Woman passes because of incidental conversations between female characters, but if that’s the case, I’d have to say that the incidental conversations between Penny and Amelia in Top Gun: Maverick counts, even though the website discounts them because … there’s totally conversations between them about about both homework and sailing … even though I’m betting half the people who saw the film are having trouble even remembering who those characters are! It’s like these conversations exist just to say “see, this movie passes the Bechdel test!”

By the same token, a large percentage of girl-on-girl porn aimed clearly at straight men totally passes the Bechdel test. I don’t think it’s really trying to. It’s just that if two women have discussion about cheerleading, their chemistry test, stress at work, or faulty plumbing… and then they inexplicably fuck… that’s passing the test! One of my favorite sort of commentaries of this was in one of my favorite TV shows, The Magicians, where it is revealed that the lead male character has sex dreams about his girlfriend and his platonic female best friend, dressed as Daenerys Targaryen and slave Princess Leia respectively, but that his fantasies always make it specifically clear that he respects both of their minds, hopes, and dreams as fully formed strong women… before he has fantasy threesomes with them.

My point here is that whether people intend to or not, we’re basically using the Bechdel test as a checklist — “Do these three things to prove you’re not sexist” — without any real forethought into why or what those things mean. So much so that we now see constant think pieces about creating Bechdel-like tests for other things … and we end up with weird rules like the Academy’s new rules on diversity in order to get a best picture nomination … without forethought as to WHY you’re doing it. Tokenism and affirmative action aren’t the same thing. Because if they were then we shouldn’t be having this ridiculous conversation about Fire Island. I’d love to say that it’s a bad faith argument. I’d love to say that no one really believes that Fire Island was sexist just because it’s about all gay men. But looking at the response online, that’s clearly not true. Like much of “wokeness,” it’s sort of become a thing where people are just sort of performatively pointing at something without thinking through the concept that not everything needs to be for everyone. It’s actually ok to have movies that fail the Bechdel test and are just there for dudes who like sexy chicks. The problem is when that’s ALL movies are. And so, it needs to be ok to have a movie about gay men. Or a movie about women.

So that’s what I want to talk about. The whole idea of the Bechdel test falls apart with any real scrutiny, except in as much as it can be used as a conversation starter. But I don’t feel like those conversations ever start. But that’s why we have a podcast! So… I want to know what your thoughts are on the Bechdel Test (and other similar efforts).

From Monica: As theorists, as teachers, as professionals outside academia, we’re used to having to summarize pages and pages of philosophy and psychology and sociology and all the other “ologies” into some translation of “what the fuck are they actually saying.” Susan Sontag’s essay, “Notes on Camp“, is largely a thirty page list of examples of camp, which she describes as a type of know-it-when-you-see-it “sensibility” or “taste.” It’s purposefully very nebulous and queer. Dick Hebdige’s methods for defining and analyzing youth subcultures take up an entire book that end up rather narrowly applicable to only British post-war, largely male dominated groups. The DSM-V, used for psychiatric diagnostic criteria is 947 pages, and most diagnoses only have to fit a “3 out of 5 majority” or similar parameters. There’s a reason people like the Bechdel test: it’s short and simple.   

I think that tests and checklists are useful because we should create accessible ways for everyone to understand concepts like representation. But I’d argue that it’s never going to be possible to make them that simple. Historically speaking, Structuralists tried to organize the world into rules. And then the entire field of Post-structuralism emerged from the exceptions to those rules. And then fucking deconstruction had to come in and pose that postmodernism and the collapsing of linear time made all of these rules inapplicable. To ironically simplify: we can’t really simplify into a three point checklist. Our human need to create structured narratives and categories try to tidy things into cleaner explanations than the nature of reality, as exemplified by Mav’s breakdown of the Bechdel test.

But we still need something, so perhaps there’s a way to meet in the middle? Longer checklists? DSM-V majority rules criteria? An understanding that tests can’t be one size fits all, and that we maybe need more tests and a greater classification system to understand which checklist belongs to which movie? Because forcing the Bechdel Test about women onto Fire Island, a film made for gay men, makes zero logical sense. As much as I really, really want there to be more mainstream versions of representation, I also think it’s equally important for there to be pieces of media made specifically for minority, subculture, or niche audiences. It’s frankly, exactly the problem that a “test” originally developed in a lesbian comic has been co-opted to be largely policed by a heteronormative audience’s definition; the reason these two women are likely talking about a man is based on heterosexual romantic relationships rather than a larger contextual discussion of the way queer women navigate patriarchal society. I don’t know that we’re going to come up with a clear answer here, because as I’ve stressed the point is that these things are messy and supposed to be messy, because that’s what actually allows for representation— is that we don’t all fit cleanly into one simple checklist.    

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