O Women, Where Art Thou?: The Bechdel Test Applies to the Oscars, Religious Debates, even the Bible
In my intimate circles, Oscar Sunday is a holy day of obligation. And, as with most holidays, the longer I keep it, the more ambivalently I feel about it.
There are a host of issues around these films and the industry that generates them, not the least being the way Hollywood reflects and, worse, constructs and projects the systemic and often institutional patterns of injustices in the world today. The apparent exceptions are even more painful for the critical moviegoer, as those rare movies ostensibly about “women’s empowerment” employ standard Western imperial frameworks and typically a heteronormative story arc, those uplifting movies on the theme of racism, themselves perpetuate racist tropes. Certainly, something like a feminist intersectional analysis is rarely performed in the boardrooms and cafes of the Los Angeles film industry.
Of course, this is not a particularly new thing to observe about the ways film culture represents women or constructs gender. The biting feminist protest artists, the Guerilla Girls, have launched several effective campaigns over the years, including those that specifically targeted the sexist and racist practices of Hollywood (as reflected by the Academy Awards). See, for example, their 2002 billboard with an “anatomically correct” Oscar (a pale male statuette, since those are who almost always win these awards) or the previous years’ Sundance stickers, with hair-(and consciousness-) raising statistics. They’ve even prepared a billboard for this year’s edition.
Aside from conducting such “weenie counts,” an equally easy, if also blunt tool for recognizing the systemic problems in contemporary culture is the Bechdel Test. So named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who wrote the syndicated comic “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and, in one 1985 comic, elucidated a rule that has become increasingly popular (and occasionally adapted) in the past decade or so.
In its most common incarnation, this test is used as a very basic determination of how much a movie reflects gender biases, by asking if the movie in question:
1.) includes two female characters (who have names)
2.) who speak to each other
3.) about something besides a male
Most movies cannot “pass” this even basic determination of whether more than one female character is a developed and meaningful element to the plot, reflecting the institutionalized dynamics of sexism (as well as racism, colonialism, and heterosexism) in Western film and culture, in general.
Since the arrival of this year’s Oscar season coincided with an increasingly intensified presidential primary season here in the States, it occurs to me that the Bechdel Test might also prove to be surprisingly useful for more than just evaluating movies. Indeed, what’s true of fictional forms of representation increasingly parallels other recent aspects of public culture, as with the recent “debates” about religious exemptions and coverage of women’s health care. For instance, panels conducted both on television and in Congress in order to address this aspect of religion in culture clearly fail the Bechdel Test, given the complete absence of women in them! These were strikingly obvious instances of institutionalized gender patterns in the media, for those who care to notice. Such examples are so low hanging, though, that they were jauntily pilloried by The Daily Show, among other outlets.
By itself, the presence of women on such panels doesn’t serve as a guarantee that the discussion of women in religion is free of gender bias, let alone feminist (in form or content). However, the more persistent the forms of exclusion are, the less likely that systemic patterns of privilege and prejudice are genuinely addressed and examined.
But why stop there? Why end with feminist perspectives on current public issues in religion, when the Bechdel Test, while still rather blunt, can be a fast and effective tool to gauge any body of speech or argumentation about gender, including religious bodies? Might it be meaningful to try using the Bechdel Test on theological and religious argumentation of other places and times (like the Bible, one of my own areas of focus for teaching and research)?
On the one hand, I’m still convinced that there is a “mixed heritage” when it comes to the uses to which biblical materials have been put, given how biblical interpretations have been a part of both the perpetuation and the critique of some of the most oppressive aspects of the world. Yet, on the other hand, given how few, if any of these biblical images, arguments, or stories can actually pass the very low bar established by something like the Bechdel Test, I cannot be entirely sanguine either. Relatively few texts within this corpus even feature two named female figures. And when they do, as with episodes that include Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Ruth and Naomi, Mary and Elizabeth, or Mary and Martha, they fail to fulfill the other two elements of the test. (Though, for a slightly different take, see Judy Redman’s blog post.)
Often, when teaching and learning about religious materials, people can be hesitant about identifying how problematic or even just androcentric (male-focused) these materials are, for fear of sounding too “harsh” about them.
Yet, if we can begin by looking and thinking critically about some aspects of a current cultural context, some of which include religious matters, this lowers a threshold that might be otherwise threatening. Indeed, if it is something that is so laughable that even late night comedy programs (hardly the bastions of feminist reflection or action!) have addressed it, it provides an opportunity to approach larger problems by beginning simply with an obvious, but often unexamined element. A basic tool, like the Bechdel Test, can help us approach key feminist questions obliquely at first and build both familiarity and dexterity to develop and ask still further feminist questions.
Though I’ve yet to find a man named Oscar in the pages of scriptures I study, I think we might still find that the skills we sharpen in interrogating culture outside such studies can make us more effective and critical negotiators of troubling traditions in and outside of scriptures, within and beyond religious communities.