Readers Write In #68: On the Bechdel test

Posted on March 1, 2019


A film is said to pass the Bechdel Test if it contains at least a single scene in which two named female characters talk to each other about something other than a man. This is grossly misunderstood to mean that they should be prominent to the story and/or that the conversation should be about something hefty. That is not the case. A mere discussion about hair clips will pass the test just as much as a discussion about career or empowerment.

Bechdel is NOT a Yardstick

It is not true that any movie needs to be ashamed of not passing the test. A movie DOES NOT become sexist because it has a strong male protagonist and an evil male protagonist and the story revolves around them. Any individual movie or any individual director, screenplay writer, or actor does not become sexist even if ALL their work fails the test. But they DO become sexist when they take part in Remember-you-are-merely-a-woman-and-should-know-your-place” type of lines in a movie.

Bechdel is NOT a yardstick to measure the complexity of a female character. It is not a yardstick to measure the feminist quotient (for want of a better term) in a movie either. A movie can have just one strong central female character and no other and it can be a wonderful, commendable movie. Even extremely misogynistic dialogue like women bitching about each other can make the cut. Bechdel cannot even distantly measure the WORTH of a scene or characters, much less the movie.

Why Bother?

Why do we even need to make a list about something that matters so little in the greater scheme of things? Simply because women are close to 50% of the population in any country’s demographic. Right from our early childhood we have watched plenty of movies. We frequented theatres and/or Video Libraries, streaming sites etc., and binge watched them. Mostly we watched movie after movie of the hero romancing the heroine, hero hanging around his friends, hero getting scolded by his dad, hero mollycoddled by his mom, hero beating up the henchmen, hero going head to head with the villain who just happens to be his future father-in-law or the hero chasing his dream(s).

The heroine’s only job was to attract the hero and be attracted by the hero. The only duty of his mother was to be motherly, the hero’s friend’s only job was to be a gauche foil to the hero’s effortless awesomeness, so on and so forth. The sister of the hero character probably requires a separate rant post. This bland template is particularly stale because it begins with the assumption that the default member of the audience is a young able-bodied, heterosexual man. Everything seems to be built around this assumption. The filmmakers being largely male probably contributed to this.
If women are also consumers of movies, you’d think something as BASIC as two named female characters saying just one sentence to each other about something other than a man is SO simple, no? But when you actually try to make a list, you struggle. You struggle more than you thought you would. Most of us have would have watched hundreds of movies in our lives. Perhaps even thousands. What percentage of movies actually pass this laughably simple test?

Are you able to picture a world in which it is a struggle to put together a list of even 100 instances of named men talking to each other about topics other than the women in their lives in movies? If that was the kind of movies ALWAYS presented to you, would you not feel left out?

Why Movies?

Why do we not make similar tests for novels and serials and game shows? Well movies have been our primary entertainment and our obsession for decades on end. We have not read the same novels as each other or watched the same serials but movies become such a huge part of our collective memories. Making this for movies rather than other forms of storytelling makes a lot more sense.

This is fun and Illuminating

This is not just one more thing that the crazy feminists have started to complain about. (Maybe it is, what do I know?) People who feel that way about this list don’t understand that list making can be a crazy sort of fun for us. In just the way a collection of punch lines by heroes cannot be considered automatically misogynistic, a list of Bechdel-passing instances in movies is merely a fun list and should not be taken to be male-bashing.

Lists can be very illuminating. Consider the following lists. They show us what we take so much for granted.

  • Most movies star a poor protagonist and a rich antagonist. Make a list where the protagonist is obviously richer than the antagonist. E.g Gajini
  • Make a list of movies in which the heroine is financially poorer than the hero. It was a surprisingly difficult list to make. E.g. Anbe Vaa, My Dear Marthandan, Gajini. Note how only the Richie Rich template of the-poor-little-rich-boy stories fit seamlessly into the list. Still cementing the fact that it is all about the guys.
  • While we are at it make a list where the heroine’s father is a better human than the hero’s father. Movies like Mr. Bharat where the hero’s father is a douchebag don’t count because they don’t show the heroine’s parents.
  • Hero’s mother is a bad person. Are there really Indian movies that can go into this category? I can’t think of a single one. Maybe a couple of Visu movies about bride burning will fit the bill. I can make a list of the stories where the heroine’s mom is a bad person. I wonder why this is so. Hmm.

The Rules

  1. Two Female Characters. Very Important Rule.
  2. Both are named characters.
    • The character should not be just “Mrs.Policekaran” or “Maths Teacher” or “Periyamma” or “Goundachi” even if the character is central to the movie. Their given name should be mentioned in the movie at least once.
  3. One line of dialogue from each.
    • Just a sign of acknowledgement like a nod or a smile or a gesture shall not count.
    • But it can be counted if the character has a disability and the sign language IS her language.
    • Or if the characters do not share a same language and resort to gestures.
    • The very next line can be about a man. That is ok. Just one line of dialogue from each is fine.
  4. The topic is something other than a man.
    • Neither about a specific man or men in general.
    • Using metaphor, allegory or some such thing to talk about the hero will not be counted as “other than a man”. E.g. Hero as the sun and the women in his life as his multiple lotuses etc.
  5. The same movie can be listed twice if the discussion is between different women.
    • If Anandi has already a Bechtel passing dialogue with Bhavani, you can submit another where Anandi has a discussion with Cynthia. But not if Anandi is having another completely different conversation with Bhavani. (Personally I feel this a fair enough rule as some movies will just take up too much space. What do you think?)
  6. The movie can be in any Indian language.

I have made only 10 Examples though I can think of more. Please send in more. Personally, I think we can put together close to 100 or 120 Examples with ease and after that, it is going to be difficult. I would certainly be happy to be proved wrong.

Example 1: Kulanthaiyum Theivamum

Lali: Let us switch!
Pappi: How do you mean!
Lali: We do look alike.
Pappi: True 🙂

Example 2: Kaadhalikka Neramillai

Nirmala: We are almost late for the train.
Kanchana: Sorry!

Example 3: Thillu Mullu

Meenakshi Duraiswamy AKA MD: I went shopping and found a saree that would suit you.
A A K Uma: Oh! You shouldn’t have.

Example 4: Samsaram Athu Minsaram

Godhavari: Kannamma!
Kannamma: SHUT up.

Example 5: BommuKuttyAmma

Lakshmi: Why did you run away from me now?
Tinnu: Why did you run away from me before?

Example 6: Anjali

Anjali: Mother!
Chitra: HOW I wished you’d call me that.

Example 7: Micheal Madana Kama Rajan

Ganga Bai: (to Madan) She cooks well. She makes good fish curry.
Chakku Bai: What fish?
Ganga Bai: Vanjaram.

Example 8: Pondatti Sonna Kettukanum

Indira: Was the MIL scolding you when I wasn’t home?
Thangam: Yes.

Example 9: Aasai

Ganga: Yamuna! How are you? Why are you angry?
Yamuna: You are like my mother. How could you consider leaving me?

Example 10: Aruvi

Aruvi: Do I look ugly?
Emily: Of course not. You look gorgeous.

Note: I did not get a screenshot of the exact scene so just posting another Aruvi and Emily pic. This first meeting scene does not have Aruvi saying anything.

(by Rahini David)