In social media circles, the Bechdel test has become a pop feminist shorthand for evaluating cinema’s gender politics. Named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her 1985 strip ‘The Rule’ from her Dykes to Watch Out For series, the test is straightforward enough: to pass, a movie must have two female characters who talk about something other than a man.

There is something intoxicatingly simple about the Bechdel test, and it has spread like wildfire. It articulates in basic terms what film critics like Molly Haskell have been arguing for decades: there are gross imbalances in the depth and breadth of how men and women are represented in the movies. The Bechdel test demands more for women, exposing the traditional assumption that women exist merely as satellites to men and their experiences, which is one that reflects a much broader historical cultural tendency.

The impact of the Bechdel test cannot be underestimated. In Sweden, it was even introduced as a basis for a film rating system in 2013 designed to champion films with strong female characters. In part, the accessibility of the Bechdel test must also be credited for raising interest in the relationship between women and cinema in industrial terms. Twitter tags like #WomenInFilm illustrate how gender politics can be brought to the fore in social media.

Like most online phenomena about gender, the Bechdel test has its critics. A panel at New York’s women-focused Athena Film Festival last year was dedicated to discussing precisely why it was important to move beyond the Bechdel test, seeking to expand the debate around gender and film. They underscored that the Bechdel is hardly a best-case scenario. We should instead be looking to foster movies where female characters drive the plot, whether they pass the Bechdel test or not. The panellists also reiterated that encouraging women to make films is just as important, if not more. And, perhaps most optimistically, they encouraged audiences to embrace diversity: rather than boycotting films that fail the Bechdel test, seek ways to provide a broader forum for all kinds of stories to be heard.

These are important lessons. In terms of authorship alone, it’s worth noting that many films made by women fail the Bechdel in often-spectacular ways. Antonia Bird’s cult masterpiece Ravenous (1999) features barely any women at all, let alone in a central or dominating role. Still, at its core it is a film about power tensions between masculine and feminine, albeit played out through a male cast.

From this perspective, some of the most important and interesting, although not necessarily progressive, films about gender politics do not deal explicitly with categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’. This is nowhere clearer than in John Boorman’s iconic Deliverance (1972), where circumstances thwart clear distinctions between masculinity and femininity amongst a group of male adventurers, dominated by the film’s great, explicit ‘She’: the river down which their journey unfolds.

The Bechdel test is an excellent entry point to start thinking through relationships between male and female in cinema, but it is significantly less impressive when approaching that between masculine and feminine. This does a gross disservice to a large number of films with something to say about gender politics, not least in the diverse, complex and often wonderfully contradictory field of queer cinema. Robin Campillo’s remarkable Eastern Boys, currently screening in Australian cinemas, is a powerful film that holds power and sexual politics at its core. But does it pass the Bechdel test? Not even close.

On the other hand, so-called ‘Nunsploitation’ or ‘Women In Prison’ films often easily pass the Bechdel in terms of their nuts-and-bolts mechanics: they are women’s narratives focused on and around other women. But surely the fact that many of these movies are overt sexual spectacles of softcore lesbianism (and other modes of ‘girl-on-girl’ action) intended to titillate straight male audiences renders their gender politics far from particularly ‘feminist’.

We need to move beyond the Bechdel test for other reasons, too. In 2011, I published a book about possibly the most critically derided of cinematic tropes, the rape-revenge film. While I certainly don’t suggest that every film that falls in this category is necessarily progressive (that would be impossible), I strongly argue against the tendency to dismiss them all as an exploitative, degenerate singularity. Even at their most disturbing, these films – which are frequently awful, and not by any means for everyone – are still involved in some way in an explicit discourse about gender and power.

With my own critical foundations so firmly planted in exploitation cinema, which is a field often dismissed as the tasteless or regressive, I find little room in the Bechdel test for the things I find urgent and important. For better or for worse, the women in these films don’t have the luxury of thinking of a world beyond patriarchy: that’s their point.

Whether we like these films or not, to exclude, for example, the rape-avenging female protagonist from discussions about gender and film to me is a grave error, one that risks reducing debates about women and the cinema to only those that fit into 140-characters. The Bechdel test at its best should open up these debates, but runs the risk of shutting them down.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

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