BY IMOGEN GRACE, Special to Cinefilles
Late one winter night, I was snuggled up beside my boyfriend, being the little spoon and catching up on the missed ’90s standard Braveheart, and the Bechdel Bill wasn’t even an apple in my eye. It was somewhere around the time when Mel Gibson rides gallantly towards the front lines, tree trunk arms akimbo, holding up a spear atop his fiery stead, and proclaims to the nefarious Englishmen, “You may take our lives, but you may not take our freedom!” when a question occurred to me.
WHERE ARE ALL THE LADIES AT?
Literally, where are they? What are they doing? There were women in the 13th century, yes? And if not, surely there were women in the 90’s who you could have–I don’t know–written stuff for? I was flummoxed.
Now, this was not a new thought, and I was certainly not the first person to have had it. (Virginia Woolf wrote about it in A Room of One’s Own some 89 years ago.) But there was something about the thought, this time, which stuck.
The film has everything a lover of blockbuster period melodrama could hope for: bloodshed, dimly lit antechambers, cavalry, corseted ladies-in-waiting, inconsistent European dialects, Mel Gibson’s arms (back when we all still liked Mel Gibson). It’s a good piece of classic American–er, Scottish–folklore. But it was not just that the film was so blatantly and unapologetically missing female characters of substance that bothered me, but rather how ordinary and even expected it was. In this film, like in so many others, there’s just simply nothing strange about the women not having anything to say. Nothing strange, that is, until we stop and ask ourselves where are all the ladies at?
And there is one tool that has managed to rally people around a simple and objective way to answer to this question.
THE BECHDEL TEST
The Bechdel Test–or Bechdel-Wallace Test–for those who don’t know, began in a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, and it asks three questions: 1) Are there at least two women with names, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man? To pass the test, the film has to answer yes to all three.
So far the Bechdel Test has managed to exist as a rule-of-thumb for female representation that floats around in feminist film circles and on Internet chat rooms. Up until this point, it’s been used mostly retroactively to simply observe whether or not films that have already been made will portray females in relationship to anything other than a male love interest.
Like all things related to women and equality, the Bechdel Test is not without its controversy. While we won’t even begin to discuss the trolls and the haters, as it is in fact the people who are closest to the issue, the people who are already passionate about representation in film, that protest the test. Oftentimes the naysayers, including at times Alison Bechdel herself, object to the test’s simplicity. After all, how low have we stooped when the bar for female representation rests at simply having two women talk to each other, at any point, for any period of time, about anything at all in the world except for a man?
And it’s true. The test is a ridiculously low bar and it by no means is the sole measure of a film’s feminist, or even creative, validity.
THERE’S SOME GOLD IN THEM MOUNTAINS
It’s the fact that the questions are so simple and seemingly easy to meet that has us pause and ask ourselves what stories are we telling, and why is it out of the ordinary that we would see two women have a conversation about their jobs, their kids, their dreams, their fears, their hair, their beverage of choice? Why did only 55.4 per cent of top grossing films in 2014 pass the test (compared to a embarrassingly similar 53.8 per cent in 1940), when practically all films would pass the “reverse test”? How is it I watched ALL THIRTEEN episodes of Daredevil on Netflix and never at any point saw two women talk to each other about anything other than Daredevil?
There are lots of answers to this question. But shouting “The patriarchy!” at my computer screen has yielded no change in the film industry (so far, anyway) and has only resulted in me being temporarily stripped of my status as little spoon.
Instead, I introduce to you the Bechdel Bill. The Bechdel Bill unites the film industry by asking producers, production companies and filmmakers to pledge that the vast majority of their films (80 per cent or more) will pass the Bechdel Test. Along with a small and mighty team of actor Joella Chricton, film editor Alison MacMillan, and public relations guru Tameika Thomas, we are launching the Bechdel Bill amidst all the creative furor of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where even though so many programmed films are still by and about men, the discussion of women in film is ripe in the air.
The response so far has been more or less unanimous, and a collection of filmmakers and producers that are making waves in Canadian film (Patricia Rozema, Katie Boland, Naomi McDougall Jones, Laurie Finstand, Mackenzie Donaldson and Hannah Cheeseman of Aberrant Pictures, and more) are stepping up and pledging to make films that pass the Bechdel Test.
We’re just at the beginning of the road, and I know that getting Harvey Weinstein to take the pledge may take some convincing. And it’s true that having more films pass the Bechdel Test won’t be all it takes to bring Hollywood into 2015. But we’re planting the seed to have people think about how they can write new stories and make new films.
How would Braveheart have been different if the writer and producer Randall Wallace had taken the pledge? If as he was writing, he had asked himself how he might pass the test–by changing parts for males to female, by exploring some of the existing female characters further, by having the Princess of Wales talk to her companion about something other than the King?
It’s in asking and answering these questions that the Bechdel Bill aims to change, literally, the face of the industry. An industry where films like Mad Max and Blue is the Warmest Colour and Pitch Perfect and Frozen aren’t anomalies. Where we don’t need to congratulate films for including what we already see every day in real life. Really, an industry where there is no Bechdel Test.
Until then, if you are a screenwriter, filmmaker or producer, we invite you to raise the bar by pledging to the Bechdel Bill.
The Bechdel Bill will be launching September 18th at 1PM at The Spoke Club, Toronto. To inquire about being put on the invite list, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on how to pledge, email us at email@example.com.