Women Talking to Women

By Alessandra Quattrocchi, February 24, 2012

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in "All About Eve"

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in "All About Eve"

The cartoonist Alison Bechdel invented the Bechdel Test in the 80s to put movies to a simple test. Does the movie have at least two female characters, who talk to one another, but not about a man? How do this year's Oscar nominations fare and indeed some literary classics?

Remember Margarethe von Trotta?  What I distinctly recall is that her films were full of women – Hanna Schygulla was particularly memorable in a white trouser suit. When “Sheer Madness”, 1982, arrived in Italy it was a huge hit. But lots of men went around mumbling: “What’s with her? There’s only women talking about women. Who cares?” This from people who could ingest huge numbers of Westerns or war movies without even noticing that there were no women onscreen at all. The Pleistocene Epoch is not that far away.

And maybe things haven’t even changed that much in the last thirty years. How many movies have you recently seen where women were in the spotlight? And what precisely does that mean? Well, there is an interesting tool called the “Bechdel test” which measures exactly that. It’s very simple. To pass the test, a movie must feature at least two female characters, these two must talk to one another, and they must not talk about a man. Sounds easy. But out of the nine movies that won a nomination for the 2012 Academy Awards, only two fulfill these criteria.

 The Bechdel Test was actually invented in the Eighties thanks to the imagination of American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who talked about it in her “Dykes to Watch Out For”, in a 1985 comic strip called “The Rule”. In 2009, US media critic Anita Sarkeesian’s feminist website www.feministfrequency.com picked up on it and analyzed a long list of movies with disheartening results. This year Sarkeesian turned her attention to the movies nominated for ‘best picture’ and concluded that seven out of nine do not pass the test.

Sarkeesian for instance fails Woody Allen’s  “Midnight in Paris”. It does feature a scene with two women talking about buying a wooden armchair, but the male shopkeeper is there and the character played by Owen Wilson keeps intruding. Sarkeesian also points out that Allen managed to portray a Gertrude Stein character– great writer and famous lesbian – (played by Kathy Bates)  without writing in a single line of dialogue between Stein and another woman. You can bet that none of this will get a mention on Oscar’s night.

The Bechdel test is not a tool for measuring whether we are watching a good or a bad film; whether it is artistically a success, whether it is politically correct or even whether it can be labelled a “feminist” movie. In fact, Sarkeesian points out there are several movies around which pass the test with flying colors but which still wouldn’t be educational viewing for young girls in search of a role model, nor would they win any prizes in Cannes or Berlin (the two “Sex and the City” movie pictures come to mind). The Bechdel test, however, does measure how relevant the presence of women is (in the plural) in the plot and in the general economy of a screenplay. You could say, in the movie’s Weltanschaung. Or to put it simply: the test measures whether women and their relationships apart from men are a relevant part of reality in the director’s and the producer’s minds.

If you want to play this game, go to bechdeltest.com where almost three thousand movies have been examined by the users. Among recent movies that feature long exchanges between women is “Black Swan”. Old and recent movies that pass the test are, to quote some famous titles, “All about Eve”, “A Fish called Wanda”, “Annie Hall”, “Babette’s Feast”, “Billy Elliott”… I stopped at the Bs. But this website, quoting movies selected at random by the users, does not give a comprehensive overview. In fact, percentages are disappointing. French feminists have fallen in love with the Bechdel test and the French website www.osezlefeminisme.fr for instance studied the 25 biggest hits on the French market in 2011.  16% of them easily pass the test. Another 40% feature a couple of lines of dialogue, usually totally irrelevant to the plot (Anita Sarkeesian in fact on her website suggests a corollary to the Bechdel test: two women should talk about something other than a man for more than sixty seconds. Otherwise a simple ‘thanks’ might suffice…). 44% of the 2011 movies examined by the French feminists simply fail the test.  Translated into simple terms: onscreen, women are much less represented than men, both in quality and in quantity. When they are represented, it is almost always in relation to a man.

But of course if this is true of the celluloid world, there’s no reason that it should be different in other domains of representation. What about, TV commercials? How often do you see two women talking about something other than a man? Actually, I suppose in a commercial it should be “not talking about something related to the needs of a man”: food, a clean house, clean shirts. One could spend hours thinking about sitcoms and TV series. “Happy Days” failed miserably. “Sex and the City” (the tv series), like it or not, fits the bill (although the four ladies do spend an enormous amount of time talking about men). The old dear “Friends”, with three women out of six characters, did have a lot of women conversation, even if much of it was man-centered. Interestingly “E.R” had a lot of trivial, quick bantering related both to work and other not-men-oriented stuff around the administrative desk, gravitational point for women nurses. In the modern world where women usually work for a salary in the same jobs as men – at least for part of their life – conversations about work should be routine. But if a sitcom portrays one woman, mainly interacting with men, her discussions will be with male colleagues and will thus fail the test.

Is it possible to translate the criteria and apply them to literature, just to test the perspective of what we consider to be a masterpiece? I think so, but of course, as with movies, a novel passing the Bechdel test is not necessarily a great or even a good book, nor a liberal-minded piece of fiction. Moreover the test, when applied to literature, may be deemed unfair. Every artist writes from a singular, limited perspective; great authors can invent and inhabit a crowd of different characters both men and women, but still, they all pour from one mind. No good artist would want to limit his or her ideas because he or she deems it necessary to respect an abstract rule. A novel written in the voice of a male hero, or with a strong authorial voice, by definition will not be able to present the point of view of a multitude of characters. Creation is a private matter between the writer and the page, while a movie is mainly a commercial enterprise requiring a lot of money and a complex organization that might (or might not…) be expected to reflect on the kind of world it is portraying.  However, novels are much longer and more complex than movies screenplays; and a novel entirely failing the Bechdel test surely points out something about the writer’s view of the world, or the society he or she was writing in and for.

Most great male novelists have written at least some of their works from a woman’s perspective – like Charles Dickens in “Bleak House”, a book, incidentally, teeming with women’s conversations. At random: Tolstoy’s novels, from “War and Peace” to “Anna Karenina” are full of women chatting. So is Thomas Mann’s “The Buddenbrook”. Even Salinger in “The Catcher in the Rye”, written in Holden Caulfield’s voice, manages to put in at least one exchange that passes the test (Holden’s mother talking to his little sister Phoebe). And Barney Panofsky’s strong “I ” voice in “Barney’s Version” records long, hilarious phone conversations between the Second Mrs Panofsky and her mother (true, we sort of hear only one side of the conversation but Mordechai Richler’s art leads us easily to imagine the other side). Adela speaks with Mrs Moore and many Anglo-Indian ladies speak to each other in Forster’s “A Passage to India”. Roddy Doyle wrote an amazing book in the voice of a woman with “The Woman who Walked into Doors”, and Paula Spencer’s heartbreaking testimony reveals a complex world of women – sisters, mother and children, co-employees and employers. Stephen King always gave the best of his writing to the loving creation of characters so vivid they jump out of the page: one merely has to think of “Dolores Claiborne” and her difficult relationship with her boss Vera. Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” opens on Becky and Amelia taking their first steps out of school. On the other hand, Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, although written mostly from Connie’s perspective, is very short on female conversation – even with her sister Hilda, Connie speaks only about men… And what about Shakespeare? Joyce, Proust, Steinbeck, Richardson, DeLillo…

Unsurprisingly, books written by women tend to have more women characters and thus, a lot of female conversation. This is of course not always the case. Skip back a few centuries and into France: “La Princesse de Clèves”, that wonderful novel Madame De La Fayette wrote at Louis XIV’s court, practically has no exchanges unrelated to men. On the other hand a woman’s view of the world is prominent in George Eliot’s “Mill on the Floss” and “Middlemarch”. In “Gone with the Wind”, a great novel albeit frighteningly racist, Margaret Mitchell manages to have Scarlett marry three times in ten years while loving a fourth man; and the Southern beauties talk about men a lot. Still, they manage to squeeze in exchanges about war, money and the lack thereof, food, clothes and childbearing… and much more. At the beginning of the great era of English female literature, the whole of Jane Austen’s output and the three Bronte sisters’ novels, from “Agnes Grey” to “Jane Eyre”,  have ample sections on women talking together: about education, books, food, music, cooking, sewing, shopping, clothes, children, house management, past memories, and, yes, also men of course. Jane Eyre watches her Reeves cousins for the first time through a window while the two girls are studying German together in a kitchen – a perfect picture of women absorbed in an intellectual task.

In fact, while love and marriage remain the main theme in all these novels, it might be argued that at least in some of them most of the dialogue is between women, and a good part is not about men (which perhaps explains why so few men have actually read Austen and the Bronte sisters!). More than that: Jane Austen’s books, all six of them, are full of credible, consistent, unforgettable men – whether gentlemen like Mr Knightley or scoundrels like Willoughby. But conversations between men – about women or anything else – are very scarce, and not a single one takes place without at least a woman being present! It may seems obvious, since all of Austen’s novel are written in the voice of the author but from the perspective of the heroine, and apart from a few snippets (such as Charlotte Lucas in “Pride and Prejudice” sneaking out early in the morning to meet Mr Collins, or the first chapter of “Mansfield Park” before Fanny Price is brought to her future house), the author’s voice only narrates events that happen when the heroine is present. Is this a limitation of Austen’s artistic capabilities? Or a conscious, specific choice in a men’s world, overturning the mainstream attitude in literature?

Sarkeesian, the American media critic, saves two of the movies nominated for “best picture” this year. The first, to the everlasting relief of George Clooney’s admirers all over the world, is Alexander Payne’s movie “The Descendants” (To my relief, since I’m a Payne fan too, his 2004 “Sideways” also passes the test). The second Academy award movie passing the Bechdel test is Tate Taylor’s “The Help”: in the 1960s South, a group of women, black and white, “build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project – one that breaks society’s rules and puts them all at risk”. The synopsis comes from the movie website, adding that this is an “inspirational, courageous and empowering story”. Presumably it would not have been seen as inspirational or as empowering if it had not ‘courageously’ featured an almost entirely feminine cast.

A question clamors to be asked. Do most movies pass the opposite litmus test? Specifically, do most movie pictures – and sitcoms, and novels… – include conversations between at least two men talking about something other than a woman? It is my contention that yes, the great majority of them do. Indeed, I believe it would be very difficult to find a movie where there aren’t at least two men talking together, and not about a woman. (On the same lines, movies about two men exploring the world together are fairly common. But “Thelma and Louise” was such a hit because the same formula being applied to women was such a novelty). However, Sarkeesian declares this an irrelevant question, since it is not necessary to demonstrate that we live in a men’s world. Much more relevant, she says, would be to apply the Bechdel test to minorities. How many movies have two black individuals talking about something other than a white person? Surprisingly few is the answer, unless the cast is entirely black. Even the ‘courageous’ “The Help” fails this test. It is, Sarkeesian says, as if in the Hollywood world of fiction black people could not appear to be empowered without the medium of a “good” white helping them out and playing a positive, redeeming character. The game could go on and we could apply the same rules to other minorities. But of course, the problem – as always – is that women are not a minority. They’re more than half the world’s population. But still often almost invisible. Even on a very big screen.

I owe the discovery of the Bechdel test to my friend Sandrine Goldschmidt who wrote about it on her feminist blog
A dire d’elles

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