Friday, 10 January 2014

What Is The Bechdel Test (And Why Should I Care)

I’m prostrate on the sofa watching Parks and Recreation back to back and cursing my inability to deal with hangovers.

‘The time really got away from me,’ I explain plaintively, ‘one minute it was 7pm, then 10, then boom, 4 in the morning.’

‘What did you guys get up to?’ asks Captain Tact.

‘Chatting, mostly.’

We also drank a bottle of amaretto and danced around the living room at length, singing at the tops of our voices - but I’m not ready to think about that yet.

‘What about?’

‘Social work, politics, the impact of social media on young people growing up, The Rapture’s new album...’

‘Congratulations, your conversation passed the Bechdel test.’

The Bechdel test, for those who have not come across it, is used to identify gender bias in films, telly and so on.

The test is simply to ask ‘do two or more women have a proper onscreen conversation about something other than a man?’

If the answer is yes, the show passes. Try it yourself - although 2013 arguably did better than previous years, a disconcerting amount of popular media fails.

Having said that, almost nobody in the media is representative of normal every day conversations, irrespective of gender. Film and TV characters are good or bad; intelligent or attractive. Sometimes there’s the twist that someone good was merely pretending to be horrible, or someone beautiful was actually quite intelligent, but by and large fictional characters are broadly drawn. 

I assume the reason for this is that writers don’t deal in the everyday – or not the everyday as it actually is. Fiction is supposed to provide an escape into another world, either one close to ours but better, or like ours but awful so we come out the other end going ‘golly gee, I’m sure glad I don’t live in the popular Liam Neeson film Taken!’

Either way the fictional world is not like your actual life, because why the hell would you watch that? You’re already living real life. Why would you want to watch average looking people with average real life jobs, talking about how their kids are getting on at school or cat pictures they’ve seen in the Metro? That isn’t an escape from reality, that’s rubbing it in your face.  We want a bit of excitement from our downtime, maybe romance and adventure - something to aspire to.

Whilst I absolutely agree TV and film are bad at showing realistic conversations between women, they’re often terrible at showing realistic conversations between anyone at all.  In fact, the level of unreality is so prevalent in terms of cast and content, it’s enough to make you wonder whether very beautiful people perhaps don’t have normal conversations.

Think about this. How often in your life do you see a human woman that looks like Beyonce, or Lucy Liu, or insert-other-beautiful-celebrity-of-your-choice-here?  Not often, unless you’re doing some Grade A stalking.  The beautiful ones exist in a bubble of others like them, people whose MO is to bewitch the world with their looks and do very little else (a theory supported by all episodes of 30 Rock featuring Jon Hamm).

Therefore, is it that much of stretch to suppose that the beautiful ones don’t have conversations about normal stuff? Maybe when female celebrities get drunk, they actually do spend the entire time talking about boys.  Sure, that sounds unlikely, but the tabloids would have a hard time finding ‘sources close to the star’ to reveal all her private relationship stuff if she spent her spare time bemoaning the lack of support given to Social Workers, or arguing about whether The Rapture’s new CD needs more cowbell like me and my normal looking friends. 

Perhaps TV and film consistently fails the Bechdel test because the women beautiful enough to be on TV also fail it.  After all, it can’t be because there is a perception held by the people making and paying for film and TV that audiences want to escape into a two dimensional world where women exist to talk about men, people of colour and the LGBT community exist to provide comic relief, and people with additional support needs do not exist at all.

Can it?