Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: How the Bechdel Test Made Me a Better Playwright

Marissa Skudlarek demonstrates how a little bit of consciousness can go a long way.

This week in feminism-and-the-arts news: some cinemas in Sweden will let customers know whether or not the movies they show pass the Bechdel test. While it remains to be seen whether this policy will have any effect on box-office receipts or other such practical matters, it’s an intriguing idea. We feminists know that one of our most powerful arguments is data/statistics that show that yes, sexism still exists.

The Bechdel test, if you haven’t heard of it before, is a simple rubric originally devised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In order to pass the test, a movie (or book, play, whatever) must contain a scene in which:

1. two named female characters

2. talk to one another

3. about something other than a man

(Note that the test does not state that women can never talk about men, the way that a more stringent school of feminist art-makers would have it. They can have men on their minds; they just need to have something else on their minds, too.)

The Bechdel test sounds simple, so it’s rather shocking to realize how many films — even good, acclaimed, intelligently made films — fail it. And, while awareness of the Bechdel test has skyrocketed in recent years among media-savvy people (which is pretty cool, right?) it does not seem to have made much of an impact on the art that’s actually getting produced.

I appreciate the Bechdel Test while also acknowledging its limitations; it’s not the Perfect Arbiter of All Feminist Wisdom that some make it out to be. It’s laughably easy to envision misogynistic works that pass the test and feminist works that fail it. And I find it most useful when used in the aggregate (“The majority of feature films fail the Bechdel Test, and that’s kind of disturbing”) rather than as a way of judging the quality of a specific work of art (“Movie X fails the Bechdel Test, so it is bad and you should refuse to see it”).

Not all works of art need to pass the Bechdel Test, but it does provide an elementary rubric for creating female characters who are interesting in their own right, and not just ancillary to men. As such, I do think it would be worthwhile if every writer, as he or she neared the completion of a first draft, asked him- or herself, “Does this work pass the Bechdel test? If not, is there a good reason that it’s failing the test? Or is there a way that I could revise it to strengthen the female characters and have it pass the test?”

I think about how Tony Kushner originally planned for Angels in America to have an all-male cast, but he was writing it thanks to a commission from (San Francisco’s own!) Eureka Theater. And the Eureka had three resident actresses, who insisted that he include roles for them. I’ve always felt that one of the things that makes Angels a great American play is that, even though its ostensible subject is the gay male experience, it also includes complex, interesting female characters in the roles of Hannah and Harper. Again, while a quota system for art (“all plays must include good female characters”) would be draconian, the example of Angels proves that sometimes, a nudge in the direction of “be more inclusive” can lead to great results, artistically speaking.

Used in this way, the Bechdel Test is not some kind of femi-nazi fascism, but a way of urging artists down the less-explored path. It’s an extra card in your deck of Oblique Strategies cards, a prompt to take your work in a direction you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, or to get you out of a rut. I know, because I’ve used it that way in my own writing.

A year ago, I was working on my first screenplay, Aphrodite, or the Love Goddess, for the 2012 Olympians Festival. Greek mythology is wonderful in so many ways, but it is also the product of an ancient, highly patriarchal culture. My screenplay updated the story of the Aphrodite-Ares-Hephaestus love triangle to 1940s Hollywood, and employed the tropes and aesthetics of ’40s cinema to tell the story — but the ’40s weren’t exactly an enlightened era for sexual politics, either.

As such, I realized I had written nearly an entire 60-minute screenplay without including a scene that would make it pass the Bechdel test — and, I realized, there was not a “good reason” why my screenplay should fail the test. Maybe the story of Aphrodite will never be wholly feminist, but I could at least include a scene where two named female characters talk about something other than a man! And from that impulse, the concluding scene of Aphrodite, or the Love Goddess developed.

In this scene, the Aphrodite figure (here a film star called “Rosalie Seaborne”) encounters a bobby-soxer young woman who serves as her fan club president. This character had appeared in an earlier scene designated only as “Fan Club President,” but to make my screenplay pass the Bechdel test, I had to give her a name: thus, she introduces herself as “Janet.”

Rosalie has just made a film in which she plays “a woman who ensnares every man she meets in her net of deceitfulness and betrayal.” This role is close to Rosalie’s (Aphrodite’s) real personality, but it’s a far cry from the comedy-ingenue roles that made her famous. As such, she worries that her old fans, such as Janet, won’t like it. Their conversation plays out as follows:

JANET: I’m still a fan, Miss Seaborne! It’s the third time I’ve seen The Net.

ROSALIE: So you don’t hate me?

JANET: Hate you?

ROSALIE: Not the most likable character, is she?

JANET: Oh, I see. No, I mean, she’s an awful woman, but it’s only a movie, right?

ROSALIE: Right.

JANET: And she gets punished at the end.

ROSALIE: That’s what proves it’s only a movie.

In the staged reading of my screenplay at the Olympians Festival last year, this line got a huge response. I’d worried that it was too on-the-nose, but the audience loved it. It was the perfect ending. It pleased the crowd. And I wouldn’t have written it without the Bechdel Test.

Marissa Skudlarek is a playwright and arts writer. Her 2013 Olympians Festival plays “Teucer” (two male characters, doesn’t pass the Bechdel test) and “Laodike” (two women, one man, passes the Bechdel test) have already had their staged readings, but she encourages you to check out other Olympians shows, tonight through November 23. Find Marissa online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s