what i watched last week
#2: the sorrow and the pity (marcel ophüls, 1969)

bechdel test

The Bechdel Test caught my eye recently, as it came up in connection with the Oscars and showed up on my Facebook news feed. The “test” came from Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For (the latter is where the test first appeared … it is attributed to Liz Wallace). The Movie Test goes as follows:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

As I say, the Bechdel Test was in my mind, and it’s an easy way of reminding myself that I tend to like “guy movies”. The Bechdel Test does not evaluate quality; it merely checks to see how much attention is paid to women in a particular movie. The value comes not so much from the result of one test, but of many … once you accumulate enough results, patterns emerge, giving another piece of evidence of how invisible women are in films (at least American films).

You can read about this and more at Anita Sarkeesian’s excellent web site, Feminist Frequency. Here is her take on the 2012 Oscars:

As it turned out, last night, Robin and I watched the new, quirky HBO series Luck, and SyFy’s new, quirky Canadian import Lost Girl. Luck has a sizable budget, the classy HBO imprint, and names like David Milch, Michael Mann, Dustin Hoffman, and Nick Nolte. Lost Girl has a small budget, the cheesy SyFy imprint, and names like … well, Anna Silk is making a name for herself with this series, but it’s safe to say there is no one like Dustin Hoffman working on Lost Girl. I find Luck fascinating, with great potential … I find Lost Girl entertaining, but too stuck in standalone episodes for my taste. I enjoy watching them both, but think of them on separate levels.

Well, as Luck began last night, I mentioned the Bechdel Test. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the clock, but it took several scenes for a female character to appear. There were only a few scenes with women characters (one of them played by Joan Allen … the show may downplay its female characters, but HBO still signs up the best actors it can find). There were no scenes where more than one woman appeared in a scene, much less talked to each other, unless you count (as Robin seemed to do) two women watching a horse race together and talking in the background.

Next came Lost Girl. The very first scene featured the heroine, her BFF, and a pizza delivery guy. This guy was the point of conversation at first, but he was quickly removed from the scene so the two women could talk. Since Lost Girl focuses on a woman, it obviously has lots of scenes with women characters. More to the point, the heroine and her BFF live together, work together, hang together, and in general are a step above the usual heroine/sidekick routine. And the heroine’s love life is split between the male lead (he’s not really the lead, there’s only one lead and it’s Anna Silk, but he’s the most-used male actor) and a woman doctor, so even when we get the woman/man hotcha sex, there’s a woman hovering in our minds (not to mention that lesbianism and bisexuality are treated as being no different than any other kind of sexuality). Anna Silk is most definitely set up as a sex symbol … she plays a succubus, after all, she dresses in hot outfits, and she is among the healthier-looking actresses, such that I never feel the need to offer her a sandwich. But Silk is there for everyone to gaze upon, men and women alike, and she does her fair share of gazing, as well. Perhaps the most remarkable trick Lost Girl pulls off is to set up a scenario straight out of the Guy Handbook (hot bisexual babe shows lots of cleavage and has lots of sex) and turn it into something quite different.

To get back to the Bechdel Test, clearly Luck fails, while Lost Girl makes the honor roll. I think Luck is a better show … in a recent comments thread, I listed six shows I currently enjoy watching, with Luck at #3 at Lost Girl at the bottom. But the Bechdel Test does offer some context … whenever you see me making lists of the best this or my favorite that, take into consideration that my taste preferences often lean towards works that don’t pass the Bechdel Test. As noted above, this does not mean Luck is a bad show and Lost Girl a good show. But the cumulative record points to a consistency in my preferences that should be attached to my lists as an addendum.