New feature: failing to perform

by Megan Stodel // 18 January 2014, 16:56

Tags: bechdel test, equality, feature, film, gender, London, movies, representation, representation of women, theatre

AmenCorner 3 BT.jpg

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a call for features for the theatre section. I've just posted the first of these, in which Max Smiles analyses the last 50 plays she's seen to see whether they pass the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test is normally applied to films. The criteria are:

1) There needs to be more than one female character, who is named;
2) They talk to one another;
3) About something other than a man.

It's a sad indictment of the film industry that so many movies don't pass this. This test isn't radical. Women talking to each other about a range of topics is actually a very common occurrence. Only five minutes ago, I talked to my mother about whether my new printer was working; half an hour ago, I talked to a friend about plans for the weekend. I'm not trying to brag, although the potential for my life to be realised in Hollywood glory is clearly phenomenal. I'm just saying these sorts of conversations should not be so regularly absent from cinema screens that we've stopped even noticing how prevalent the ubiquitously male perspective is.

This reminds me of a Time Out section on film about a month ago, where the top five films of the week were listed. The first three were The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Gravity and Blue is the Warmest Colour. In the blurb for the fourth film, the writer primarily made a huge deal out of the fact that the first three all strongly featured women, as if this was so unusual as to be noteworthy. Fortunately, however, as these graphs indicate, there seems to be an increase in films that pass the test as time goes on - so perhaps we're getting somewhere, slowly.

Does the Bechdel Test translate perfectly to theatre? Possibly not exactly. Plays often have much smaller casts than feature films, so it's less likely that there will be the right combinations of characters to fulfil the criteria. I loved Phoebe Waller-Bridge's play Fleabag, about a woman who (shocked gasp) enjoys casual sex; however, it would be impossible for this play to pass because it is performed by one woman. Despite being solely the voice of a woman over the course of an hour, it doesn't have a second female character for the protagonist to interact with. These sorts of stylistic conventions could make passing the Bechdel Test more of a stretch for plays.

Having said that - it's not a big ask. And yet, when Max looked over what she had found, it made disappointing reading:

In the 50 productions I subjected to the Bechdel Test, only 17 managed to pass. They ranged from the anonymously penned Elizabethan drama, Thomas of Woodstock (a rehearsed reading at the Barbican) to brand spanking new plays at the Royal Court. I luxuriated in swanky West End palaces, and squished myself into tiny fringe venues, but it made no difference. Everywhere I went, theatre was failing to perform on the Bechdel.

To read about what else Max discovered, you can find the rest of her feature here.

The photo, taken by Richard H Smith, is of a scene in the production of The Amen Corner, one of the productions Max saw that passed the Bechdel Test. In the photo, two women in 1950s clothes face each other; one carries a handbag, one holds a bowl. Their expressions indicate they are having a disagreement.

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