It may seem difficult to believe, but the Bechdel Test has been around for almost 30 years.
Since its first appearance in Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For comic in 1985, the concept of the Bechdel Test has permeated pop culture criticism as an example of the bare minimum requirement for female representation in cinema. Sadly, it often feels like nothing has changed since then, with women still only making up 30 percent of speaking roles in mainstream movies, and 15 percent of protagonists.
The latest proactive campaign for onscreen diversity is the Rep Test, which aims beyond the Bechdel Test’s minimal goals of two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.
Put together by the Representation Project, the Rep Test will be used as a media literacy tool in thousands of schools. It was launched with an open letter in the Los Angeles Times.
The test includes questions such as “Does the movie avoid celebrating offensive racial, ethnic, and cultural stereotypes?" and "Does the film avoid glorifying violent men?" with each positive answer being awarded one point, plus a bonus if the protagonist is a woman, an LGBT person, or a person with disabilities.
We used the test to rate a couple of recent Hollywood success stories, and while The Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy both end up with an abysmal D grade (1-3 points out of a possible 27), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire scrapes through with either an A (11+ points) or a B, depending on whether you interpret Peeta and Katniss as characters with disabilities. Marvel’s “girl movie” Thor manages a C, mostly down to its three whole female characters (a practically unheard-of achievement in the superhero movie genre) and the presence of Idris Elba in a role that avoids racial stereotyping.
The obvious caveat is that this kind of by-the-numbers test is a teaching tool, rather than a checklist for what movies must achieve if they want to avoid being a racist, misogynist pile of crap. There are plenty of very sensitively-written movies that would achieve a low grade on the Rep Test purely because their cast only includes a couple of people, and there are always shades of grey when attempting to gauge the overall atmosphere of a movie.
When looking at summer blockbusters (which typically do equally well with men and women, but are often derided by critics for failing to represent anyone but straight, white, male heroes), it may come as a surprise to learn that the Joss Whedon-directed Avengers actually gets a lower score on the Rep Test than Star Trek Into Darkness, which inspired backlash from fans thanks to its shoddy representation of female characters.
This kind of result is the easiest argument against relying on metrics like the Rep Test, but you shouldn’t let that distract you from the main point, which is that pretty much every mainstream movie is a disaster zone when it comes to representing a realistic variety of human beings. It’s a waste of time to concentrate on whether The Avengers deserves a C or a D, when as a big-budget movie with a central cast of six or seven characters, it should be aiming for an A.
In Sweden, cinemas are beginning to introduce an MPAA-style rating system to highlight which movies include a reasonable portrayal of female characters. A similar system for U.S. cinema still seems like kind of a pipe dream, but in the meantime, hopefully the Rep Test will have some impact in schools across the country.
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