The IFI recently hosted a Beyond the Bechdel Test season, which presented a selection of films from a range of directors who have explored complex, nuanced ties between women that are not merely a feature of one scene, but an integral aspect of the films’ narratives. Ruairí Moore sat down with programmer Alice Butler to discover more about The Bechdel Test, the process of selecting films of a high quality that pass the test and gender equality in film.
First off, would you like to briefly explain the Bechdel Test, and perhaps why it was chosen as a theme for the season?
The Bechdel Test is named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel who had a successful comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For which ran from the early ’80s right up until 2008. It was in a 1985 issue of this comic strip that Bechdel featured a segment called ‘The Rule’ in which two female characters mull over the idea of going to the cinema together. During this conversation – which takes place as the pair stroll by a series of cinemas, signalled by sensationalist posters for films each one more pointedly male oriented than the next – the first character explains to the other that she has devised a rule whereby she only goes to see a film if it has at least two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man. Seeing as none of the films available look as though they have a chance of meeting these requirements, the women decide to skip the cinema and go home instead. The Bechdel Test was originally presented then as a kind of gag but it struck a chord with film theorists, critics and researchers who saw in it a practical device for assessing films in terms of gender bias.
Using the Bechdel Test as a central reference point for the season was a means of provoking thought and discussion about gender disparity in cinema in an approachable and not entirely humourless way. The Bechdel Test has its flaws but it provides audiences with a simple set of questions to apply to films in order to start thinking about the often over-simplified representation of women on screen. Ultimately the test encourages viewers to consider the significance of how both women and men are being drawn in cinema. The test is also an interesting phenomenon in and of itself – the fact that it first arose in a conversation between two comic strip characters gives it a grass-roots like quality. The concept wasn’t generated by a team of film experts, it has an unofficial, vox-pop like character and its acclaim indicates a widespread dissatisfaction with the kinds of stories and characters that cinema can too often prioritise.
It’s probably fair to say that, though useful, applying the Bechdel Test alone can be a rather simplistic model for viewing the representation of women in film – for example, a film with an absolutely heinous representation of women might still pass it in a single exchange. What other criteria did you apply in selecting films to screen?
I agree that the Bechdel test is not foolproof and certainly has its drawbacks. As you say, a film might pass the test and still fail to offer anything of value in terms of its representation of women. On a basic level though, it prompts audiences to think, and what is more, to question what they are watching.
In terms of other criteria, I wanted the selection to reflect as wide a range of filmmaking cultures and styles as possible. The diversity in the season was an attempt to reflect the diversity that was integral to Alison Bechdel’s comic strip. It was also important that the season was made up of examples of great cinema in which female experience played a crucial role. A significant priority was that the films would be of interest to both men and women. This was to suggest that cinema is a domain where the perspectives of women and men should be explored equally – it was a statement in its own way. We are taught to expect universal stories to be told or carried by men. I wanted this season to be made up of what I felt were universal stories that were driven by female characters. A lot of these terms and ideas became familiar to me through reading Laura Mulvey’s work, in particular Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, her seminal essay from 1975.
It was an interesting exercise to look for films of a high quality that also managed to pass the test. A pattern that emerged pretty naturally was that very often the films that passed and that felt as though they would be of interest to a wide range of audiences were concerned with issues relating to representation. This is an important aspect of Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing, where Emily Mortimer’s character plays an actress unsure of how she is being presented as a star, it’s also key to Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 where Corinne Marchand’s pop singer feels she’s being sold as something she’s not, it’s certainly a major part of Irish artist Sarah Browne’s excellent film Something from Nothing and in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, the media is seen to misrepresent the plight of women as well as other marginalised groups in order to suppress their demands. In all these films there is an interest in the struggle to reconcile the real experiences of women with how these are represented or distorted by others.
The programme sees Irish female filmmakers take a prominent role, but it is not limited to indigenous filmmakers, or even women for that matter. With many claiming that there are “men’s films” and “women’s films”, what kind of themes unified those included in the season of films that ultimately transcended the gender or nationality of the filmmakers behind it?
It’s damaging to think of particular films as being exclusively for men or women. Cinema shouldn’t be reductive or prescriptive in that way. As I mentioned earlier, it was important that the films in this season would be appealing to both men and women and the only way to achieve this was to include films which say something as much about what it is to be human as what it is to be a man or a woman. All About Eve is about ageing and betrayal, Obvious Child is about friendship and identity, something similar could be said of Girlfriends. Wives is about responsibility and abandon, Yield to the Night about crime and endurance – these are films that can speak to anyone, regardless of gender.
The Swedish Film Institute recently introduced measures requiring all funding to be allocated equally among the genders, which has seen the amount of projects with women writers/producers attached match and even exceed that of men. Do you think something like this could and should be implemented for Irish film?
I have limited knowledge or experience of funding and film production. However, a concerted effort does need to be made in order to even out the balance in terms of gender focus in Irish film. The efforts made in Sweden have been successful so it makes a lot of sense to try and establish something here along the same lines.
Between the Beyond the Bechdel Test season, a panel centred on the issue at the Galway Film Fleadh and the upcoming Feminist Film Festival in Dublin, the issue of gender equality in Irish film seems to be one very much at the forefront today – what would you hope to see happen, going forward?
I would hope to see a greater number of mainstream Irish films with female protagonists. I think this is more likely to happen if there are more women supported in their work in key positions behind the camera, writing scripts, producing and directing films. In order for this to happen, procedures need to be put in place in order to facilitate this and it would be great to see these established in as short a time frame as possible.