Skip to main content

Jumping the lowest bar: Passing the Bechdel Test on stage

The Bechdel Test was first described in the comic strip, “The Rule” in 1985. A female character says she only watches films that satify the following three requirements:

1.       The film contains at least two women
2.       Who talk to each other
3.       About something besides a man.

The rule is supposed to be a low bar to get over. But it demonstrates effectively how often Hollywood fails when it comes to representing women on the big screen.

This blog post includes a lot of great graphs on the number of films that pass the test. And this site is a user edited guide to specific films and discussions of which rules films pass – and which they  fail. Sometimes there is disagreement.

Films and theatre are different mediums but I decided to put the theatre I have watched and the plays I have written to the Bechdel test.

As I mentioned before, the Bechdel Test seems like an easy one to pass. It doesn’t suggest how important the women are to the film or the story. It doesn’t suggest that the women are interesting or relevant or strong or multi-layered, just that they exist and talk to each other about something apart from a man. Films could pass this test by having a cameo appearance by two women saying hi to each other.

How does theatre compare? Some of the conventions of theatre make analysis tricky. The recent On the Bodily Education of Young Girls by Adena Jacobs and Fraught Outfit had a stage filled with young girls and women – but it is essentially dialogue free. In Angela’s Kitchen last year, Paul Capsis plays all the members of his immediate family – including his mother and grandmother, who interact during a large dinner scene starring the whole family. For me, both of these shows pass the test.

One-woman or one-man shows are typical stage endeavours. As are two-handers. It’s very unusual for films to have casts this small, but on stage it happens a lot. A female monologue about anything apart from a man still fails the test. A male and female two-hander, even about the subject of gender politics, fails – even when the female character talks to her mother, because the mother is unseen. But I’m not sure that’s exactly the spirit of the Bechdel Test.

Putting aside comparisons between the two mediums, using those three rules, 50% of the shows I’ve seen in the last twelve months pass the Bechdel Test. At last week’s Sunday Sessions at Belvoir St theatre in Sydney, playwright Tom Wright discussed analysing the plays of all the mainstage theatre companies in Australia every year – and his overall impression is that most years only 20% of shows pass the Bechdel test.

For comparison, of the Top 20 user-rated films at the IMDB, only three pass the test – Schindler’s List, The Godfather Part II and Pulp Fiction. But barely.

*

Penny (Renee Palmer) talks to herself in Like a House on Fire
but passes the test in Painting with Words & Fire

If you’ve seen any of my plays or read this blog for a while, a lot of my work is dominated by female characters. But how does my writing stack up against the Bechdel Test?

I have five full-length plays. Three of them pass the test. The fourth is a two-hander, one man and one woman. It’s the play I alluded to above – one about gender politics, where the woman is seen to speak with her mother, but her mother is on the other end of the phone line, unheard. The fifth play is a one-man show. Three of five. 60%.

I have twelve short plays that run between five and twenty minutes. Only three of these pass the test. 25%.

One other features two female characters who do not talk to each other. Three others are female monologues, which – when combined – actually produced a show that did pass the test, Painting with Words & Fire. But as monologues, they are three women talking to themselves.

Of all my short plays, the casts are usually two or three only. One has four characters – two men, two women; the women do not interact at all.

*

The Bechdel Test is a simple proof that women are almost invisible in feature films. While the graphs linked above might suggest about half of all films pass the test, remember how little it takes to pass. Passing the test doesn’t mean women are well represented in that film; the only reason Pulp Fiction passes is that two women discuss tongue piercings and fellatio. The Godfather, Part II and Schindler’s List pass based on one scene each.


In theatre, I think it might be more clear if a work passes or doesn’t pass. We don’t have extraneous characters; either there are two female characters who interact or there are not. Characters aren’t on stage for cameos, they are always important parts of the work. And yet, the percentage of mainstage theatre company works in Australia still puts the number at 20% pass. To me, that is a major failing.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

REVIEW: And Then She Became A Chair by Michelle Myers

  Michelle Myers in And Then She Became A Chair A woman emerges from the darkness, head covered, moving slowly, weighted bags are attached to her dress and drag along the ground behind her. She is in a waiting room. A doctor’s office. A hospice. Inside a commercial begging her to start a new life in Queensland. This is purgatory. Michelle Myer’s one-woman performance, And Then She Became A Chair , is an unsettling, confronting and poetic study in grief. We watch as a woman deals with the inevitable death of her mother, remembering absurd moments of her life, of their lives, in the years, weeks and days leading up to… C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed , a reflection on the passing of his wife, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” And it’s this observation that Michelle explores in this work – grief being the fear of loss, the fear of the unknown and the fear of what comes next. It’s interesting that the first work of theatre I have seen this year is focused so mu

Careful the things you say... Joe Wright’s HANNA & the combination of genres

Once upon a time... I tried to write a film script that melded noir and Grimm’s fairytales, where the femme fatale , clad in a slinky red dress, was also (in a way) Little Red Riding Hood. Where the lover of a hit man discovered his true identity from something hidden under his mattress. Evil (step)mothers, adopted children, hunters, princesses and family fortunes. Noir and fairytales have a lot in common and yet... I had real trouble finding the right tone for the piece. And, in the end, my script read too much like I was trying to get the concept to work, rather than telling a compelling story. Saoirse Ronan as Hanna Joe Wright’s film HANNA , screenplay by Seth Lockhead and David Farr, finds the perfect balance between a high tension thriller and a fairytale coming-of-age story. And travels further into the story of this mysterious girl than the trailer suggests. Going in, I was worried this might be too close to Leon or La Femme Nikita – the original films of which I t

You are far away: Agent Cooper and his troubling return to Twin Peaks

“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return , the last of many unanswered questions left as the 18-part feature film concluded a week ago. It’s far from the first time we’ve seen someone who looks like Dale Cooper lost for answers over recent months. But it might be the first time we have definitive proof that he’s in over his head. Mr C, Dale Cooper’s doppelganger, who was first seen in the original series’ finale back in 1991, returned to the town of Twin Peaks with a goal in mind. Mr C was flexible, though. He had to be; he’d set so many things in motion over twenty-five years, if he’d remained fixated, he would never have come as far as he did. Dougie, Dale Cooper’s tulpa – created by and from Mr C, wandered aimlessly through life, but slowly made every life he touched better. Plans change and Dougie changed with them. Slowly but surely, Dougie pieced together Cooper’s past life and became richer for it. Agent Cooper, th

Carrie Fisher: No More Postcards

Two Princess Leias, a medal and some broken jewellry Did I ever tell you about the time Carrie Fisher kissed me on the cheek? Stick around, I’ll tell it again soon. Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia; no getting past that. Except, of course, she did. And then she stepped right back into being her last year. She was the right person to play Leia because she was the right age at the time and she is part of Hollywood royalty. She was also the right person to have been Leia in retrospect, too. Can you imagine anyone else describing Jabba the Hutt as a “giant saliva testicle”? Anyone else who would bring an audience member up on stage to mount a Leia “sex doll” and whip it away before they get close enough to fulfil their childhood fantasy? Actors, even those of Star Wars­­­ -level fame, go in and out of the spotlight. Oh, you could spot Fisher on screen in the 1980s and 90s, but much of her hard work went on behind the scenes, as a script writer and script doctor. Hook , Sist

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: THE AVENGERS assemble on the big screen

I like superheroes. I grew up with reruns of the 1960s Batman TV series. The Superman films were released when I was really young. The Amazing Spider-Man , Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were nighttime TV shows. And one of the defining motion picture releases of my teenage years was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. I was never a big comic book reader as a kid – I’ve probably read more comic books, uh, graphic novels in the last ten years than any time before that. But superheroes were always very cool. And Burton’s Batman took my favourite superhero very seriously. Well, until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins appeared – taking it ultra-seriously and much darker than I’d ever hoped for. As a non-comic reader, I find it hard to align myself as a DC ( Batman , Superman , Wonder Woman ) or Marvel Universe ( Spider-Man , X-Men , The Avengers and its consitutent parts) person. They appeal to different parts of my brain. In effect, DC’s superheroes are often lone warrior

Colder by Lachlan Philpott - Red Stitch

Colder Photo: Teresa Noble I’m there. I’m sitting there in the dark. Sitting there in the dark watching a play by Lachlan Philpott at Red Stitch. A child has gone missing at Disneyland but nothing evokes Disneyland for me, not even the actors wearing mouse ears. Especially not the actors wearing mouse ears and affecting exaggerated American accents. I want to feel what the mother is feeling, while officious behind-the-scenes Disney workers assure her everything is going to be fine. I want a sense of her being frantic and frustrated. But I don’t get this sense because the language of the play is putting me at a distance. The expository monologues don’t paint a picture or flesh out a world beyond the very basic (“padded concrete, padded seats”) and the facile (“padded people”). This choral arrangement of voices is not singing. Eight-year-old David remains missing all day and we learn that his single mother has felt separate from him ever since. We ar

Walking out... I couldn't do it, could you?

Every so often, I think about walking out of a play, but I can't. I've never done it and I don't think I ever could. I've never walked out of a film, either. It's not in my nature. In the end, I'd rather suffer through the entire thing so I can criticise the entire play, rather than leave halfway and never know if it got any better or any worse. This has come to mind now, not because I wanted to walk out of Terence Malick's big budget experimental film The Tree of Life , but because apparently walk outs are becoming a phenomenon with that particular movie. And in a packed theatre at Cinema Nova last night, the walk outs were notable by their absense when the lights came up at the end. It certainly won't be to everyone's taste. It's very much an impressionistic film that explores grand ideas through mood and beauty, rather than telling a coherent narrative. But, even those moments in the film that were the most challenging on a "need for

REVIEW: This Genuine Moment by Jacob Parker - Midsumma

Christmas Eve. A bedroom. Two strangers, their limbs entangled; the doona cover and pillows hiding their identities just a little while longer. Riley wakes first to chimes from his mobile phone; an alarm or an early morning text message. He carefully manoeuvres himself away from last night’s hook-up and drags himself out of bed. His family are coming over for dinner and he’s got to clean up his new apartment before they arrive. But first thing is first, he’s got to get rid of “L” – the man he slept with last night, whose name escapes him right now in his early-morning, hangover fog. L doesn’t seem in a hurry to leave, though. He’s checking his messages; friends are texting photos of their Christmas Eve barbeque, trying to talk him into coming over. He’s not sure he wants to. He’s also sending messages to someone in his phone known only as FUTRE HUSBND and ignoring texts from his dad. Riley, in a haze, is trying to put the pieces together from the night before. He got wasted at

REVIEW: Stay at Home, Kasey Gambling – Melbourne Fringe

Have you ever felt trapped at home? I know, it’s 2020. If you can work from home, you must work from home. There are only four reasons to leave your house. You can only leave for one hour a day for exercise. No one can visit. But have you ever felt really trapped at home? And scared? Unable to leave. Four years ago, theatre-maker Kasey Gambling created an immersive audio experience for a single audience member on the streets of North Melbourne called The Maze . It’s still one of the most memorable pieces of art I have ever experienced, headphones in and following a woman on the street. Wearing headphones on the street can get you killed. At home, they should be a form of escape – listen to music, listen to podcasts, phone a friend. And yet, Kasey’s new show, Stay at Home , isn’t an escape. It’s another immersive audio experience, but this time you’re not following a woman, you’re in her shoes. But this is your house. How well do you know your own house? You’d think, after loc

REVIEW: Riot Stage Gets Famous - Melbourne Fringe

Early in 2020, Riot Stage – the youth theatre company – was getting ready to launch their show Everyone is Famous at the Next Wave Festival in May. They had been working on it for two years. They even got as far as appearing at the launch for the Festival. Then COVID happened. The members of Riot Stage had to wrestle with what to do next, just like theatre companies all over the world. They wanted to keep making theatre but had to think outside the box. Instead of premiering a show about persona in the age of social media, they made a documentary about trying to get famous in three weeks. Social media connects us all and every platform has its own quirks and expectations. And they all need content. The Riot Stagers launch new accounts to post art, sexually-revealing photographs, thirsty pics of Harry Styles, bad makeup tips from a learner, and reviews of pickles. The goal, of course, is to get as many followers as they can in three weeks. One Riot Stager goes the old-fashioned