Friday, 12 July 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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