I’ve been having some fun thinking about the Bechdel test lately, specifically how many of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy films would pass it. To pass the test a movie must (a) have two women in it who (b) talk to each other (c) about something other than a man.
The test itself fascinates me. First of all, it doesn’t make any claims about quality or fairness, or even sexism per se; the two women could be delivering cliche lines about tax law while wrestling in mud. It’s also frightfully easy to make a movie that passes the test; just stick in a few minutes of mud-wrestling tax chat and proceed with the rest of your film as-is. (Yes I am looking at you, Star Trek.) It also shouldn’t be construed as an ultimate benchmark of feminism, because it’s possible to make a film that doesn’t pass but still treats women as first-class characters.
That said, the subset of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy films that would pass the test is an amazingly short list. Some of the dropouts (like 2001 and Moon) have few or no female characters, and some (like Star Wars and The Princess Bride) don’t have any conversations between women. In fact, finding a single genre favorite that passes starts to challenge my memory. Brazil? Nope. Raiders? Nope. Back to the Future? Nope for all three. Lord of the Rings? Heh.
Then I get to Serenity. OK, here we go. Joss Whedon, strong female characters, more than one on screen at a time. A cinch, right? Well… I’m trying really hard to remember a conversation between any two women in the film, and it just isn’t working. I’ll probably go through the script scene-by-scene just to check, but it should just pop to mind, right? Reverse genders and it’s obvious: Mal talks to the Operative on more than one occasion, Book and Mal share a nice moment, the Operative shares exposition with that functionary guy–and then impales him, but it still counts.
I’ve heard tell that the Alien movies qualify, but I must admit that I haven’t seen them. As for the rest of my list… well, I guess there isn’t one yet. I can’t think of a single genre film I’ve seen that passes the Bechdel test. Can you?