I write novels that focus on female characters. Several years into my writing career, I came across the Bechdel Test. For those who have not heard of this, it is a bare-bones measure of how women are portrayed in film. Developed in 1985, it asks simply if there are two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. The test was developed, I believe, out of a sense of frustration regarding how women were portrayed in the majority of films of the era. Often, there was only one woman character, who was the love interest for the male protagonist. This woman was reactionary and passive, leaving the movie dependent on the male characters for action and assertive direction. Additionally, when there was more than one woman in movies from this time (1970s through 1990s) it seemed that they spoke only to men or, if speaking to other women, only spoke about men.
One of the theories I espouse, as a popular culture historian, is that films like this were created in response to feminism’s challenge of the patriarchy and gender roles that rose with the Women’s Liberation Movement and Women’s Rights. The timeline for Women’s Rights in the United States is long, but in the 1970s, it seemed to make real headway with the passage of Title IX regarding sex-discrimination in education, the upholding of Women’s right to health care via Roe v. Wade in 1973, and 1975 being declared the “Year of the Woman.” The 1980s saw the first female Supreme Court Justice, the first woman to be nominated by the Democrat Party, and a number of other “Firsts.” Another “Year of the Woman” was also declared in 1992.
Since its popularization, the Bechdel test has also been used to analyze other forms of media, including books and television shows. However, as has been noted by other scholars and film critics, the Bechdel test is not a measure of feminism or film quality. Some of the best movies ever made fail the test. Importantly, films that would be considered pro-female may also fail the test, simply because the badass protagonist winning hearts and minds while freeing the country is the only female character in the credits. This understanding is important as the Bechdel test is meant to show generalizations in popular culture, which in turn holds up a mirror before us and helps us to understand the human condition. The concern is that if women are usually portrayed as only interested in talking about men, for example, then women who have grander ideas or no interest in men, are silenced–either by society or through self-censorship.
As a writer who creates strong female characters who happen to be surrounded by male characters, I’ve always felt that it would be hard for my novels to pass the Bechdel test. Yet, I understand now that whether a piece of media passes the test or not is less relevant than how the women are portrayed throughout the piece. The website BechdelTest.com, has a substantial list of movies dating as far back as the beginning of film that have been rated as passing or not passing by users. One film listed, The Birds, directed by Alfred Hitchcock from 1963, caught my eye as it’s been recently added to Netflix.
I was interested in this film partly because I’m a huge Hitchcock fan and partly because I noticed that most of the characters listed in the credits were played by women, including Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette. Originally from a story written by Daphne Du Maurier, the movie takes place in a coastal town that is under attack by flocks of birds. While The Birds does pass the Bechdel Test, I wanted to explore the deeper themes involved and the portrayal of the characters throughout the film. As noted previously, passing the test does not necessarily denote feminism. Comments on the BechdelTest.com website, imply that the characters have some deeper conversations. However, snippets of dialogue and summaries of scenes cannot do a film justice. Therefore, I treated myself to watching the film instead of writing. #notwriting :p
What I discovered were women still being objectified despite passing the test. The main female character, Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren, is inquisitive and assertive, yet many of her actions are motivated by gaining the attention of the main male character, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). These machinations do lead to Daniels having a variety of conversations with other female characters about birds, schools, vacation plans, and Mitch Brenner. From the beginning of the movie, Daniels’ willfulness and outspoken qualities are celebrated. However, it is also important for the audience to understand that she is beautiful and available, despite these qualities. The opening scene with Daniels has a young boy wolf-whistle at her, to which she smiles, startled, but encouraging nonetheless.
Later scenes show that Daniels is confident and capable. She drives her own car, and knows how to use an outboard motor on a boat–even docking it and disembarking in high heels and fur. Later, she rescues children from bird attacks on several occasions. Yet, at the end of the movie, she is stunned into shocked silence and practically catatonic. As a strong woman, she must step aside in order for the male character to shine at the end of the film.
Other instances of women being dismissed or frowned upon for their assertiveness can also be found in the film. For example, when an older lady, a scientist and ornithologist played by Ethel Griffies, tries to explain that birds could not be attacking, the men in the scene are dismissive of her knowledge. While she is wrong, and birds are attacking, it is difficult to imagine the same attitude being directed at a male ornithologist. Finally, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), the local school teacher and Daniels’ potential rival for Brenner’s affection, is another strong female character who is portrayed as assertive and competent throughout the film. Yet, she also must step away, giving her life to save a child from a bird attack, in order to allow the strong male character to save the day.
Overall, as with other films, the Bechdel test is merely a barometer, and although The Birds passes the test, it remains a film of the 1960s with strong men who save the day and strong women who must step aside. For creators like myself who wish to highlight strong, capable, female characters then, it isn’t whether a piece passes the Bechdel test, but how much depth and agency we give our characters and what they then do with it. If they are strong, do they remain strong? Or, do their powers dwindle in order for someone else to shine? If they can save the day at the beginning of the story, can they also save the day at the end?