Bechdel Fallacy

by Said Dağlı

On Bechdel test, a measure of gender representations in fiction formulated by Alison Bechdel, Said Dağlı has written a response. He raised some objections against the test.

You may have heard about the Bechdel test which measures the representation of women in films, generally, in fiction. There are three criteria for a film to pass the test: (1) It has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. Although it is a very clever and creative approach to assert the inequalities between representations of genders in fiction, it also creates a fallacy in fiction readings.

First of all, it is important to note that the idea behind the Bechdel test wasn’t academic. My point is not to criticize Alison Bechdel or her comic strip that presented this test first. Yet, in time, it started to be used to evaluate single films. There is a website, which is updated by users, listing the films which can and cannot pass the Bechdel test. So, I want to demonstrate some drawbacks of this test.

Bechdel Test by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel’s famous comic strip formulated the Bechdel test.

Drawbacks of Bechdel Test

There are two main problems regarding this test. First, a film that represents all genders equal may end up failing the test while another film which is sexist and homophobic may pass it. Let me present some hypothetical films cannot pass the Bechdel test.

Film A: Focuses on a little girl. The only character that we know its name is this little girl.

Film B: Focuses on two siblings. The only characters that we know their name are a little boy and a little girl.

Film C: Focuses on ten separate women. Only names we know are theirs. There are even no male characters. Yet, these women never talk to each other.

Film D: A feminist film which narrates a woman in a work environment that is full of men.

Film E: As a cinematographic decision, this film doesn’t give the names of the characters.

These hypothetical films cannot pass the Bechdel test while a porn film, featuring two women, can. So, in order to deeply understand whether a film represents the genders equal, we need more variables.

Secondly, even if a film cannot pass the Bechdel test apart from these hypothetical situations, it still cannot be classified as a sexist or a gendered fiction. It will tell nothing about the representation of women in cinema. No screenwriter or director has an obligation to represent all genders. I can write 50 male characters while no female characters are drawn. Some other screenwriter can do vice versa.

Bechdel Test in Generalizations

So, can we say that the Bechdel test is totally useless? No. As I said in the beginning, it is a very clever and creative approach. However, it shouldn’t be used to assess a single film (or even a corpus of a director/writer) as no single content creator has an obligation to create fictions representing all genders. That’s why, it should only be utilized in a general spectrum.

For example, you can compare two decades of American cinema in terms of representation of women with the Bechdel test. One screenwriter cannot be obliged to represent the women but in a healthy and equal society, nearly an equal representation of genders in the general spectrum can be expected. If the representation of men doubles the representation of women in American films created in a decade (which is the case most of the time), then it shows a problem. But one of these films cannot be criticized not passing the test.

Bechdel Fallacy

I want to make a broader inference out of this discussion. Some assessments can only make sense in generalizations. Let me give an example. A writer can write a stupid character, is that right? It can be male or female, the chances are the same, and it is writer’s decision to make it male or female. Let say the writer decided on writing a female stupid character. It doesn’t make the writer sexist. Then, she can be brunette, brown, blonde, etc. It is still writer’s decision to choose one of them. If this stupid female character would be a brunette, it doesn’t mean that the writer thinks all brunette women are stupid. In the same sense, this stupid female character can be a blonde. We cannot criticize the screenwriter depicting a stupid blonde woman. YET, if half of the stupid characters created in a geography and a period of time are women and blonde, we can say that there is a discriminator mindset. YET AGAIN, no one can interfere the writer’s own artistic decision. Even if there is such a general theme, a fiction that depicts a stupid blonde woman doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer sees all (or most of the) blonde women as stupid.

To criticize singles out of generalizations is not something that can only be seen in gender studies or it is not only a problem that I see in the Bechdel test. But still, I believe that the Bechdel test is one of the most explicit examples of this fallacy. I don’t know if it has already been formulized by someone else. If you know such a theory or an article regarding this fallacy, you can update me. Until then, I want to call it as the Bechdel Fallacy.

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