This week has been a firestorm of controversy for Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, “Fun Home” with many media outlets and college newspapers weighing in on the controversy surrounding the novel. The most recent was an opinion piece by a Cornell University student on August 30 who believes that freshmen who do not want to participate in Duke’s summer reading program are missing out. The novel centers on Bechdel’s family of origin and her journey toward living an authentic life which integrates her sexuality as lesbian, rather than suppresses it as she believes her father did.
But what is the big deal with Alison Bechdel? And what is this Bechdel test? Bechdel had a life as a part-time professional cartoonist in an alternative lesbian newspaper prior to publishing the graphic novel. Her strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For” inspired many to look more critically at female relationships as portrayed in film. It has changed the nature of film criticism for many people.
The test, as stated in her comic strip subtitled “The Rule”, is simple. “One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” The punchline for the character is that she has not been able to see a film since “Alien” in 1979 as a result of her test. The character’s name, Mo, has led to the test sometime being called the “Mo Movie Measure.” The test is partially attributed to a friend of Bechdel’s, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virgina Woolf. Sometimes the test is referred to as the Bechdel-Wallace test.
The Bechdel Test has become a cultural touchstone not just for feminist lesbians, but for film geeks and writers who have noted that of the time a female character in a film only exists to further the plot of a man and to talk about men. . A BechdelTest.com is dedicated to cataloging films as viewed through this lens, without endorsing the films themselves or assessing whether the film may have other positive attributes for its female characters. Anita Sarkesian of The Feminist Frequency discussed the test in one of her videos in 2009.
Some variations of the test have included that the characters must be named, and that the conversation must last 30 -60 seconds. It’s amazing what passes, what doesn’t, and how it can change your perceptions. It doesn’t seem all that hard until you actually start analyzing this phenomena and wonder why female characters do not have the onscreen complexity which male characters enjoy as they discuss more about themselves than the relationships in their lives. After all, didn’t the women you grew up around talk about more with you than just the men in her life?