The Bechdel Test & An Animal-Friendly Film List

July 27th, 2009 9:07 pm by Kelly Garbato

Update, 3/18/10: I will see you an animal-friendly film list and raise you television, music, literature and theater. All this and more at POP! goes The Vegan.

Recently, Lindsay at Female Impersonator was struck with the notion to compile a list of films that pass the Bechdel Test. In researching the issue, she found several existing sites which essentially offer the same service, and served them up in a mini link roundup. This all got me thinking about pop culture, female representation, feminist flicks – and, from there, the non-human animal equivalents.

For those who have never heard of the Bechdel Test, it’s pretty simple. The “test” is a set of criteria which a movie must meet or exceed in order to “pass,” namely:

1. There [are] at least two named female characters who
2. talk to each other
3. about something besides a man.

The Bechdel Test – also called the Mo Movie Measure or Dykes to Watch Out For – was popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, in a 1985 strip of the comic Dykes to Watch Out For called “The Rule.”

Like I said, pretty simple; and yet, precious few films pass (and many of these, just barely). For example, check out the Bechdel Test Movie List, a sort of user-generated database that rates films on each of the three criteria. It’s not a super-long list, and only about half of the icons are smiling with approval.

Feminist blogs are just as prone to misogynist trolls as animal rights blogs are to those of the speciesist variety; pop culture criticism, in particular, seems to bring the anti-feminist trolls out in droves. (Dudes do not like it when women try to encroach on “their” pop culture, I tell you what.) The mere mention of the “Bechdel Test” is enough to elicit a self-righteous wave of privileged male backlash – despite the rather low bar set by said “test.”

In defending my review of Vantage Point (which passed the test, but barely), I observed,

Rather than being “bullshit,” the Bechdel test is the minimum fucking standard that (most) movies should be held to. It’s pretty simple: two women, who utter at least two sentences to one another during the course of 90+ minutes, about something other than teh menses. Like, seriously: two women, two sentences, not revolving around men. That’s a low bar, especially when you consider that almost every damn movie ever made in the history of the world features two+ men, talking to each other, about something other than women. And yet, somehow it’s a huge fucking ordeal for Hollywood to make a film that features two women whose lives do not revolve around men.

I say “most” because, obviously, there will be the odd exception; movies set in all-male spaces, such as an all-male school or such, can be excused for not featuring (m)any female characters, just as movies set in all-female spaces may not have equal male representation.

Okay, so I was a wee bit angry, given that I was responding to a (now-banished) troll, but you get the idea.

To this, I’d also like to add that fans of the Bechdel Test, by and large, don’t expect every film, without exception, to pass; this would be unrealistic. Films set in all-male spaces, or that focus on men’s relationships with one another, are obviously less likely to pass, and with good reason. The problem lies not in any individual film, but in the overwhelming number of movies that fail the test – it’s collective. Likewise, there are very few films that predominantly feature women (so much so that the film would fail a male version of the Bechdel Test – the “reverse Bechdel,” if you will); and those that do are more often than not dismissed as “chick flicks” (whereas movies featuring a preponderance of men are simply “flicks”). Add it all up, and Hollywood, we have a problem.

Anti-feminist trolls, such as “Anonymous” at Female Impersonator, commonly accuse proponents of the test of pushing a feminist agenda:

Feminists probably should avoid being movie critics, as your criteria for “good film” are pretty flawed.

Funny thing…

People won’t pay to see “Women sit around having feminist discussions about their menses”.

A few moonbat feminists might, sure. But the film will fail.

Rather silly, as the Bechdel Test doesn’t purport to rate a film on its feminist cred – it measures female representation, not feminist politics. A movie can pass the test but impart a horribly anti-feminist message (Bride Wars). Likewise, an otherwise feminist-minded film might fail the test, for whatever reason (Alien3, which takes place on an all-male penal colony). Other movies might pass or fail, but not carry an overtly pro- or anti-feminist message either way.

Nor does a film’s score on the test speak to its cinematic merits. I’ve never heard anyone claim otherwise. A movie’s score on the Bechdel Test will certainly influence how much enjoyment I derive from it (doesn’t everyone want a character or two with whom they can identify?), but that’s only one of many factors. Politics matter, too – but so does the storyline, dialogue, special effects and the like.

So what’s all this got to do with animal rights, you ask? Well, I was uber-excited to find a dynamic, flexible, updated/ing resource that classifies movies vis-à-vis the Bechdel Test. For some time now, I’ve been toying with the idea of creating a kinda-sorta similar list of animal-friendly films. (Exhibit 1: My latest half-assed attempt.) I say “kinda-sorta,” because the Bechdel Test isn’t something that can easily be used to rate a film’s degree of “animal friendliness.”

Translated literally, the “vegan” version of the Bechdel Test would look something like this:

1. There at least two named non-human animal characters who
2. talk to each other
3. about something besides a human.

Silly, right? (And not just because most movies starring talking non-humans are meant for the under-13 set.)

The Bechdel Test measures a film’s female representation – not its feminist ideals, which would be much harder to rate on a simple pass/fail scale. Similarly, an “animal friendly” film isn’t simply one that includes non-human characters – “animal friendliness” also lies in how these characters are presented, the messages they impart, and what the overall story says about their place in society. What is and isn’t “feminist” or “animal friendly” is much more subjective and open to interpretation than the Bechdel Test, a simple checklist of criteria.

So while I quite like the Bechdel Test, a simple pass/fail test wouldn’t do for ranking a film’s “vegan” merits. Even so, the Bechdel Test Movie List strikes me as a nice jumping-off point for a similar list of animal-friendly films.

The database appears to be mostly user-generated; users can add a movie to the existing list (“suggest” might be a more accurate term, as it has to be approved by the site admin), or contribute to existing entries. Each entry includes fields for links to feminist-minded reviews elsewhere, as well as user comments on how the film fares on the Bechdel Test. Each title sports one of four icons, signifying a film’s “score” on the Bechdel Test.

With the exception of the Bechdel Test icons, much of this could easily be adapted to make an “Animal Friendly Films” list. For example, each film’s entry might function (but not necessarily appear) like a blog post: the body of the “post” might include comments by the site admin, such as a checklist of the movie’s pros and cons (whether a synthesis of the existing comments, the admin’s own thoughts, or a user-submitted checklist), as well as external links, either to the film’s IMDB listing, or to reviews that focus on the movie’s representation of non-human animals and related “animal issues.” On the other end, users could offer their own comments much as they would on a normal blog post. Likewise, there’d be a form allowing users to submit links to appear in the main listing. In lieu of Bechdel Test icons, perhaps users could vote on a film’s overall level of animal-friendliness – positive, negative or neutral – and these rankings could appear alongside the film’s title for quick browsing.

Naturally, the entries won’t look as neat and simple as those at the Bechdel Test Movie List; quality is a much more nuanced concept than quantity, so a film’s entry and/or comments are likely to get messy. Do we even bother trying to summarize a film’s pros and cons at the top/in the body of its entry – or do we let the users battle it out in the comments (or both)?

What of those icons? Do we let users vote on the movie as a whole – or do we attempt to unravel the concept of “animal friendliness,” boiling it down to several main concepts and ranking the movie on each? (Complete with cutesy icons, natch.)

What do we even mean when we say that a film is “animal friendly”? That it espouses an animal rights message? An animal welfare message? A “green” message? Perhaps the movie depicts a non-human animal as a complex, intelligent, emotional character – an active agent in her own story. Maybe the AR movement is only briefly alluded to, by the presence of a vegetarian character or an extra wearing an SSOV shirt. Something as simple as a throwaway comment about the link between meat consumption and climate change might be enough to earn an “animal friendly” mark from some animal advocates (yours truly included). Hells bells, Hellboy II struck me as “animal friendly,” in that the film’s “villain” was trying to save the earth and its inhabitants from humanity’s biocidal tendencies. (Though Prince Nuada fails in his mission, he does manage to convince Hellboy & Co. that partnering with the kyriarchy is suicide.)

Why stop at movies, anyhow? I also like the idea of including television shows, with entries both for the series as a whole, as well as individual episodes. Of course, this would involve nested entries, complicating the site design even further.

Which brings me to the practical implementation of such an idea. I’m not really sure I have the time to launch such an endeavor; and, since database management and site design isn’t my geekier half’s area of expertise, there’s an added learning curve. To the best of my knowledge, no such site exists – not for animal-friendly films, anyhow. But – is there a need? Certainly, I’m tickled pink at the prospect, but I’m wondering whether this is a project other animal advocates might be interested in?

Help me out, vegans – what do you think? Yay or nay?

I’ll have to sit on the idea for a bit, incubate it and see what hatches. In the meantime, if anyone wants to run with it, have at it. You can even count me among your first contributors!

(I’ve already added a few listings to the Bechdel Test Movie List: Towelhead, The Descent and Blindness. Hop on over there and see if you can think of a film to rate, for good or bad. Remember, the project won’t work without you!)

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Photo via IronicIvy, under the following Creative Commons license:

www.flickr.com/photos/ironicivy/309643269/">http://www.flickr.com/photos/ironicivy/ / CC BY 2.0

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11 Responses to “The Bechdel Test & An Animal-Friendly Film List”

  1. lindsay Says:

    The vegan test is interesting… I like expanding the concept to other areas as well.

  2. Kelly G. Says:

    I’m loving the Bechdel Test Movie List! I’d love to contribute more than the three films I initially added, but it’s ridiculously hard to remember whether the two women in the film (assuming there were two) actually spoke directly to one another. Gonna have to keep a notebook on the coffee table from here on out.

  3. Eric Says:

    My thought is that the very basic minimum standard for an animal-friendly film list would be that the film does not exploit animals in order to be produced. In other words, if an animal is used by the filmmakers in a live action film, the film fails.

  4. Kelly G. Says:

    That’s a good point, Eric.

  5. CJB Says:

    I agree with Eric as well.

    Just last night with friends I thought about this while watching Bruno. I expected to be offended by Bruno but I had no idea there would be a hunting scene in which a rabbit was shot!! It was so upsetting that I would from this point on check a database before going to a movie in the future.

  6. neil Says:

    The database appears to be mostly user-generated; users can add a movie to the existing list (”suggest” might be a more accurate term, as it has to be approved by the site admin),

    Just to clarify, I approve all actual movies that are submitted, the approving is just to prevent spam.

  7. Kelly G. Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, neil!

  8. neil Says:

    Now, on the idea of the vegan test list itself…
    I’m not convinced on its usefulness. Personally, I think the Bechdel test serves a purpose because some people seem to think sexism doesn’t exist anymore and having a very low bar test like Bechdel’s failing so often is a way to raise questions about that (as you said, it’s more about representation of women than feminism/sexism, but still).

    For animal rights, I’m not convinced that we’re far enough along that it’s useful to start raising questions, because I think it’s obvious that animal rights are, well, not really an issue for most everybody. I guess my feeling is that what the list would prove is already very obvious to everybody: rights of animals suck and that’s represented in the media too.

    Of course, it would have other uses (e.g. CJB’s example on the bunny shoot scene), but for that I think just a blog post per movie for example would do just fine. No fancy database needed :-)

  9. Kelly G. Says:

    @ neil – I smell a group blog!

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