On the racial Bechdel test thread, we discussed my comic Hereville a little. Hereville, it was agreed, failed the racial Bechdel test (understandably, given the setting, I would say), but passes the “Jewish Bechdel test” and the original Bechdel test. Responding to this, Daran wrote that Hereville “fails the reverse gender Bechdel test – it doesn’t have two male characters who talk to each other about something other than a women.”
While Daran is technically correct — there is no conversation of any note or substance between male characters in Hereville – I think that to apply a “reverse Bechdel test” misses the point.
The Bechdel test asks if, in a movie (or graphic novel or whatever)
1) there are at least two named1 female characters, who
2) talk to each other about
3) something other than a man.
The point of the Bechdel test, in my view, is not to criticize individual pieces of work. It’s to point out that movies in the aggregate are overwhelmingly centered around male characters and their interests. In an IM, Mandolin wrote:
The Bechdel test is something that’s only useful when applied in aggregate to a field. It is not diagnostic of sexism or racism in a particular work that it does not pass it, or diagnostic of anti-racism or feminism.
The test – gender and race – exists because of a system that removes women’s and poc’s voices. To create a reverse-Bechdel test implies that it’s coherent to suggest that there’s a mass problem with erasing men’s voices from work.
I think sexism against men does exist, including in media, and is a real issue. But I don’t think a “reverse Bechdel test” makes any sense, because sexism against men in media is not similar to the mass absenting of women as central characters, and that’s what the Bechdel test is designed to make visible.
To work, a male version of the Bechdel test should be simple to explain and apply. It should be more about pervasive, aggregate sexism than about individual works. And it should address real sexism against men, rather than just taking a knee-jerk “but what about the men?” attitude which, I suspect, underlay Daran’s comment about Hereville.2
The problem is, I’m not sure a reverse Bechdel test that has any substance is even possible. There certainly are sexist stereotypes about men in cinema; men’s lives are treated as disposable in many action films, for example, and men are sometimes depicted as unfeeling brutes. There’s a whole lot of comedies which endorse the “men just think with their penises” stereotype, or which present men as incompetent dorks who need to be taken care of by female characters.3
But are any of these really statistically pervasive, the way that movies which center men and male characters are pervasive? There are, after all, many movies which don’t feature scores of men dying offhandedly; plenty which don’t depict men as bestial or as thinking with their penises, and so on. The anti-male stereotypes exist, and they should be objected to, but they’re not omnipresent. In contrast, there really are amazingly few movies which can pass the Bechdel test.4
So I’ve been trying to think of a male equivalent to the Bechdel test, with no success. That said, maybe I’m missing something. If Daran, or someone else concerned with making sexism against men more visible, were to create a substantive yet simple and elegant test that pointed out sexism against men in movies, I’d certainly welcome that development.
- In the original Bechdel test, “named” wasn’t a requirement; my poor memory accidentally added that bit later. [↩]
- Although maybe Daran was just joking, and the joke didn’t come off. [↩]
- The female characters, in turn, are presented as competent but also relegated to the less funny and central roles. As frequently happens, this is an instance where sexism against women and sexism against men is interlocking and interdependent. [↩]
- This is even more true if you try to apply the Bechdel test in a substantive way, versus the “loophole” way people often apply it — for example, saying a movie passes because of one ten-second scene. Of course, looking for loopholes is often fun, and I totally understand that, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the substance. [↩]