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Beyond the Bechdel Test

01.18.12 | 3 Comments


CATEGORIES advocacy, conversation starter, dramaturgy, ideas, mission, new play development, playwrights, social profit, talk about what's good

Soon after I wrote this Forum Theatre post on the Bechdel Test, the question arose: what might be a similar test for LGBT characters? Being both gay and up for the challenge, I gave it a try. Here it is:

The Test – Does the movie have?

1. An identifiable LGBT character
2. Who has a conversation with someone else*
3. About something other than sexuality

A clarification: “identifiable” does not mean “out.” It means that the character either has a non-heterosexual orientation or non-cisgender identity, which is made clear to the audience somehow.

And most films flunk right here. Because “suggest” and “identify” are not the same things. Dumbledore does not count. Sorry, folks. But his orientation is never made clear in the books or in the movies. Post-publication comments are not part of the storytelling. Other characters that do not count because their sexuality is implied rather than identified: Nigel in The Devil Wears Prada, Missy in Bring It On, Antonio in Merchant of Venice, Lestat in Interview With A Vampire, etc.

Another clarification: purely for brevity purposes, “sexuality” in this test means anything related to romance, relationships, having sex, or being gay. Yes, those are crucial topics, especially when you yourself are gay. But they are not the only topics. How about family, friends, work, schools, extracurricular activities, current events, food, books, sports, travel, the Metro, the heist plan, and disco bowling?

A corollary: same as the Bechdel Test. If you have to wrack your brain or resort to something inane, then it may as well not pass.

Originally, I considered formulating a direct “translation” of the Bechdel Test — ie: one gay character needs to have a conversation with another gay character about something other than a straight person. Lots of movies fail that one too, but I don’t think that it captures the spirit of the original.

The original Bechdel Test does not measure a movie’s quantity of lame stereotypes or assess its feminism, although that can happen along the way. Rather, it exposes the bias inherent in the storytelling — and the male perspective from which most stories are told. It tricks your brain into realizing that the writer has not conceived of a world in which women are as vital or profound as men.

So here is the parallel question: do movies (or plays) conceive of a world in which the LGBT characters are as profound as the straight ones?

#3 is key here. Because we are not only considering whether an LGBT character is critical to the story (that is #1 and #2), but whether the writer has developed an identity for her that goes beyond her sex life. Giving a character a non-straight orientation is not the same as giving them a personality and a history and all the idiosyncrasies that make up an authentic person.

Now for the fun part. What the heck passes this test?

Us LGBT folks are perhaps one-tenth of the population. So I would not expect 50/50 representation as I would for, say, men and women. But if a movie has at least five speaking roles and the test only requires one LGBT character in order to pass, then it shouldn’t be too tough a standard. So here is the rundown of all the movies that I’ve seen in theatres in 2010:

The Muppets, 50/50, Anonymous, Contagion, Harry Potter, Red Riding Hood, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Ides of March, The King’s Speech, and Bridesmaids all flunk right off the bat. Friends With Benefits fails on #3. Plus I fail for watching it. My only pass was J. Edgar.

Except for Bridesmaids and Martha, they all fail the Bechdel Test as well. Even The Muppets. I don’t want to talk about it.

However, the first movie that I saw in 2012 passes. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy threw me for a loop. Why? One of the key characters is not only gay, but was made that way for the movie. As in, they actually revised the story to feature a gay protagonist, even through the change was not necessary to the plot. It was kind of awesome.

That said, I had no idea what was going in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy about 90% of the time, despite the fact that I prepped by reading Wikipedia.

Here is what does pass consistently. Reality shows. Project Runway, Top Chef, Work of Art, and Tabatha’s Salon Take Over (go away, it’s awesome) all pass. Nearly every show on HGTV passes. But while I love Criminal Minds, NCIS, Law & Order, and most other long-running procedurals, their record on this front is dismal. Dr. Huang from Law & Order: SVU didn’t self-identify as gay until the 229th episode.

So enough about that, let’s talk about theater. At Forum, our record on this one has oscillated. dark play, Angels in America: Parts 1 & 2, Amazons and Their Men, One Flea Spare, Headscarf and the Angry Bitch, and bobrauschenbergamerica pass. Scorched, Mad Forest, The Language Archive, The Illusion, and Church flunk.

I also can name countless DC-area shows that pass. This city is pretty excellent in that respect and I don’t think we should underestimate what that means. I was the artistic intern at Woolly Mammoth for the 2007/2008 season; and I still remember reading Stunning by David Adjmi on my first day. By then, I had grown totally accustomed never to seeing gay women represented. But this play had two! And they were flawed and mysterious and all types of crazy. They were real characters. And this major theatre was game for telling their story. I was psyched.

An interesting comparison: run this test on the recent seasons of a few TV shows and recent seasons of a few theatres. What passes more often?

Last question: Not that theater is perfect when it comes to equity of representation (it’s not), but why are we noticeably better than most other genres?

As mass-distributed products, TV and movies need to appeal to the whole country to be profitable and successful. Writers have long since lost contact with the product when it pops up in the Netflix queue. But at its core, theater is a local and immediate art form. At any given time, the work only belongs to a single community, gathered in a single space. And when the audience is five feet (instead of five thousand miles) away, perhaps their stories and identities can’t be so easily ignored.

We have great opportunity in such intimacy. Let’s keep moving forward.

—–

* A Bonus Test: Change step #2 so that the both of the conversation participants must be LGBT. I tried this and almost nothing passed. I didn’t want the test to die at step #2, thus this version is a bonus.

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  • Julia this is an amazing post. I am going to start using your Bechdel 2.0 Test. 

  • I’d add that the LGBTQ character must also survive.

    • cgeye

      emotionally as well as physically — especially not getting raped just for being out and about.

      Sure a LGBTQ character can go through changes, but if those changes belong in an exploitation movie — when every other character gets realistic actions and reactions — then there’s a problem.


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