Gender Bender: Putting Classes to The Bechdel Test

On Wednesday night, cartoonist Alison Bechdel delivered a lecture about how she became a comic. She also discussed the subject matter of her two books — secrets, sexuality and family. However, she did not discuss what brought me to Converse Hall that evening: the Bechdel Test. In 1985, Bechdel devised a method of ascertaining whether a movie is sexist. In order to pass the test, the movie must have:

1. More than one named woman character.
2. These characters talking to each other.
3. Them conversing about a subject other than men.

Although these requirements seem relatively minimal, shockingly, only a few films meet this criterion. Avatar, The Social Network and all of the Lord of the Rings movies did not pass Bechdel’s test. Instead, feminine characters are defined by their relationship to their male counterparts; they are wives, girlfriends, lovers, mothers and assistants. While I don’t think the exclusion of female characters necessarily makes a film sexist, I do think that the absence of women on screen reflects a general disregard for women’s stories. Once you know about The Bechdel Test, it is hard not to notice when movies fail to include multifaceted female characters.

It’s a blessing and a curse to have a framework for assessing unequal representation. Taking note of the absence of female characters feels like the least I can do, but it is also a huge bummer. When my friend and activist, Maddie Taterka, applied the Bechdel test to her syllabi, I was wary. Do I really want to know if women make up a significant portion of the authors and academics listed on a syllabus? Admittedly, for a semester I noticed but chose not to really think about the predominance of masculine voices on my reading lists.

But, since Bechdel’s visit, I’ve been thinking about what occurs when we formalize the process by which we catalog inequities. Certainly, having concrete standards lends itself to disappointments, as it will be harder to ignore, for example, the rarity of women’s names on syllabi. But creating and applying a formula for measuring absence also allows for people to communicate about what they do (or don’t) see. In other words, if I can explain to myself and others what exactly constitutes a problematic lack of women’s perspectives, recognizing the prevalence of men in academia is more than just an exercise in frustration. Because, unlike the miniscule impact an audience member’s consternation has on Hollywood, at Amherst, there are enough of us that if even a fraction of the student body vocalized our expectations, professors would notice.

To be clear, I don’t think professors mean to exclude women from their syllabi. In the same way that you might have never noticed how few female authors you encounter in a semester, they may not be aware of the gendered classes they create. If professors knew their students value reading and considering a diversity of voices, I think, we would see a more balanced representation.

However, first, we need to decide to care. I know caring is a personal endeavor — a person must want to, rather than be convinced to, care. So I’ll just have to hope that others share my opinion that there is inherent worth to including women’s voices in academic (read: male-dominated) conversation. In the meantime, let’s at least decide to be aware; this coming semester, make a point of really reading the syllabus you receive on the first day. Look for a syllabus that includes:

1. At least, one woman for every man listed. (Academia is largely a male-dominated discipline, so unfortunately, there’s an unavoidable dearth of work written by women. For this reason, a syllabus that’s comprised equally of women and men may be really hard to create).
2. At least one of these women authors write about something other than gender. (In the same way, Bechdel writes that female characters should have a conversation that is not about men, it is important that female scholars not be confined to discussing gender).
3. Ample time and focus is devoted to women contributors both in terms of class discussions and assignments.

Having trouble finding a syllabus that meets all these expectations? Communicate to your professor that you notice to what extent women’s voices are included in the class. Encourage others to apply these standards as well and, lastly, keep looking, keep noticing. Our favorite movies might not fully include women but we have the power to ensure that our classes do. Happy hunting!