Posts tagged with cultural analysis

The Bechdel Test

Does a film contain

  • two named females
  • who talk to each other
  • about something other than a man?

This seemingly low bar for female inclusion fails for a surprisingly high fraction of media. Even some excellent films, like The Godfather, fail it.

The Godfather. Can you remember what the actual final shot of the film is? Some people are surprised that the POV is on Kay from inside Michael’s room - her anguished face is blocked out by the closing door. The preceding shot is her looking in as men greet the new godfather. Ultimately the final shot is saying we are with Michael now in that room, and he/we are part of the closing of the door. A great, symbolic final shot. The first of three perfect final shots in the series. A

(You could argue that female exclusion is a theme of The Godfather, but still wouldn’t it have been interesting to view some of the wives’ and daughters’ thoughts to each other about the boys’ mobster behaviour? This isn’t asking for the movie to be about women, just to feature their speech.)


The Bechdel test is interesting mathematically because it is a global non-local test. Not every movie needs to pass for “things to be good” but if too many movies fail then things are not good.


You could also view the Bechdel test as a vague or smudged boundary condition. Like in sensitivity analysis (in linear programming) where you nudge the boundary planes with a slack vector to see how the system responds. We could perturb the definition of the test, and as we change the criteria or interpretation more or fewer movies will pass. But the test makes its point whether we interpret it loosely or stringently, so we could consider it a suite of boundaries rather than a single, crisp boundary.

Individual playwrights can write whatever they want. Blue Lagoon with two boys? Be my guest. An all-white cast in a story set in rural Sweden circa 1320? Makes sense. Nju Bao (in 炮打双灯) isolated without female counsel in a man’s world? Appropriate. But when the Bechdel test fails en masse something insidious is going on. Which focus group told film investors that audiences hate seeing women talk to each other? Who went through all the scripts and changed all the female names to male ones? I’m guessing no-one.


Sexism, racism, and so on are often discussed on a case-by-case basis. Was this or that action sexist|racist|etc on its own? But not every property can be observed at a zoomed-in level. Some properties are only visible at a systemic or macro level.

As a side note, the frequent failure of the Bechdel test also argues, via modus tollens, against a certain kind of “markets will fix things” logic. I would think that economic forces would incent film producers away from being so exclusionary. Aren’t Hollywood executives leaving massive amounts of money on the table by working so assiduously to make sure women are only faces, bodies, and tropes? But yet, count the number of movies that fail this basic inclusivity test. Even though movies are a $X billion industry (therefore locking in a few percent of audience is worth a lot in absolute terms and ∴ worth the time to look at), they still frequently exclude minority perspectives.

Here are some stories that fail the Bechdel test:

  • Bladerunner
  • Red Firecracker Green Firecracker (炮打双灯)
  • Amélie
  • The Graduate
  • King of California
  • The Last Emperor
  • The Godfather
  • The Quiet American [fails for women and for Vietnamese]
  • The Wrestler
  • Dr Strangelove

and here are some that pass the Bechdel test:

  • Star Wars: Clone Wars (both)
  • Firefly
  • Scream
  • Magnolia
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Kill Bill


Dear Teens: please Reply-to and/or Reblog this with your opinions/reactions/thoughts/comments.

Background. Back in the Early Internet Futuristic Mania days, we used to speculate that “knowledge will be democratised” and “authority will fracture into opinion”—really all kinds of interesting futurism, check out for example @wwwtxt or some 90’s tech mags if you can find them.

The “structural” or “geometric” idea was this. In our time, television had been the major communication medium. The “geometrical structure” of television is the same thing being broadcast to many individuals. Maybe it’s hard to imagine now? But we all used to literally watch the same thing when we got home at night and flopped on the couch, tired after a day of work. Yes, people noticed the ugliness of that separation (like a movie theatre—physically proximate, shared experience, but no words or touching) and of that singlemindedness.

And even more parochial as it seems now, we were quite restricted by our physical geography. You had to actually walk to the library to get books, for example. And wait a week if you wanted interlibrary loan. You could only listen to radio stations that were near by, could only read newspapers that were delivered in your area. And if you did pay for a subscription to some non-local media (like let’s say an American wanted to read an Iranian newspaper), you wouldn’t have Google Translate to quickly guess the meaning for you!

Anyway, words like “mass culture” and “mass psychology”—which, you can look it up, were really prevalent in past cultural analyses—seem quaint or strange in an era of reblogs, retweets, viral videos, whatever else it is that characterises internet culture vis-à-vis television culture.

Getting closer to the question now. So one of “our” speculations about the future was that—contrary to the “top-down” cultural structures of the past (Church, Radio, Television, Experts, Universities, Newspapers, the BBC, etc.)—that the Internet would make things more “democratic” or “radial” or “bottom-up”.

This struck me forcefully during a recent bombing of Palestine. I was watching a twitter hashtag where people posted pictures and videos with their mobile phones of bombs around them. One girl whose footage had been massively retweeted was being contacted by a BBC reporter. The woman from the BBC was asking the young superstar to send her more information that the superstar wasn’t tweeting to everyone. It sounded ridiculous! With this girl being retweeted all over twitter, who needs the BBC? There’s no more purpose to the White Lady “giving a voice to the voiceless”—because the Palestinian girl already had a huge amount of media exposure. Where does the BBC reporter get off asking for special information? If the girl wants to say something else, she can just tweet it; it doesn’t need to pass through the “mass communications channel” of the BBC anymore.

So it struck me at that point that the new media really is different from the old media. The future we talked about has arrived. And in the future (now), we get to hear directly from the Viet Cong.

True—we had television coverage of bombs over Baghdad; news reels of the War played before movies during WW2; Jane Fonda fraternised with the Red Communist Enemy; photographs of the Falklands War. Notice how all of these examples have a “binary” structure. It’s more naturally Us Versus Them. (Keep in mind as well that the Cold War structured the world in a binary way: blue versus red, with a nuclear superpower at the “top”.)

In the more “democratic communications” of the future, we thought, it would be harder for some “hegemon” to divide-and-conquer. Talk about the Kantian peace—let’s instead multiply that by a few orders of magnitude. Replace Jane Fonda interviewing “the enemy” with telegrams and photograms from “the enemy”—with automatic translation technology—any day you want, not just when your country is at war. How much support are you really going to have for attacking “the enemy” when you can see—directly, for yourself, without intermediary—“the enemy“‘s point of view, what it’s like for them to be bombed, and that they’re just like you? Maybe Goebbels could commandeer a massive propaganda machine and brainwash a country—but how would that work with free flow of communication from the “outside world”, a public encyclopedia, and equal blogging access to anyone with something to say? It seemed like the ultimate extension of the free press.

So, to the teens: you weren’t even conceived at the time we were speculating about this stuff. And now time has flown by so fast (for me) that you’re, like, walking around and having your own coherent thoughts! Like, totally not babies. I have a hard time imagining how it is to grow up with Google, Facebook, Tumblr, and whatever else being default “ways that the world is”, rather than some spiffy invention that “Going to change the world, but we don’t know how yet”.

Q. Do you think that, for you, as compared to past generations, you are less accepting of “top-down” authority? Do your knowledge and beliefs derive more equitably from various sources, official and non-official? Is your worldview more “democratic” than the old people you know?

Thanks for taking the time, if you do, to answer.

The methods of topology, when applied to cultural analysis, provide a rigorous, yet unabashedly humble investigation of the nature of cultural relationships.

—Brent M. Blackwell