The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

Failing the Bechdel Test at a Feminist Film Festival

[Author’s Note: I wrote this for the CFI On Campus blog last week, but the decision was made not to publish it. But I’m quite fond of it, so here it is.]

Several weeks ago the Independent Films Channel (IFC) opened its much anticipated second annual Women’s Independent Films Festival with a questionable choice. The opening film featured a prominently male cast, and its message was one of condescension rather than contribution to the ideals of the Festival. The film left many wondering how a Women’s Film Festival could open with a film that utterly fails the Bechdel Test. Surely it wasn’t an intentional slap in the face, but it was still a slap. The independent film world eagerly awaited acknowledgment and an apology from IFC’s Board of Directors. They were failed by the Board’s statement.

Within the community of feminist film critics, the Bechdel Test is a well-known heuristic for evaluating a film’s inclusion of women. Traditionally, the film industry has been dominated by male producers, who hire male directors to direct movies about topics that appeal primarily to males, while most of the strong, complex characters who do things are males, played by male actors, with female roles relegated to flat, static static characters who have things happen to them. These standards lead to the majority of films lacking named female characters with speaking parts who speak to each other about something other than a man. That’s the Bechdel Test: Are there (1) more than one named female characters who (2) speak to each other (3) about something other than a man?

The opening film of the Festival not only failed the Bechdel Test, in having only one named female character, Becky, but the story itself stultified Becky, treating her as if she were not a person with the full decision-making capacity of an adult. The male characters frequently admonished Becky for her feeble attempts at becoming a dynamic character in the plot, reminding her that this is a man’s world, where we do things the Man Way: beardedly, professorially, and with a slight but noticeably upturned nose. To the male characters, Becky was cute, a novelty, who needed their guidance if she was to make something of herself and affect the plot.

Many members of the audience were understandably upset. To open the Festival with such a film demonstrated a profound insensitivity to the audience, who had spent much of their time experiencing the consequences of actively resisting the structural inequalities of the film institution: lack of mainstream exposure, hate mail and mockery, and other attempts to silence them to protect the status quo. By insisting that films pass the Bechdel Test, feminist film critics are merely insisting that the film industry make equal time for their voices to be heard, which indeed requires relatively fewer predominantly male-heavy films to be made.

Some males take offense to this, experiencing it as an insult: “Why should we have to shut up and make fewer films?” Well, the capital investments that go toward making films are finite, so if the silver screen is to be shared equally, there must be fewer of the dominant films. It creates space for the pro-feminist films to be made and seen. The Festival was ostensibly a space dedicated solely to films that at the very least pass the Bechdel Test, but that ideally make robust advances toward changing the status quo. The opening film planted a flag of the status quo firmly on the screen, for all to see.

We in this small community of film critics eagerly awaited an apology from the IFC Board. We were disappointed by what we received: yet another dismissive hand wave tacitly endorsing the status quo,

“We at IFC care very much about advancing pro-feminist films. That’s why we put on the Women’s Independent Films Festival. We wish to express unhappiness about all the hubbub surrounding the opening film at the Festival.

Film criticism, artistic integrity, culture, enhancing values, or whatever. We support all the good things and we are against the bad things.”

Is it any wonder that people are more upset now? Was it too much to ask for a simple acknowledgment of the mistake, and a sincere apology? Something like,

“We on the IFC Board have done a lot of serious self-reflection about the decision of our leaders to open the Women’s Independent Films Festival with a film that fails the Bechdel Test. This decision was a mistake, and we are ashamed of the oversight. We assure you that IFC did not intentionally commit this offense, but we do understand now that it was wholly inappropriate. We all wish to express our sincere apologies, both personally, and on behalf of IFC as an organization. We hope that you will accept this apology with understanding, and continue your very much appreciated support.

Despite this mistake, we remain committed to the goal of advancing feminist films’ presence in culture, and we acknowledge this unfortunate incident as a painful but necessary learning experience, that many of us still suffer from culturally instilled biases and blind spots. Again, we apologize for this, and will work harder to identify and correct these biases as we move forward, with your much appreciated help.”


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

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This entry was posted on June 27, 2013 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach, Feminism, Skepticism and tagged , , , .
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