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The Bechdel Test

all about eve

It’s how to sexist-proof a movie. Intrigued? Check out the IFI’s latest film season…

In 1985 the cartoonist Alison Bechdel devised the Bechdel Test as a way to measure whether a movie showcases women as three-dimensional characters. To pass the Bechdel Test, a film must feature 1) at least two female characters; 2) who talk to each other; 3) about something other than a man.

Sure, ScarJo's Black Widow kicks ass but does she kick the patriarchy's ass?

Sure, ScarJo’s Black Widow kicks ass but does she kick the patriarchy’s ass?

Have a think about that – now have a think about movies you’ve seen recently. While cinema these days is replete with strong female characters, a lot of modern movies are failing the Bechdel Test. Screenwriters seem to have forgotten that women are Interesting Characters who have more on their mind than getting a man to commit to a wedding list and a mortgage. Take the damsels in superhero movies – where are their female friends? Or even the action heroines themselves – surely ScarJo’s Black Widow can find a fellow female fighter to save the world with in The Avengers? Also, off topic, but when are we getting the Black Widow movie? Make that happen, Hollywood.

Some say the lack of fully realised women leading fully realised lives separate from leading men is because of a lack of gender parity in the film industry. Others say its just laziness. Cate Blanchett stole all the Oscar headlines with her Best Actress win for Blue Jasmine earlier this year and her acceptance speech, in which she lambasted “those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the centre are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.” Turns out she’s right. This spring, a study found Bechdel-approved movies make just as much as films failing the test. The record-breaking Frozen is one of the few Disney movies that pass the Bechdel Test. It’s also the world’s highest-grossing animation. So if younger relatives are driving you crazy with Let It Go renditions, keep on toleratin’ because empowerment.

Picnic At Hanging Rock will be one of the movies shown during the IFI's Bechdel Season.

Picnic At Hanging Rock will be one of the movies shown during the IFI’s Bechdel Season.

The Bechdel Test is an important barometer and, this month, the IFI on Dublin’s Eustace Street are honouring its relevance with a whole season devoted to movies exploring the dynamic of female relationships and female lives. Alice Butler, a programmer with the IFI, explains that the season Beyond the Bechdel “came about as a result of several conversations with colleagues at the IFI about the concern that has re-emerged in recent months over the lack of decent representation of women on screen, something that has come up in large part because of renewed discussion around the Bechdel Test since cinemas in Sweden started rating films against it last year.” With a programme stretching from Peter Weir’s creepily hypnotic classic Picnic at Hanging Rock to the Sunday matinée classic Fried Green Tomatoes, the breadth of choice on offer is a refreshing challenge to male-dominated omniplex screens and ”encourages audiences to ask questions about what they’re presented with in film rather than just accept everything as given.” As for Alice’s favourite Bechdel-approved movie on offer? “If I had to highlight one, it would be Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (screening at the IFI tomorrow, July 3rd, at 18.30). It’s a sci-fi and mock-documentary, set in New York in the not-too-distant future but shot over several years at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. The cast is incredible – Irish film-maker Pat Murphy plays a newspaper editor alongside Kathryn Bigelow – and the music, largely from The Red Krayola, is phenomenal. It’s little known here and I know audiences will find it fascinating.”

blue jasmine

Cate Blanchett’s Oscar acceptance speech for Blue Jasmine called on Hollywood to make more female focused movies.

We’re already circling our cinema programme in red ink and will be checking out Girlfriends, oft cited by Lena Dunham as one of her primary inspirations, and Obvious Child – this summer’s most buzzed-about romantic comedy, which is attracting all the acclaim for its non-judgemental approach to abortion. All About Eve is the obvious friends-night-in movie. However, if this is one of those searching-under-the-couch-for-coins months, try and see Lovely & Amazing, if only for the scene where a post-coital Emily Mortimer stands naked in front of a supine Dermot Mulroney asking him to point out her flaws. It might not be a standout Bechdel moment but, boy, is it strong cinema.

For more information see www.ifi.ie/bechdel.

Jeanne Sutton @jeannedesutun

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