Paola is a third year student in Liberal Arts majoring in Politics
It’s Saturday and sunny– a bit too sunny for my poor eyes, which are going through a hangover. My hair is a mess, traces of mascara are still visible on my lashes, but none of it matters: it’s time for brunch. The time of the week where I sit down with my girlfriends and go through the events of the previous week and previous night (I had lost Maria to a guy and Louise to a traffic cone: some serious explanations were needed). Food is gathered (the stack of pancakes barely survives for two minutes), the coffee is gulped down and the headache leaves. The conversation goes, the laughter rises, and suddenly, Louise interrupts herself, her eyes widened in dismay and the realisation comes: “Paola, we don’t pass the Bechdel test!”
Now, at that moment, it seemed like a pretty big deal: every single Barbie movie passed the test, and we didn’t. The premises of the test were introduced by the eponymous Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, one of the first representation of lesbians in popular culture, chronicling the lives of Mo and her friends. As two of the characters go to the movies, one tells the other about the ‘three basic requirements’ a movie needs to satisfy for her to watch it: “One: it needs to have at least two women in it who, Two: talk to each other about, Three: something besides a man.” The punch line was that the last movie she was able to watch was Alien. The joke underlined a problem with Hollywood and the film industry on the portrayal and role women held in movies.
And it seemed that such representation might have mattered in the way we portrayed our own selves in the real world; in the wise words of Sex and the City’s Miranda: “How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends? It’s like seventh grade with bank accounts!” As the state of our bank accounts was questionable, Louise and I at least made the active effort to pass the test. After all we were two named women talking to each other, how hard could it be to pass the third rule? From then, we would regularly stop our conversations, reflect on the discussion and shift away if necessary. It ended up becoming a rather useful way for me to consciously ignore Louise’s informed advice by putting a halt to the conversation according to those premises.
Turns out: it was quite difficult for us. I was going through a break-up AND a situationship, Louise’s ex was coming back into her life whining, a friend of ours got into a happy romantic relationship, and another friend just purely liked having sex. As much as we tried not to make them the sun around which our universe revolved, it seemed that boys always found a way to interfere with our lives. We were trying to incarnate our inner Barbies– and we did. We broadly accepted that we could be anything (although I gave up on becoming an astronaut with a Liberal Arts degree)– but as of then we were students going through the high and low dictates of our hearts. Passing the test was not the solution to our problems.
Passing the test is passing a strict criterion but it shouldn’t be strictly applied: it is more of an indicator that highlights what’s wrong with popular visual culture. It’s okay if your favourite movie is Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the Lord of the Rings (yes, Wolf of Wall Street is still a red flag). Sometimes, the storyline is not fit for the test. What is wrong, however, is for some female archetypes to become unmovable, fixed into the imaginations of screenwriters, reinforcing stereotypes of feminine agency. It was just less clear the extent to which we should apply it.
Maybe we shouldn’t pass the Bechdel test, maybe it is just for movies, but maybe sometimes it is good to question the ways we address things. Miranda’s quote does not end there; she adds: ‘What about us? What we think, we feel, we know…Christ! Does it always have to be about them?’
Not passing the Bechdel test is OK: we need to communicate. We need to express how we feel and create links that highlight our experiences: but we need to make it about us. After all, it’s always about Barbie singing for endless minutes on her feelings, but she still gets things done. And I can relate.