Why We Need a More Complex Bechdel Test and Why Salt May Not Be the Strong Female Hero We Were Looking For

Salt (2010)Today I came across bechdeltest.com. On it you'll find a list of films, going back to 1902, that have had the Bechdel Test applied to them. The test has three simple rules:

1. A film has to have at least two women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

The rules come from a 1985 strip of Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic created by Alison Bechdel.  Feminist Frequency posted a Youtube video a few months ago that listed a number of classic and blockbuster films, many critically acclaimed, that fail the Bechdel Test.

In the strip, it was a measure by which the character decided if she wanted to see a movie or not, 25 years later, it's being applied to measure a film's woman friendly bonafides.

It's easy to understand why the test has such a seductive quality. It reflects how often women in film have been relegated to little more than the girlfriend, mother or wife role. In comparison to men, they are much more likely to be a plot device, a source of exposition, or a prize for the protagonist to win or lose. Complexity and dimensionality for female characters has a troubled history.

As a conversation starter, and not taken too seriously--remember, it was basically a joke in a comic strip--the test is fine. Used much too literally, the test not only retards the overall conversation, it undermines the deeper problems when it comes to women in film and lowers, not raises, the bar filmmakers should aspire to.

As an example of how easy it is for a film to pass here's how The Karate Kid passes the test on bechdeltest.com.

Sherry Parker talks to the school vice-principal about her son. Sherry also meets a woman at the airport who drives them to their apartment and tells Sherry who to talk to if they have problems.

Then there's this excerpt from the back and forth about about the worthiness of 2009's Star Trek ticking off all three boxes:

Uhura and her roommate Gaila briefly discuss Uhura's lab time, and her interception of a Klingon transmission. The interaction is brief, but necessary to the plot.

Becky disagreed with the rating and said:

True, except my roommate and I feel that this brief interaction, while theoretically passing the tests is compromised by the fact that Kirk is hiding under the bed watching while Uhura strips down until both women are nearly naked and conversing in their underwear.

Mireille disagreed with the rating and said:

I agree with Becky, especially since that conversation very quickly segues into discussing Kirk.

I did notice at the beginning that the nurse and Kirk's mother were talking, however Kirk's mother wasn't really answering the nurse, so I don't think that counts.

Em said:

*falls over laughing* If 'Star Trek' passes on the basis of that Uhura scene, then legendary porno 'Debbie Does Dallas' passes as well -- the naked cheerleaders in the showers are talking about football, not men, which is necessary to the, um, plot

As Becky and Em point out, unaltered, the test ignores context, action and motivations. It also leaves out the most important, at least in my mind, component: agency.

Female characters who talk to each other, yet have no influence on the plot, or don't demonstrate control over their own situation, is still a fail if the goal is to create better, more interesting female characters. And it's this last point that's hard for many folks to understand.

Too often folks confuse a character's strength and/or perceived importance as a proof of agency and of complexity. She's an ass-kicking president, therefore she must be a fully rounded character, right? If she's ordering people around, she must be helping drive the plot? Not necessarily so.

Salt opened this past weekend and it features Angelina Jolie as a near unstoppable spy being hunted by the U.S. government, who suspects she's a Russian sleeper. Jolie's Salt is strong, capable and smart. She also frustratingly has almost no inner life and her backstory is mostly only directly relevant to the plot. Her life, at best, is perfunctory and the movie never slows down long enough to give us an idea of who Salt is.

Can you say Salt is a complex character? Not really, as it's less what we see Salt do, and what the filmmakers choose to hide, that make Salt's motivations appear more complicated than they ultimately are. Reinsert a few key scenes and Salt's through line becomes simplistic and her character arc is rendered nearly flat. By the end, you'll find that Salt only had one real motivation, which, even if there was another woman in the film for her to talk to, spiritually violates the Bechdel Test. There's nothing more driving Salt, nothing else tugging at her soul.

However, without Salt, the movie's story, wouldn't exist as it does. If Salt doesn't do half of a dozen things, the other characters don't react to her, and she in turn doesn't react to them. So she does have agency, but she lacks true depth.

This doesn't make Salt a bad movie--although I do think it's a middling one at best, with a house of cards plot structure. Nor does it make Salt a bad character, just a disappointing one, as her motivations are more rooted in her role as a girlfriend and wife and not so much as her role as a spy.

And this is what the application of the Bechdel Test misses. It shortchanges in depth analysis for a reductive pass/fail dynamic.

It may not be possible, but if we want to have a Bechdel like test that really motivates conversation and analysis, we can't ignore how context, action, motivation and agency are used to build and inform female characters.