The Bechdel Test: Disappointing Female Characters, Feminist Film, and The Duke of Burgundy
In an effort to point out gender inequality in film and effectively demonstrated how women are more often than not honestly and sufficiently portrayed, Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel Test in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Essentially, for a film to ‘pass’ the Bechdel Test there must be at least two female characters, they in turn must also talk to one another throughout the movie, and when they do converse it must be concerning something other than a man. It is often said Bechdel’s criteria determine whether a film is feminist or not, however, this is not the case because the Bechdel Test is meant to call our attention to the fact women are under-represented in the film industry, and even when they are many of the typical Hollywood female characters are either poorly developed or they are downright stereotypically written. For instance, the 2014 film The Duke of Burgundy is almost the dream test subject for Bechdel’s criteria as it features an all-female cast, and its story is fully centered on a relationship between a younger and older woman. This film works so well with the Bechdel Test because the cast is comprised only of women, but it is not done so in an attempt to exclude men, simply its story is one driven totally by the female presence. While the test is useful when dissecting certain films in order to determine whether women are correctly represented such as The Duke of Burgundy, it is not always applicable to or sensible for every single film. It would be highly unfair to judge some films using the Bechdel Test because there are some stories which do not involve women, just as there are stories without men. In addition, the male and female perspectives all involve the same story, but simply show it from different perspectives; each side is only a portion of the human experience. Furthermore, even proper female characters who are well-rounded and smartly written may exist in a film that does also include a form of gender inequality. Bechdel’s test is a very useful tool when analyzing films, but there are definite limitations on its effectiveness, and in order for it to be of use the test must be applied correctly.
The Bechdel Test “does not ask if a film is feminist, only if there is a ‘female presence’” (Russell and Scheiner-Fisher 222). When the test is referred to as inherently feminist, this is not correct. The Bechdel Test is merely a way for viewers to measure how well women are represented within the stories in which they exist. One of the most significant ways the test works is in those films where female characters are written poorly, or where the women are shaped solely in tune with stereotypical gender roles and character traits supposedly held by ‘all women’. On one hand, the Bechdel Test draws attention to the many female characters who exist solely as objects or pawns in stories to propel the trajectory of male characters. For instance, too many Hollywood films enact the “knight in shining armour” trope where the women are basically there to serve as catalysts for the hero’s actions; especially nowadays with the troubling rise of graphic rape-revenge films where the female character must be degraded and shame in detail on camera, which then gives the male hero of the movie a reason to seek revenge, or however else the plot may progress. On the other hand, the test does not always point to true north when it comes to gender equality. The Bechdel Test only covers so much ground. When considering one of the most recent aforementioned rape-revenge movies, The Last House on the Left, there are actually two young female characters who talk to one another about many things aside from men, and even brief scenes with one young teen girl and her mother who chat about non-male related topics. However, for The Last House on the Left this is where the gender equality ends, and it also exemplifies why the Bechdel Test cannot be the be-all end-all when considering such issues. Partway through the film, the young female protagonist of the story gets violently raped onscreen, which is accompanied by gruesome taunting from male and female characters, along with truly disturbing sound design to enhance the repulsive experience. It truly is a misogynistic scene. Even though The Last House on the Left technically checks off the boxes of Bechdel’s requirements in the opening reel, it swiftly kicks the legs out from under any equality there was in the beginning. In instances such as this movie, it is easy to see how the Bechdel Test cannot always measure perfectly how well a film handles female characters, as it only fulfills a small portion of what it means for a film to treat each gender with equality.
Director Peter Strickland’s 2014 film The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of Evelyn who studies butterflies and moths under her older counterpart Cynthia. Evelyn also works as a maid in Cynthia’s luxurious home, and it is soon revealed they are in a dominant-submissive relationship with one another; if Evelyn does not clean for Cynthia in the preferred manner, she receives discipline and punishment. Soon we realize Evelyn, though the submissive, is the one who truly directs the relationship between she and Cynthia by leaving instructions for her older lover. Throughout their days they reenact little two person plays Evelyn writes for them. However, Cynthia only does this to keep Evelyn happy, and she finds no sexual thrill in being dominant. Soon, things deteriorate, and though there seems to be a change by the end of the film in their relationship, the final scene shows Cynthia and Evelyn going back to the same routine they were constantly acting out in the beginning with no real indication of any forward movement in them both.
The immediate aspect noticeable about The Duke of Burgundy in conjunction with the Bechdel Test is the fact there are no men whatsoever in the film. This movie is commendable because there is a scene where Cynthia calls a carpenter to construct a new toy for her and Evelyn; in any other film there would no doubt be the stereotypical carpenter, certainly male, but here we see only female characters, even the woman who comes to do the carpentry work. While I am aware plenty of women out there do carpentry, it is refreshing to see a movie which doesn’t automatically presume women do so-called “womanly” jobs and that men are the ones who must do the “manly” work. Furthermore, while the central relationship of the film is one between two lesbians, the director does not feel the need to linger with shots on their breasts or the buttocks, and even the eroticism of the film is treated in a more beautiful way than many other movies of a similar nature. For instance, the erotic thriller Basic Instinct with the infamous leg crossing scene involving Sharon Stone continually treats her as a sexual object and runs with the idea that a woman’s sexuality can be a weapon. Perhaps the latter may be true at times. In opposition, the film does not focus on any of the brain power Stone’s femme fatale uses to outsmart and kill men, instead the director only wants to shoot her glistening thighs and the vaguely perceptible shadow of her vagina. With a film like The Duke of Burgundy there is no less erotic atmosphere, maybe even more so than Basic Instinct, but it is the way in which the director shoots the scenes that makes all the difference. One significant component of the movie is that there is no male perspective because “the male experience is just one of many experiences and should be analyzed as one part of the story” (Russell and Scheiner-Fisher 225), and everything comes to the viewer as being from a female point-of-view; regardless of it being directed by a man. In a movie like Basic Instinct we are seeing things too much from the perspective of the male eye. The Duke of Burgundy allows us to exist in a film world where there is no need for the male perspective; it hasn’t been excluded, it is just not present, and nor does it need to be for this particular story.
For all intents and purposes, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is certainly a feminist film. The plot and how the film is presented all goes against what we usually see reflected as being the “dominant narrative traditions of commercial feature filmmaking” (Welsch 3). There is no doubt whatsoever Strickland could not market his film directly to North American audiences, and that is why The Duke of Burgundy did not go for a wide release and mainly secured the independent filmgoing audience as opposed to the overall audience. In addition, this also goes to show how so many people watching films have been slowly brainwashed over the years to feeling aversion towards anything deviating from the typically male-dominated film market; when a movie containing only women comes out it ends up relegated to the indie film circuit. A major reason why a film such as this does not grab a larger audience, at least not immediately, is because “[w]omen’s pleasure… is closely associated with male fears… stemming from a female threat to their masculinity” (Welsch 3). Being a film all about female pleasure, The Duke of Burgundy might simultaneously pose a threat to masculinity in the individual man, as well as the larger collective male audience going to see movies. From a financial standpoint this is viewed as a problem, but from the standpoint of those fighting against gender inequality in the film industry there is a purpose behind such a tactic. Men are not intentionally excluded from The Duke of Burgundy, as women often are from films, due to marketing reasons, or simply to curry favour with a particular target audience; the story of the movie just does not have anything to do with men. This is why The Duke of Burgundy is feminist in the best sense because it does not purposely try to keep men out of the story, it only tells the story it intends to tell without forcing anything in unnaturally. Usually when women “are included in a film for the sake of simply having a female in the film, she is relegated to a stock character role” (Russell and Scheiner-Fisher 222), which is why The Duke of Burgundy opts not to treat men in the same way. There is no room in the film’s cast of characters for a man, therefore, the director has not included any even for the basic roles of a carpenter building a bed or even a taxi driver because Strickland treats his characters like real people; they are developed and have real personalities, they are not caricatures of people. Certainly this film could have reversed the roles and treated men as women are treated in so many other films. Instead, The Duke of Burgundy is an equal opportunist film, at the same time without featuring a single male performance.
Even in a world where more and more women are starting to achieve recognition where once they had not, the film industry seems stuck in old stereotypes: police detectives are all men and every one of them has a wife who does not understand the job; “the bad girl or outcast who may or may not prove virtuous in the end” (Russell and Scheiner-Fisher 222); and the all too familiar “Hooker with the Heart of Gold” (Russell and Scheiner-Fisher 222). The Duke of Burgundy absolutely goes against almost all of the expected norms audiences wait to see from mainstream Hollywood movies. There are still not enough films out in the market like The Duke of Burgundy, and even those other movies which fall in line with the Bechdel Test don’t always treat gender equality as gracefully as Peter Strickland. Ultimately, the Bechdel Test helps to point out disparity between male and female roles in the films audiences watch by noting a lack of character development in female characters, as well as how they are often included simply for the sake of meeting a quota. Nevertheless, all the issues surrounding gender inequality in film are not indicated by the Bechdel Test, nor are they solved. What Alison Bechdel’s three requirements have enabled, though, is the overall conversation about gender issues in the film industry, and where appropriate it clarifies the imbalance of equality between the genders so that viewers can begin to recognize this in the films they see. Moving further into the 21st century, and with the prominence of more filmmakers such as Peter Strickland making films like The Duke of Burgundy, there is hope that the issues Bechdel first raised with the Bechdel Test will continue to be visible and that this visibility may further help the film industry to progress in their depiction and treatment of the female gender.
Russell, William B, and Cicely Scheiner-Fisher. “Using Historical Films to Promote Gender Equity in the History Curriculum”. The Social Studies, Issue 103, 2012; pp. 221-225. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 July 2015.
Welsch, Janice R. “Introduction: Feminist Film Criticism”. Film Criticism, January 1989, Volume 13, Issue 2; pp. 1-6. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 July 2015.
Basic Instinct. 1992. Dir. Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Joe Eszterhas. Starring Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. StudioCanal. 128 minutes. English. DVD.
The Duke of Burgundy. 2014. Dir. Peter Strickland. Screenplay by Peter Strickland. Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna. Film4 Productions. 104 minutes. English. Blu ray.
The Last House on the Left. 2009. Dir. Dennis Iliadis. Screenplay by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth. Based on an original screenplay by Wes Craven (1972). Starring Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garret Dillahunt, Spencer Treat Clark, Martha MacIsaac, Sara Paxton, and Aaron Paul. Crystal Lake Entertainment. 110 minutes. English. Blu ray.