The Force Awakens May or May Not Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, But Does It Matter?
Pass or pass not, there is no try?
What I love about geeks is that, when we get into our stories, it’s not just all about “this is so cool!” I mean, it’s partly about that, but a lot of the time we use our stories and properties to discuss other larger issues and concerns. We see storytelling as a way of changing the world. The Force Awakens inspired an interesting conversation between me and a friend about just how feminist the film actually is, and whether or not it passes the Bechdel-Wallace test. **MILD SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN TFA. BEWARE**
It all started on Facebook, the way some good conversations do (P.S. — most FB conversations turn into incoherent screeds that are best avoided, but this one was with one of my more intelligent and rational friends). This friend of mine posted a status update that basically said that The Force Awakens, while a great movie with prominent female characters, still doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, because in Rey’s only two moments with other women in the film, only one is a conversation with Maz Kanata, and that conversation is “about Luke” (a man). When I brought up Rey’s hug with Leia at the end as being a meaningful moment despite no words being exchanged, he said that this moment, too, was “about” Han Solo and Kylo Ren.
I was very impressed with my friend for being concerned about this. He’s one of the many men out there who legitimately want an even playing field for people of all genders, and so when he applies this test to The Force Awakens, it’s coming from a genuine place. He mentioned the fact that, because The Force Awakens is set in a fantasy setting, there’s no “real-world” reason why it shouldn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colors. After all, BB8 is called “he” one time. Change one “he” to a “she” and TFA would’ve passed with flying colors. What’s more, it’s frustrating because the Bechdel-Wallace test asks so little, and yet there are so many films and television shows that regularly don’t pass.
Basically, he wanted to remind folks reading his status that the Bechdel-Wallace test reminds us to be vigilant about the biases we have, even in the face of mainstream blockbusters being touted for their female character(s). And I agree with all that in general.
However, I believe that, when applying the Bechdel-Wallace test to any film (ideally as you’re writing it and not after-the-fact when nothing can be done about it), context is hugely important, as is looking at the big picture, rather than at individual moments in the film, or on the show.
The Bechdel-Wallace test was never designed to be a definitive metric, as it’s too incomplete. My friend kept getting hung up on the “about” part — i.e., what constitutes “talking about a man.” Sure, if you’re adhering to the “letter” of the Bechdel-Wallace test “law,” any conversation about a male character disqualifies the film. However, I believe it’s more useful to pay attention to the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace test.
The test isn’t about female characters talking about any male character. It’s generally about whether two women are talking about a man in a romantic context (Oh, I want to date him! or Stay away from my man!), or when the conversation between the two women about this male character is focused on their service of his ultimate goals. In both cases, the Bechdel-Wallace test is failed, because the women in the conversation don’t have agency, or a voice/story arc/goals of their own.
The Bechdel test doesn’t necessarily apply to a woman talking about her father, for example, or son. Especially if those conversations have to do with a story coming from her life (How am I dealing with my senile father? or How do I deal with my incarcerated son?)
The way my friend was using the word “about,” I can think of plenty of examples of two men talking “about” a woman in the same way. Pretty much any movie where a man is trying to save/avenge his wife, daughter, or lover (which is a crapton of movies, because women are prizes and motivations for men in just about everything). If something is your quest, or your goal, then of course many of your conversations will be “about” that, implicitly, if not explicitly. Hell, this means that any convo Liam Neeson or Harrison Ford have ever had in a movie is “ABOUT MY DAUGHTER!” Do those conversations between two men about those women make these movies “about” women?
Just because something is the topic of a conversation, doesn’t mean that’s what the conversation is “about.”
In the case of The Force Awakens – sure, if you wanna get technical, Maz and Rey’s conversation was “about” Luke. But that’s only true if you’re not paying any attention to subtext or context. Really, the interaction between those two characters ended up being about Rey and her future. Yes, the plot of the film centers around the search for Luke — but that makes the male character the object (for a change) and the female character the one on the quest. She’s the one searching. She’s the Chosen One. It’s her story with which the film primarily concerns itself.
As for Rey’s hug with Leia at the end being “about” Han and Kylo Ren? I couldn’t disagree with that more! It was a passing of the torch moment. In A New Hope, Leia said “Help us Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope!” Now, in hugging Rey, she was saying “Help us, Rey, you’re our only hope” as she goes off to be trained by Luke. She has to BECOME the Luke, and that’s huge. Hell, she’s the Luke and the Han Solo.
I find it interesting that all the women I’ve spoken to about it see that. They latch right onto the story of Rey’s destiny and see how everything in the film is in service of that, whereas several men I’ve spoken to see those two scenes between women as being “about” the men in the film.
Now, my friend is certainly not the only person who’s raised a concern about Rey — amazing though she is — not interacting with many other women in the film. He brought up the Bechdel-Wallace test in part because, despite there being more women on-screen in this film than in any other Star Wars films combined, Rey only interacted with two. It’s a concern I share. I don’t think that The Force Awakens is perfect by any means. It would be amazing if the central “trio” of a Star Wars movie could be all women — or two women and one dude. It would’ve been awesome if, instead of Kylo Ren, Captain Phasma would’ve been the primary antagonist in the story! And yes, little BB8.
However, here’s the other way in which I think the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace test is more important than strict adherence to it.
My friend never said that passing the Bechdel-Wallace test automatically means that a film or show is feminist. And yes, it is a useful tool with which to point out harmful biases. However, let’s use the show Mad Men, which has many single episodes that pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, as an example. In many scenes and episodes, it features several finely-etched, nuanced female characters that talk to each other about all sorts of things, many of them having to do with their own hopes and dreams. These women have agency (or rather, gain it), and in individual moments get their due. However, when you step back and look at the show as a whole, it’s about Don Draper. Everything about that show was in service to Don’s story, and so even though it had individual moments throughout that passed the Bechdel-Wallace test, in context, the show as a whole does not.
The test’s importance lies in the fact that so few films are “about” women and their experiences at all. The reason why the test exists is that women are so rarely the LEADS in their own stories that we HAVE to attach them to supporting characters, and that’s where the test becomes all-important. However, once you have the PRIMARY journey of a film being about a woman, things change — because everything becomes “about” her and is in service to her story.
One of the things that amazed me the most about The Force Awakens was that, as I watched it, every time I’d START to have the thought of Oh, there probably won’t be any women in this scene, I’d quickly have to go Nope, there are women over there. Stormtroopers and droids had female voices. We saw women at all levels of command, and in almost every scene. And let’s not forget that there is a female-programmed droid in the film – PZ-4CO, who assists General Organa. She’s referred to by name once, and she already has an action figure!
And all of this in in service of telling a young woman’s story. That’s a big enough deal that I think the Bechdel-Wallace test doesn’t even apply. That test is the product of desperation; a product of never seeing women’s stories told at all, of seeing women only existing in films to serve the stories of men (and sometimes the male characters themselves). We shouldn’t be talking about the Bechdel-Wallace test in the case of a female protagonist at all – because as long as the film or TV show’s point of view is hers, she can talk about any men she wants with whomever she wants.
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—