Meet the woman behind the Bechdel Test
You've heard of the Bechdel Test, right? It's a way of assessing whether a movie or other work of fiction is sexist or not. If the film contains a conversation between two women who are not talking about a man, then the film passes the Bechdel Test.
It's named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who proposed the test in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In March, Bechdel will be hosting an evening at the Wheeler Centre. She is a celebrated writer having released two graphic memoirs – Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama. Her work deals with the issues of oppression and liberation and the overlap of personal and political worlds.
Time Out caught up with Bechdel over the phone from her home in Vermont, around the time of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Bechdel, whose work has always contained political and confronting themes, seemed to have mixed feelings about Russia's ban on 'homophobic propaganda'. “It’s disturbing,” she said. “I suppose having the Olympics there is bringing much greater visibility to the issue so it’s probably a good thing, but it’s really disgusting, that level of homophobia.”
The cartoon that sparked the Bechdel Test theory was published in the ’80s and was always attributed by Bechdel to her friend Liz Wallace – who may or may not have developed the idea from a similar theory discussed in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. The Test asks whether or not a fiction film contains two female characters that talk to one another about something that is not related to a man. And it had a resurgence in December 2013, when a Swedish art-house cinema used it as a mark of approval.
Bechdel admits she resisted the association at first: “I kept saying, ‘It wasn’t my idea, it’s my friend's idea’ and it wasn’t even my friend's idea... I do feel the spirit of the work I’ve done is very much about creating women who are real characters, three-dimensional human characters. [So] I feel honoured to be associated with that test.”
Dykes to Watch Out For ran for 25 years, and Bechdel tells us she discontinued the story partly due to burn out (“I couldn’t bring the same passion to it”), partly because cartoon drawing was becoming less lucrative, and partly to focus on writing. As an author, her first graphic memoir Fun Home (published in 2006) told a very personal account of her bisexual father who committed suicide. Interestingly, it was later turned into an off-Broadway musical.
“It was really far-fetched,” says Bechdel when we ask if she ever imagined her life story as musical theatre. “I didn’t see how it would possibly be turned into a musical but over a few years the writer and composer made something quite beautiful. I was very moved and delighted by it.”
Bechdel’s second memoir Are You My Mother? was equally revealing as it explored her mother’s oppression. “I worry that I’ve exposed my family and hurt members of my family for no good reason, but a lot of people seem to get something out of these books so that makes me feel – slightly – redeemed.”
In her first trip down under, Bechdel will treat her audience to a pictorial representation of her career so far, including her characters Mo, Sydney, Clarice and gang.
“All of those characters are like a different part of me,” says Bechdel. “When I started out, I thought of the character Mo as a stand-in for myself. Over the years I turned into her very cynical, jaded girlfriend Sydney, the evil Woman Studies professor.