I’ve written before about the Bechdel Test, a metric for measuring whether women are treated reasonably equally over the course of a movie. To recap quickly, the test asks whether a movie features (a) at least two women, who (b) have a conversation with one another, about (c) something other than a man. Any effort to recall recent films that pass the test tends to reveal its central point: there are shockingly few. Yet as a method for determining whether a particular movie treats female characters as equal to men (which, it should be said, was not necessarily its original purpose), the test has obvious flaws. For one thing, a film could pass the test yet still be misogynist in many ways. For another, relationships between men and women can be an interesting subject for a film, and it’s reasonable for filmmakers to allow viewers to presume that characters have conversations outside the course of the narrative – we might only hear two friends talking about their boyfriends, but we can presume they also talk about waffles, and Breaking Bad. Of course it can be damaging to portray women as only talking about men, but I don’t really want to hear conversations about things that don’t relate to the primary plot, and if the primary plot is about a male-female romance, I don’t need to hear too much outside of that.
Given these problems, Tumblr user chaila’s suggestion of an adaptation of the test, called the ‘Mako Mori Test’ after a character in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, provides some delicious food for delicious thought. (Mmmm, thinking). Chaila points out that although Pacific Rim fails the Bechdel Test, female lead Mako Mori, portrayed by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, is a strong character who has her own narrative which is based only on her own goals, and not on any male character’s. I haven’t seen Pacific Rim (because I didn’t think it looked very good), so I cannot defend or repudiate chaila’s interpretation of Mori’s role in it. I will say, however, that the new test, while remaining very much a rough and ready standard, has the potential to focus attention more on narrative elements, which seems to me to be a better arbiter of whether women are being treated fairly in a film than whether two women speak to one another. Passing the Mako Mori Test requires a film to, (a) have a female character, who (b) has her own narrative arc, that (c) is not about supporting a man’s story. It’s hard to imagine how a film that passed this test could be seriously misogynistic in other ways, and it’s also hard to imagine how a film that made a serious attempt to engage with female perspectives could fail it. Although more female-to-female interaction in cinema should be encouraged, such interaction would likely be a natural by-product of women having their own, independent narratives within a story, and would also result in women being viewed more as independent, self-determining entities.
Passing the Bechdel Test is the feminist cinematic equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time, which is both the point (in that the fact that so many films fail the test illustrates that most screenwriters don’t seem to consider women to have lives apart from their interaction with men), and the problem (in that if two female characters have an incredibly brief exchange about sandwiches being delicious, a film would technically pass the test without actively engaging with female characters beyond their status as sandwich-enjoyers). The added demand of the Mako Mori Test of providing female characters with their own narrative arc allows (and, indeed, encourages) moviegoers to determine whether a film is sincerely committed to exploring a woman’s experience. Ultimately, the problem with the Bechdel Test is that it is possible for sexist movies to pass it, and for movies that legitimately try to engage with female experiences to fail it. It’s useful as a tool for illustrating the vast and pervasive male bias that overwhelmingly characterises the entertainment industry as a whole, but in terms of allowing for serious analysis of movies in terms of their gender bias, it very much remains the blunt instrument it was initially intended to be. The analysis of feminist themes within a film could certainly do better than the Mako Mori Test. However, the test seems to me to be more likely than its otherwise worthy predecessor to spark such an analysis, rather than simply underlining how far the representation of women in film has to go.