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“Bechtel the Future”

A non-law discussion about the portrayal of women in fiction and the Bechtel Test.

Will try to keep this one short, to cater for those readers who prefer short blogs.

Some thoughts have been percolating in my head for a while, and they came together when I was reading an article on whether the new Doctor Who should be a woman. The two camps basically set out their stall this way – Stay a Man went with the fact that Dr Who is a strong male character who tackles problems by listening and thinking and talking and not by blowing things up or shooting them or punching them or shouting, and is actually a damn good role model for young boys. The Change to a Woman camp said that it was apparent as a woman watching television, particularly as a mother of young girls, how few shows there are where the females represented are anything other than love interests, shrews or helpless females there to push the plot along by being captured or needing to be saved or have the plot explained to them.

 And the latter struck a chord with me. I become increasingly exasperated when in film after film, there is one female character and her role is to look pretty, perhaps be a bit sassy, and then get put in jeopardy (often by her own foolish behaviour) so that the hero has to save her. It’s a real throwback to both the playground and the culture of the 1950s.  Or even way back to silent films with women getting tied to railway tracks by moustache-twirling villains. Haven’t we moved a bit beyond that?  Can’t films reflect a bit more of the reality that women are more than lipstick and getting captured? Even the shows where the female character is smart and independent and capable (think Lois Lane, Emilia Fox in Silent Witness,  Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man) they still invariably end up being captured and needing to be rescued. The two dominant characteristics of women in fiction are Sexy and Helpless.

 I work predominantly with women – it’s either 80-20 or even 90-10, and those woman have the spread and range of personalities, characteristics, features, interests, passions that you would expect of people. I wouldn’t describe a single one of the women that I know and work with as their dominant feature being that they are “helpless”.  

 And then, pondering this, I came across a nice little test, called the Bechtel test. It was coined in a comic strip in 1985.  The test is this

Take the piece of fiction – a film, a TV show, a book and ask these 3 questions

1.       1. Does it have at least two women in it?

2.       2. Do those two women have a conversation?

3.       3. Is that conversation about something other than men?

That’s SUCH a low test. Half of the world’s population is female, so unless your work of fiction has barely any characters in it, there should be two women, it would be natural for them to talk, and you’d have to be the most old-fashioned sexist jerk in the world (the sort of person who might speak to Jeremy Clarkson and have Clarkson say “God mate, that’s a bit sexist, the world isn’t like that”) to think that women can only have conversations about men.  It is almost impossible to concieve of any piece of fiction (unless set in an all girl’s school or a nunnery) failing that test if you swapped “women” and “men” over.

 If the answer to all three is yes, the fiction has passed the “Bechtel test” which is the most ludicrously low bar.

 The sad thing is (and it’s really the point of the test, to illustrate this) most of what we see and consume in terms of films, tv and books, don’t pass the Bechtel test.

 If  I was pulling out an episode of a tv show at random and being very confident that it would pass the Bechtel test, I’d be confident about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Coronation Street, probably Friends, probably Mad Men, probably Game of Thrones  and relatively little else that I can think of.  (Medical dramas being the exception, because the female doctors get the glory of asking female patients “Where does it hurt?” or “Have you had this happen to you before” thus passing the test, similiarly with cop shows, where a female officer says to a female suspect “What time did you leave the flat?” or such. Not really conversations though….)

Heck, take a show like Sex and the City – which is aimed at a female audience, and has four female leads and the show is 90% about those women talking, I think there are some episodes that would pass the Bechtel test, but I wouldn’t bet money that any one drawn out at random would.

Back to the Future, a film I absolutely love, doesn’t pass the Bechtel  test – women characters in it get to say about twenty words to each other, and none of it about anything other than men.

What fictional world are we consuming where either only one character gets to be a woman, the women in the world don’t talk to each other and on the rare occasions that they do, they don’t talk about anything other than men?

 Now you know about the test, just have a think about it for the next film you watch or tv show that’s on. How happy do you feel about a world in which fifty per cent of the population get shown in fiction in a way that doesn’t get past such a ludicrously low bar.

About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

5 responses

  1. I saw the a big budget action film last night. Three of the 5 main characters are women. One shows both caring and kicking people’s balls into their throats. One is captured twice but kicks ass too. The other is such a 50s female trope that even her hair turns into Lucille Ball for half her screen time. All 3 have some verbal interaction with each other.

    Compare this to SITC where 4 blatant stereotypes ( slut, prude, career woman becoming a homemaker, bitch) sit around talking about men, genitals and being a bit of a slag whilst pushing food around a plate because God forbid a woman actually eats what she orders, drinking wine and being extremely negative about their successful lives when in the end all that makes them happy is getting a man to pay for their shoes.

    The film had more positive representations of women than a show made purely for women, although I think its made for gay men personally. It was The Wolverine a blockbuster movie aimed at a predominantly male audience. Funny that.

    • Actually comic books, and media based on comic books (which one might assume from the outside would be aimed at that sort of adolescent male fantasy audience of women being sexy but needing to be rescued) often do better on the Bechtel test than ‘mainstream’ media. I don’t think Avengers Assemble passes the Bechtel test (because I don’t believe the two women characters actually talk to one another – but despite being massively outclassed in terms of raw power, Black Widow is by no means helpless and is the only character who outthinks the bad guys – even though she’s in a team with two bona fide geniuses, she ends up being the one who uses her intelligence to get anything done.

      In Iron Man 3, Paltrow’s character, Pepper is probably one of the strongest female characters in an action movie for many years – she runs the company, she’s smart as a whip, she doesn’t pander to Tony Stark’s stupid ideas or ego and at the end (spoilers) she actually gets to rescue him, although he did set off to rescue her. And whilst she is undoubtedly sexy (not something I dreamed I would ever say about Paltrow) it isn’t a quality that defines her and she is allowed to be a female character with facets and dimensions and be more than just the conventional archetypes.

      And hell, I am looking forward to Wolverine. Geekout over

  2. toni macleod aka stella

    bloody good point !!!

    although i would have to say that in my opinion its due to the majority of film and tv producers being men thus causing the stereo type from their own ignorance and lack of intellectual conversation with women ….

    in all honesty how many women have the vast time needed to day dream scripts and series’s up ?

    virtually none !

    would be your answer we’re far to busy MULTITASKING doing every thing else that holds priority significance to us although i thoroughly agree its in reality us that save the men keep the house and family together and spend our time wiping asses and picking up the pieces from their f*** ups! …….

    of course doing this all with a smile and efficiently above mere man standards !

    she says with not a man hating bone in her body (hides tongue in cheek lmfao)

    but in all seriousness i do understand your point but times are changing and the majority of the men i know who are in relationships are the exact opposite to what they are perceived to be in movies

    for example in our family us women go out to work and ‘bring home the bacon’ we do the required cleaning to our standards whilst bringing up the kids and the usual expected women roles including hard heavy factory graft and sorting bills
    however the turn of tides is when it comes to the expected ‘women roles’ i do not cook its a case of cant cook wont cook and by god you certainly dont want to taste my cooking the men do it every house hold i visit is the same the same goes for washing up laundry the hoovering mopping making the beds the ironing etc and we all certainly wear the trousers what we say goes its the men who do the emotional side and who are turned to by the kids and the visiting women for emotional support not us women and its not a modern thing my dad is the one iv always turned to for guidance and my mam for war tips whether thats in the physical or metaphorical sense its the men who need rescuing many occasion a night out turns sour (military nights out tend to attract trouble especially when in a big group) and while the men are clutching a swollen jaw its the women of the group who have sorted the offenders and on top triumph all 5ft of us ! times have long since changed and the up to date movies should reflect that ! xx

  3. It might be an open question who Dr Who should be if it were a new programme; but it isn’t and a female Dr Who would be a replacement character, not a replacement actor.

    In the seventies I believe Wonderwoman was invented so that there would be a female role of that sort. And wasn’t it twaddle!

    • I suppose the debate would be that every new actor playing Dr Who is actually playing a different character, with some shared characteristics – unlike with James Bond, where each of the actors is playing fundamentally the same guy, there’s quite a chasm between the Doctor in his William Hartnell incarnation and say the Tom Baker incarnation, and Hartnell’s version and Tennant’s are almost completely different people. It is practically impossible to imagine Harntell’s Doctor saying almost any of the lines that Tennant ever said, and utterly impossible to imagine Tennant’s Doctor doing things like sabotaging the Tardis and putting his companions in danger because he wanted to explore a bit.

      I would lean slightly towards keeping a male doctor, because my fear would be that a female one would be a gimmick – but if they had the right actress and the right ideas to how to do the characterisation so that it wasn’t gimmicky or stilted, I wouldn’t be outraged.

      Did you know that the inventor of Wonder Woman also invented the lie detector polygraph machine. (And I’m afraid that I can’t give a unbiased view on whether the TV version of Wonder Woman was twaddle, as I fell profoundly and deeply in love with Lynda Carter as a young lad watching it, and those feelings aren’t entirely gone- although sadly unrequited)

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