The Bechdel Test

Now known as the Bechdel-Wallace test, it is a test to measure the level of gender enlightenment in any given script or manuscript. It has three criteria. 1) The story must have at least two women in it who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than men.

Needless to say, most Hollywood movies and TV programs still fail this test. One recent show that comes immediately to mind that passes this test with flying colors is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S.H.I.E.L.D. of course stands for (in its current enactment) Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division and is shady spook organization that is pretty much U.N.C.L.E. on steroids. In the first season, we are introduced to Skye (Chloe Bennet), an orphan and talented hacktivist who is picked up by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson, but who may or may not have retained her loyalty to the hacktivist organization that is against S.H.I.E.L.D. There is also Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) a poker faced former soldier in the tradition of Sergeant Joe Friday.  And there is Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) who, with her partner Fritz, compose the two halves of a generic super-brain character that every science fiction show needs. The three have utterly different character traits. Skye is passionate with a natural disdain for regulations and tends to take more risks than she can reasonably handle. May is reclusive and secretive about her emotions while being a highly disciplined by-the-books soldier. Simmons is aware that she is exceptionally smart and is quietly egoistic but quick to acknowledge the things she cannot do (she leaves all code breaking to Skye).

The men, by contrast, are pretty much cookie cutter cardboard characters: The leader with a past, a hunky egoistic soldier and a brainy scientist with security issues.

The women, each with different ideas on loyalty, priority and personal boundaries, create a very interesting dynamic while they battle supernatural forces, alien creatures and betrayal by their own organization.

Is this what Bechdel had in mind when she came up with the test? Maybe. We have a “guy show” about members of a secret government organization flying around the world in a stealth aircraft populated by creatively composed women who are not defined by their relationship with men, and a few cardboard men who are just there to throw punches or be sounding boards for the women when called upon. (But don’t tell that to the male viewers. They think they are watching a guy show.)

It has only been 2 seasons so far, but the basic structure is so well made from the feminist stand point, that this show may become the template for future shows to come. Having three differently skilled women in a “man’s team” with different takes on how to trust, who to follow, what rules to break and when to assert themselves hidden under conventional serial plots, can be applied to a wide range of genres. And the male viewers will scarcely realize that the show is about women.

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