On Sunday, Sept. 13, Oakland’s New Parkway Theater launches the Bechdel Test Movie Night. The new monthly series will delight those who like their movies to more fairly depict one half of the world’s population. That’s right, women!
The Bechdel Test, named for a 1985 strip in Alison Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch Out For,” holds a work of fiction up to what should be a fairly simple standard: two named female characters talk to each other about something other than a man.
But that was 30 years ago. Surely such benchmarks shouldn’t be too difficult to reach nowadays? If only that were the case. A study released by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in early August, found that of the top-grossing films of 2014, less than one-third of all speaking characters were female. The ratio of male to female speaking parts in the 700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014 was 2.3 to 1.
Enter Cheryl Dunye, Bay Area artist, filmmaker and educator. At this year’s Frameline film festival, Dunye learned of a European cinema showing only Bechdel Test-approved movie and pitched a similar concept to the New Parkway on a three-month trial basis. She is joined by a small team, C.A. Greenlee, Jackelyn Perez and Julia Robertson, who will help curate, organize and promote the movie night.
First up on the schedule is Ridley Scott’s 1991 film Thelma & Louise, starring Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon and a turquoise 1966 Ford Thunderbird. What starts as a fishing trip escalates into hold ups, explosions and a dramatic conclusion at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Do the women have names? Yep, the whole movie’s named after them. And do they talk to each other? Check. About a variety of things? Absolutely! Thelma & Louise passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors -- and it’s a fantastic road trip, crime thriller, feminist revenge buddy flick to boot.
Each Bechdel Test Movie Night will feature a post-film discussion, with Dunye hosting the first Q&A. She thinks the New Parkway’s cosy combination of tables, couches, beer and food is an ideal environment for real conversations about these movies and the issues they bring up.
“Its everybody's responsibility to join the conversation about representation and the movies,” Dunye says.
She also sees the series as a way to broach even bigger-picture ideas about representation in storytelling. Can we extend the Bechdel Test to those working behind the camera? Can we start to apply the test to all types of narrative forms -- not just feature films? Already the Bechdel Test is the launching point for several related standards, including the Racial Bechdel Test (for representation of people of color), the Mako Mori Test (for a female character with a strong plot line) and the Vito Russo Test (for LGBT representation).
The same USC Annenberg study found only 26.9 percent of characters in the top-grossing films of 2014 were from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. Meanwhile, less than .5 percent were LGBT-identified and not a single transgender character was portrayed. Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word video project, in which films are edited down to only the lines spoken by characters of color, puts these statistics front and center.
For Dunye and team, Thelma & Louise is just the beginning. Their challenge now is to prove this series is not only important, but can also be popular. Though with Aliens (Oct. 11) and Foxy Brown (Nov. 8) coming up, it shouldn’t be too hard to fill the New Parkway with an audience hungry for the kind of movie Hollywood so often fails to make.