The Bechdel-Wallace Test Isn’t For Everything

One of my favorite movies of the past year was Sing Street. It’s a hilarious musical about a group of high school boys that form a band in 1980s Ireland. The writing is amazing, the jokes hold up, the costumes are ridiculous, and the music is totally shower-singable.

I’ve been promoting this movie to my friends for months. I’ve played the soundtrack when friends are in my car, even if they don’t know what the music is from. I have been known to go on short rants explaining my frustration about La La Land being awarded every Golden Globe and being nominated for every Oscar when the only significant American award Sing Street was nominated for was the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, which it lost to La La Land.

My point is, the movie is great. Except for the fact that it doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test.

The movie is a fantastic piece of art and a fantastic story but also it focuses on a single teenage boy who starts a band in order to impress a girl. There are three named women in the movie, the girl the main character is trying to impress, his mom, and his sister. The only two women that interact are the main character’s mom and sister and the only times they do interact are to talk about the dad and the parent’s divorce. The mom and sister are barely in the movie at all even.

The object of the main character’s affection, Raphina, is treated as such. She has no story other than when she is with the main character, Cosmo. Her only purpose in the film is to look pretty enough to make Cosmo want to change himself. Talk about manic pixie dream girl (but that deserves its own post entirely). Raphina has her own so-called crisis at the end of the movie but even then it is only glossed over and isn’t discussed in-depth.

The thing is, though, Raphina doesn’t need to be a main character. Cosmo already is. The movie is about Cosmo and it’s from his point of view. It makes sense that the movie wouldn’t show all of Raphina’s life. It makes sense that Raphina is only portrayed as the pretty girl Cosmo wants to impress because that’s how Cosmo sees her. Cosmo sees his mom and sister as two annoying people in his life so it would make sense that they don’t have their own story lines. The only 3-dimensional characters in the film other than Cosmo are Jack, his brother, and Raphina, and calling them three-dimensional is a bit of a stretch.

Sure, it’s amazing when great movies pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test but the Bechdel-Wallace Test is one of the most basic forms of showing the amount of female characters on screen. The whole point of the original comic in which the test was introduced is that not enough movies pass this basic test.

But that’s not the only problem. The bigger problem that allowed for the creation of the test is that there aren’t enough movies centered on female stories. If there were an abundance of movies with a female protagonist, the reverse would happen where people would be measuring the number of times two men talk to each other. It took three episodes for Gilmore Girls to have men talk directly to each other about something other than a woman.

The Bechdel-Wallace Test, as important as it is, is a terrible measure of female representation in film. And that’s exactly the point of the test. The test should be a jumping off point. The test should not still be in use as the leading measure of female representation in media. We have been using it as a serious test for about a dozen years and it hasn’t gotten much better.

Instead of deeming a movie “feminist” if it passes the test, we should be looking at film more critically. I want websites dedicated to testing the passing of the Mako Mori test, which requires the film to have “a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.” I want us to get to a place where there is no longer a need to measure the representation of women and people of color and LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized groups. I want us to get to a place where film journalists are counting the number of times a certain food is in a movie and whether that is representative of the director’s favorite food. I want history books to be written about the Bechdel-Wallace Test as such an ancient thing in the fight for gender equality, similar to what is written about those “Votes for Women” sashes the suffragettes wore.

But I also want to be able to love Sing Street for being a great movie and not feel a tinge of guilt because it doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test.

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