Alison Bechdel invented the test that measures gender inequality in films more than 30 years ago. As a musical based on one of her most beloved graphic novels hits London, she tells Stylist.co.uk about life as a cult feminist cartoonist and what makes her hopeful in the age of Trump.
If you’re interested in film and feminism, you’ll have heard of the Bechdel Test. Devised in the Eighties, it asks three simple questions: first, does the film have more than one female character? Second, do those characters ever talk to one another? And third, do they discuss anything other than a man?
The test is an easy way to tell whether a film cares even vaguely about women’s stories and experiences, and you wouldn’t have thought it would be difficult to clear those three hurdles. But a surprising – or, perhaps, grimly predictable – number of modern films don’t pass muster. Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, three failed the test entirely, and two more only barely scraped by (in Call Me By Your Name, for example, the only Bechdel-approved conversation is a brief and mundane exchange about pasta).
In a year when discussions about the representation of women on screen have become impossible to disentangle from revelations about the off-camera treatment of women in film, the Bechdel Test feels more relevant than ever. But while many people have heard of the test, the woman who first brought it to mainstream attention is less well-known.
Cartoonist Alison Bechdel included the test in her cult lesbian feminist comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985, when a character mentions that she no longer sees films at the cinema that don’t pass it. Since then, she has written two critically acclaimed autobiographical graphic novels (one of which, 2006’s Fun Home, was turned into a Tony award-winning Broadway musical that recently transferred to London’s Young Vic theatre). Her test, meanwhile, has taken on a life of its own.
Today, Bechdel lives a quiet life in Vermont, far from the machinations of Hollywood. The illustrator and writer has never worked in the film industry herself, and says “it was strange at first” to see her name invoked in conversations about cinematic sexism.
“But I’ve made peace with it,” she says. “I’m actually very happy about it, because I feel like the general idea – that women should be treated as fully human people in a movie, just as they should be in life – is a really good idea.”
Since last autumn, she has noticed many people discussing the test in relation to the #MeToo movement, and is thrilled that people are making connections between institutional, real-world gender inequality and “these flat, two-dimensional depictions of women in movies, where they’re just like projections of male fantasies”.
Bechdel knows the test isn’t a perfect metric. A film isn’t necessarily feminist just because it passes it, and she happily admits that “some of my favourite movies don’t pass the test at all”. But, she says, it is ultimately concerned with the same issues her entire career has been devoted to: “creating women who are fully three-dimensional characters”.
Those familiar with Bechdel’s work will know this statement isn’t hyperbole. Dykes to Watch Out For, the beloved comic strip that saw her build an ardent fanbase in the Eighties, Nineties and early Noughties, chronicled the lives of a large cast of progressive, feminist lesbian characters, who were often seen debating of-the-moment political issues at the same time as they dealt with romantic and familial strife.
Her two graphic novels, meanwhile – the aforementioned Fun Home and 2012’s Are You My Mother? – offer rich, unflinching and deeply believable portraits of both women and men.
When I speak to Bechdel, she is preparing for a trip to London to see the musical adaptation of Fun Home at the Young Vic. Both the book and the play tell the story of Bechdel’s relationship with her family, particularly her father Bruce, who killed himself when she was 19.
Four months before he died, Bechdel had told her parents she was a lesbian, a disclosure that prompted her mother to reveal that Bruce had “had affairs with other men” throughout their marriage. Shortly after that bombshell was dropped, Bruce – a chilly and unpredictable part-time funeral director – was dead. Fun Home sees Bechdel at various stages throughout her life, attempting to make sense of the father she barely knew.
A graphic novel about a child surrounded by death, who grows into an adult lesbian grappling with complex ideas and emotions around mortality and sexuality, is not the most obvious source material for a musical. But since its publication 12 years ago, Fun Home has struck a chord with thousands of readers – and the production at the Young Vic has scored rave reviews. I ask Bechdel if she knew, when she was writing the book, that it would appeal to such a wide audience.
“No, I absolutely didn’t,” she says. “As I started telling this story about my family, I wasn’t sure who I was writing it for. I wasn’t sure that the people who read my lesbian comic strip [Dykes to Watch Out For] would be on board for this other kind of thing… But I wasn’t sure anyone else would read it, either.”
She laughs. “In the end, the audience I imagined for that book was just myself. That was the only way I could write it. So it was really gratifying to see that it touched a wide swathe of people.”
Bechdel put Dykes to Watch Out For on hiatus in 2008, at the tail end of the Bush years, having written and illustrated it for more than two decades. She wanted to focus on other work, and felt “relieved to let go of this strip and to not have to keep talking about the degradations of the Bush administration every week”. Her characters had spent eight years railing against a warmongering president who imperilled LGBT+ rights and made a fool of himself on the world stage, and it had become exhausting. (Sound familiar?) Later that year, Barack Obama was elected president, and Bechdel felt she could definitively leave Dykes in the past.
“For all eight years of the Obama administration, I was very happy to not be having to write [Dykes],” she says. “I occasionally would be out in public and people would say, ‘We miss your comic strip! What do you think your characters are doing now?’ And I would just say, I have no idea. I don’t think about my characters.”
When Donald Trump was elected, however, Bechdel found herself “immediately thinking about my characters and what they would all make of this”. Two weeks after the 2016 election, she published her first Dykes strip in eight years, titled Pièce de Résistance. It showed her characters at Thanksgiving dinner, still reeling from Trump’s victory and veering between panic, rage and plucky determination (“We can’t get paralysed with despair… Gotta resist! Mobilise! Watch his every move!”). Bechdel has also illustrated a Trump-related Dykes cover for the Vermont alternative newspaper Seven Days.
Addressing the Trump administration via Dykes made Bechdel feel a little better at first, she says. “That comic strip was how I made sense of the world. I’m not a naturally political person, so I would deconstruct what was happening in the world through my characters,” she says. “[Drawing] made me feel hopeful and connected, like: oh, here are my avatars and my community. I can start to figure this out now.”
But when it comes to resisting Trump, she’s quick to admit that she has yet to figure out the best course of action. “I feel still quite paralysed and overwhelmed by it all,” she says. “I mean, I’m continuing to do my work as best as I can, but it does feel pointless most days, honestly. I hope I will figure this out; I know it’s sort of inexcusable not to have come to some better position after all this time. But every day is just a sort of barrage of worse and worse nonsense.”
She is heartened, however, by seeing the feminist fightback against Trump in the US and around the world. Her characters in Dykes were frequently seen attending marches and demonstrations and campaigning for women’s rights, and Bechdel herself went on the Women’s March on Washington immediately after Trump’s inauguration.
“It was one of the most hopeful feelings I’ve ever had about humanity,” she says. “It was just amazing to be in a massive crowd that really was so loving.
“A big out-of-control crowd can be a frightening thing, but I never had the slightest qualm, even caught up in this big crush of people,” she continues. “There was this loving energy that was incredible. So that is something that gives me hope.”
Fun Home is at the Young Vic until 1 September; youngvic.co.uk
Images: Getty Images