If my inbox and the recent activity on my Bechdel Test tag are any indication, a lot of people are curious about my thoughts on that recent study released by BYU students which attempts to determine whether Doctor Who is sexist by using the Bechdel Test.
I’ve always thought that the Bechdel Test is a good introduction to feminist criticisms of film and television. It’s disarmingly simple in the way it condenses one of the sad truths about women’s representation in media to a pithy, quantifiable test: A movie or TV show must have two women who speak to each other about something other than a man. The fact that many movies and TV shows fail to pass this test displays the dismal state of women’s representation in media. The test itself has seen a resurgence in popularity in the past decade or so, but the criticism itself is not new. The original “Bechdel Test” came from the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For" published by Alison Bechdel in 1985, and the idea for the test itself was taken from an observation that author Virginia Woolf made in 1926 about women’s representation in literature.
The Bechdel test also provides a good introduction into debates about what constitutes feminist media because when you invoke the test, you inevitably provoke criticisms about the flaws of the test as a measure of “feminism” in media. After all, many movies which fail to pass the Bechdel Test can still be seen as feminist movies, and those which pass the Bechdel Test can still be sexist.
Of course, this isn’t an inherent flaw in the test itself, but rather a flaw in the way that viewers apply the test. The purpose of the test is simple: to determine whether women and relationships between women are meaningfully represented in media. I think it is best utilized as a starting point for conversations about overall trends of women’s representation within the industry, rather than as a commentary about an individual TV episode or movie.
To put it another way, a movie or TV episode may not necessarily be sexist if it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, but the industry as a whole may be sexist if the majority of films and TV episodes can’t pass this very simple test for women’s representation.
Because the Bechdel Test provides a useful introduction to these topics, some of the earliest posts I wrote for this blog analyzed the Bechdel Test in Doctor Who and the overall utility of the test itself. Relying on data compiled by myself and other Tumblr users, I created scores for each episode of Doctor Who from 2005 onward. I found very similar results as the authors of this study did. Scores were generally high in Series 1-4, dropped in Series 5 and 6, and have recovered slightly in Series 7. I haven’t written about this yet, but both the 50th Anniversary and the recent Christmas Special pass the Bechdel Test.
My posts and this recent study have provoked a lot of conversation about how to interpret this data and about whether it is an indication of sexism in Doctor Who. Personally, I believe this data indicates that during Amy Pond’s tenure as a companion, Moffat failed to adequately develop meaningful relationships between his female characters. Yes, part of the reason the scores are lower is because Rory is also a companion at the time, but even when there was the opportunity to build a meaningful relationship between two female characters, Moffat dropped the ball.
For example, examine the relationship between Amy and River. There are very few meaningful interactions between the two, and most of their discussions together revolve around the Doctor. And a lot discussions about their relationship as mother and daughter tend to happen through the Doctor. For example, at the end of “Let’s Kill Hitler,” Amy asks the Doctor why they’re abandoning her daughter, and the Doctor has to explain that it is dangerous for them to interact too much with this young River because they have too much foreknowledge about her life and they have to let her make her own way. Why not allow River and Amy to have that moment together? Why not allow Amy to tell her stricken daughter that she wants more than anything to rebuild their relationship together as mother and daughter, but that she can’t because she has dangerous foreknowledge about River’s future? It would be a lovely echo of the moment in the previous episode, where Amy told her infant daughter to be strong in the face of her captors, if Amy told her adult daughter to be strong as she strives to make her own path in the world, free of her captors.
It is also important to note that Moffat’s Bechdel Test scores have improved during Clara’s tenure as he has created and developed more meaningful relationships between female characters. He has focused substantially more on the relationship between Vastra and Jenny, and has developed more relationships between Clara and other women, particularly between her and Angie Maitland.
There’s a significant debate to be had about the various merits of each of these relationships and whether or not we want to consider them feminist, but again, the Bechdel test is useful primarily for tracking trends over time, not individual interactions. I do not believe that the Bechdel test can provide us with a definitive answer on whether or not a TV show is sexist, but it does provide us with a good place with which to start that conversation. The authors of this study are aware of the limitations of the Bechdel test and used their study precisely to start that broader conversation. I have some qualms about their methodology and the way they framed their findings, but they have generated a significant conversation about sexism and Doctor Who, and that fact alone makes me happy.