This article is part of a series called Women and Media, which tries to showcase some of the innovative and unusual ways in which women represent themselves and their struggles in the media today, and the women responsible for creating these spaces of discourse and debate. The first article in the series can be found here.
If you’ve been following the news out of Bollywood this week, chances are you haven’t been able to miss the movie that is doing the rounds in the news cycle right now. Veere Di Wedding, which saw its theatrical release on June 1, is a “female buddy-comedy” starring Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonam Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar, and Shikha Talsania as its four protagonists. The movie boasts of a largely female crew as well – it has also been co-written, directed, and produced by women.
Prior to its release, the movie had garnered a lot of buzz due to the fact that it had four women in leading roles and promised to be a fun, light-hearted comedy about Kareena Kapoor Khan and the shenanigans she and her three best friends get up to before her wedding. I’ll admit, the trailer had me excited to watch the movie because it didn’t shy away from challenging Bollywood’s conservative and/or stereotypical representations of women – Veere’s protagonists swore without reserve, discussed their sex lives and sexual desires with each other and their partners unabashedly, and made fun of the very boundaries that keep Bollywood from portraying the young, modern, urban Indian woman authentically.
When the movie reached the theatres, its adult content caused an outpouring of outrage from certain sections of society (with calls to boycott the movie), who were surprised to see women engaging in sexual acts (with partners or on their own) and being irreverent towards the men in their lives, despite the movie’s “A” rating from the CBFC.
It’s safe to say my expectations from Veere were high. These would, however, soon be shattered.
Surprisingly enough, for many women, Veere Di Wedding proved to be antithetical to all the anticipatory hype it had built towards a certain niche of Bollywood that is new and more “progressive” (and wow, what a loaded term that seems to be in the Bombay film industry). Many who reviewed Veere expressed their disappointment with the way Khan, Kapoor, Bhaskar, and Talsania’s characters were actually represented throughout the movie.
A few reviews, such as Poulomi Das’ review on Arré, also cited the fact that it failed the “Bechdel Test” as the primary reason behind their dissatisfaction with the movie, claiming that despite featuring four brilliant and talented actresses as its leads, Veere and its protagonists only talked about men.
But what is the “Bechdel Test”, and why do we women get so fired up about it? Long preamble aside, this article will examine said test, why it is relevant, and whether we need it at all.
The “Bechdel Test”, sometimes also called the “Bechdel Rule” or the “Mo Movie Measure”, was popularised by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s (after whom it is named) 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in which the test first appeared.
When asked about her inspiration for “The Rule”, the comic strip in which the test appears, Alison Bechdel cites Virginia Woolf’s early reflections on gender in fiction. Woolf noted, in her book A Room of One’s Own, that she “tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men”.
The Bechdel Test thus has a simple premise – it requires any medium it is measuring to fulfil three criteria:
- It has to feature at least two named women, and
- The women must talk to each other, about
- Something besides a man.
The test has gained popularity in the last couple of decades since Bechdel’s comic was published, as a useful tool for examining how gender representation is skewed in fictional and entertainment media, and whether female characters in said media are three-dimensional figures whose lives and story arcs do not revolve entirely around men.
The Bechdel Test is an example of the kind of culture that women create around themselves as a reaction to the representation they see of themselves in the content generated in fictional media on a mass scale. Tools such as the Bechdel Test are a way for women to understand, navigate, and take control of a realm which has traditionally not given them the most creative access or control. Movies that are able to successfully able to break away from male-centrism and focus on women and other gender minorities are lauded and hailed as pioneers.
Despite this, however, a surprisingly high number of female-centric and female-driven movies fail to pass the Bechdel Test. It is interesting to note that even highly-regarded movies such as The Blind Side and Kahaani, which feature Sandra Bullock and Vidya Balan as strong female protagonists and earned them an Academy Award and National Award respectively, do not pass the Bechdel Test. Balan and Bullock’s respective characters barely speak to other women, and when they do, they only speak of the men in their lives, causing them to fail the second and third requirements of the test. On the other hand, movies such as American Pie 2, Snakes on a Plane, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, and Dil Dhadakne Do, which one wouldn’t necessarily associate with the feminist message, do manage to pass the Bechdel Test.
This surprising dichotomy brings us to our next set of questions: is the Bechdel Test really All That? Does passing the Bechdel Test make a piece of fictional media feminist? And does it really matter?
Alison Bechdel herself has never claimed that passing the Bechdel Test proves that a movie is well-written, entertaining, or feminist. The test is, in actuality, just a set of simple and limiting questions that an astonishingly large number of movies are unable to answer, making it an interesting point of conversation. Passing the Bechdel Test does not ensure that women enjoy a movie or even feel represented by it – the test is not a model or template for how to write a female character well. Also, according to an article by The Verge, “While the Bechdel Test is one useful metric for looking at Hollywood’s blind spots around representation … it doesn’t touch on many important aspects of cinema – about how central those roles are, about people of colour, about who’s working behind the camera, as well as in front of it”.
Thus, Veere Di Wedding might simply talk about men and so fail the Bechdel Test, but that cannot be the only norm to measure it against – not to discount, of course, the many valid concerns that women should hold about the movie. It is good to look at the Bechdel Test as one of the many standards against which one can measure representation and inclusivity in media. At the same time, it is also important to remember that it often fails in many places and thus should be used with caution and be treated like all other tests – not completely failsafe and, ultimately, woman-made.
A short but informative introduction to the Bechdel Test.
By Rutvi Zamre
Rutvi Zamre is an English major who knows that she doesn’t know much.