Every year, the MacArthur Fellowship Program briefly descends in a bustle of secrecy to bestow a handful of “Genius Grants” on a few extremely talented artists in a wide variety of fields. The process is opaque—anonymous committee, no applications, no shortlists or early qualifier announcements—and the event is life-changing, with grant recipients currently receiving $625,000 over five years, no strings attached, as a license to create whatever they want. As previously noted, the 2014 award recipients included The Act Of Killing and The Look Of Silence director Joshua Oppenheimer and Dykes To Watch Out For and Fun Home graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, originator of the much-argued, much-debated three-rule Bechdel Test for film. The grant announcement has sparked a new interview with the often publicity-shy Bechdel, letting her clarify, for approximately the billionth time, that yes, she likes films that fail her test, and no, she doesn’t want to add a bunch of extra rules to complicate it.
The Bechdel Test originated with a 1985 installment of Dykes To Watch Out For in which two women discuss evening plans:
Over the past decade, the test resurfaced and gained much more notoriety, as discussion of diversity and representation in film has ramped up, and the Test came to represent a useful debate-starter and pot-stirrer. Surely by now everyone understands that it isn’t a hard-and-fast rubric for whether a film is feminist or even good. (Oh, who are we kidding; whenever the Test is mentioned in public, let alone on the Internet, someone is instantly ready to derail any conversation by smugly revealing that gasp, it isn’t an all-inclusive metric tackling every aspect of qualitative film analysis.) But it does provide a simple, easy, low bar for films—and a striking illustration of how few films actually pass even such a low bar, and how few mainstream films of any stripe are willing to spend even a minute on basic relationships between women. Bechdel has repeatedly been pulled back to the center of the women-in-film conversation, and she’s often seemed a bit publicity-shy about it—after all, this is a nearly 30-year-old humor one-off comic, and she’s gone on to do much more sophisticated and personal work with the graphic memoirs Fun Home (now a Pulitzer-finalist Off-Broadway musical) and the sequel Are You My Mother? Both books delve intimately into Bechdel’s history, sexuality, family, and psyche, and neither is really concerned with how or whether people watch movies.
In a recent interview with Cosmopolitan (conducted by Dissolve contributor Kate Erbland), Bechdel mentioned some films she’s loved recently that don’t pass the test: Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, which she just saw for the first time, the more recent Wes Anderson adventure The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the groundbreaking time-travel story About Time. “I’m not a stickler about the Test—if I were, I wouldn’t see many movies,” Bechdel told Cosmo. Asked if she wanted to further edit or clarify the test, she was firm and to the point: “No. I think it’s a nice, simple metric.” That may be annoying to the people who’ve been analyzing it at sites like BechdelTest.com, suggesting additions ranging from simple (the women should be actual named characters; the conversation should last at least 30 seconds) to baroque (there shouldn’t be a man present in the scene, and a man shouldn’t be named or referenced in any way during the conversation, or the whole thing is invalidated, no matter how long it is). But then again, if it was a 30-item list of requirements, it’s much less likely that the Bechdel Test would have endured as it has.
Which, by the way, Cosmo also asked: Whether Bechdel was expecting this kind of longevity from her comic. “Oh my god, no,” she answered. “I have such a strange relationship to that thing. In the first place, it wasn’t even my idea. I appropriated it from a friend. Who appropriated it from Virginia Woolf. But it was just a kind of funny in-joke for feminists in the ’80s. The fact that these criteria are being (at least somewhat) seriously debated in the mainstream now is nothing I could ever have foreseen.” Probably no one could have, but better late than never. Same thing goes for Bechdel finally watching Jackie Brown, which is a fabulous film.