Thursday, January 13, 2011

Applying the Women-in-Movies Test to Race-in-Stories

The Bechdel Test challenges us to ask three simple questions about films:
  1. Are there two or more women with names?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
So many of my favorite films failed the test:



I wonder if we could apply a similar set of race-related questions to stories in diverse settings, whether they come to us via books, television, or movies. Let's call it the "Friends" test, based on that outstandingly non-diverse television show set in New York City, and ask these questions:
  1. Are there two or more people of color with names?
  2. Do they have a significant conversation with each other?
  3. Do they talk about something other than race?

13 comments:

Sarah Rettger said...

You just new I needed a new procrastination technique, didn't you?

Sarah Rettger said...

And that comment makes loads more sends when Blogger doesn't decide to leave out my fake HTML tags. So with functioning punctuation:

(Scampers off to apply the Mitali Test to her LibraryThing collection.)

Terry Doherty said...

I like the "Mitali test" better than the "friends" test! It would be interesting to put together a list. I can think of a few ... several by Beverley Naidoo

Sayantani said...

LOVE this Mitali! But you're right it needs a name - Mitali Test is excellent. I LOVE the Bechdel test (there's a great series on the "Bechdel test canon" here: http://bit.ly/gu84sT) and now Love its application to race in stories!!! (and I thought you were off line this winter - so happy you came on to suggest this piece of brilliance!)

Gregory K. said...

This is a great test, though it leads to a question: in a book where there aren't races specified, what do we do? Do we assume the characters are the ethnicity/race of the main character? The author?

It would then be interesting to look at the (few) films made with kid casts to see if adaptations change any of this. Regardless, I'd be willing to bet that most books will fail the test.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Great idea. Wow, what if we started asking those questions--about race, about women--every time we watched a movie or read a book?

Sherry said...

But what exactly is the purpose of the questions? Is a movie unworthy or second rate if it's all about guys? Or is it just a "guy movie"? Is a book not as good if its mostly or all about white kids? Or is this just a way to see past "token characters" to find books that truly feature people of color and show them as rounded characters?

Mitali Perkins said...

Sherry, there's absolutely nothing wrong with guy movies or books featuring all white people. This could be just another way for us to SEE what we might otherwise miss, as you put it so well:

"... A way to see past 'token characters' to find books that truly feature people of color and show them as rounded characters."

And remember, I'm only talking about books set in places that are multicultural or diverse enough to warrant two characters of color with names and substantial dialog (unlike the colorful politically correct but dead silent extras cast in TWILIGHT's *rural* Forks high school).

Mitali Perkins said...

Maybe we can start with the more visual story venues: television and movies targeted for young people. Seen any lately that pass the test?

kellye crocker said...

I had never heard of the Bechdel test. (Thanks for the extra link, Sayantani! I'm going there next.) This is very interesting and gives me a lot to think about, including my fave books. Thanks, Mitali. Great post!

Rachel Stark said...

Yes! I've been trying this for a while, and the results are similarly depressing. It also works well when applied to non-cissexuals and non-heterosexual characters in film and literature.

I love this test for how clearly it shows the biases of popular media. It makes it immediately clear that even a film which includes a strong female/homosexual/minority race character is still primarily about straight white men. And the fact that so few of us notice that without this test is a sad sign of our assumptions about what's "normal."

Angela Craft said...

Sherry - in some ways "test" is a misnomer in the Bechdel Test. It's not something a movie/story needs to pass in order to be worthwhile - but, as Rachel says, it shows the biases of the media. Think about the opposite of this test: a story with two white men who talk to each other about something other than race/women. It's ridiculous, because of course most stories pass that version of the test.

This isn't kidlit related, but I will say this is one of the reasons I loved Star Trek: Deep Space Nine so much. Not only does it pass the Bechdel Test, but the new Mitali test, too, since almost every episode would include the captain (African-American) talking to either his son or the doctor (Middle Eastern), with race (as we currently understand it) never mentioned. (Star Trek Voyager passes the Bechdel test in spades, and probably the Mitali test in most episodes, but I wouldn't say every one).

campbele said...

Within the past week or so, someone released a study which listed TV shows that are the most racially offensive. I was surprised to find Grey's Anatomy near or at the top of the list. I watched a recent episode of Private Practice (same producers) and realized that I was caught up in so many emotions while watching the show that there was a lot going on that I missed. Such as the Asian woman who was stereotypically portrait and cold hearted and extremely intelligent. Why was this character Asian while all others were White? Makes me wonder how many other subliminal messages are buried in "news" and entertainment stories that make us feel good. I mean, it seems harmless but we're fed a steady diet of this stuff.
Thanks, Mitali!