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The Trouble with Women: Network TV and the Bechdel Test

The Trouble with Women: Network TV and the Bechdel Test

Two women sit in a restaurant. As they wait for their food, they discuss current events, politics, and an interesting historical tidbit one of them recently learned. Their food arrives and the conversation moves into the more personal- one woman’s marathon training, the upcoming nuptials of a (female) family member. To the canny observer, the conversation is incredibly telling of these two women and their personalities- their philosophies, their interests and priorities, how they see and define themselves and who they hope to be in the future. In a TV season defined for many by the influx of “female-friendly” programming, which series is this scene lifted from? None of them- it’s a description of this writer’s lunch last week with her mom.

Unfortunately, conversations like these, conversations women across America have every single day, are all but nonexistent on television at the moment. Despite the number of fantastic series currently on the air, finding a meaningful comedic or dramatic scene between women that doesn’t define them by the men in their lives, or their professions, is a bit like Captain Ahab’s quest for nautical justice. There are plenty of women on television, but writers in general seem far more comfortable writing for a woman surrounded by men rather than women with a gender balanced family, workplace, or group of friends.

This doesn’t stop some from finding fault with the recent increased presence of women on TV. Lee Aronsohn, co-creator of Two and a Half Men, found himself in hot water yesterday when he said, “We are approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation,” while speaking at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. He continued, “Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods.” Putting aside the troubling misogyny of the statement, it’s disconcerting that this is apparently all that Aronsohn, and presumably others, have taken away from the wider variety of female voices currently on the air. They may not be for everyone, but shows like Whitney and 2 Broke Girls are a baby step forward for women on television, female equivalents for the Two and a Half Mens of the TV landscape. Now if only they were more consistently funny.

The Bechdel test is one rubric for examining women in film (or, for our purposes, television). Lifted from cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 1985 strip “The Rule” from her long-running comic Dykes To Watch Out For, the Bechdel test requires that a film meet three criteria. It must have:

1.) At least two women who
2.) Talk to each other about
3.) Something other than a man.

This can be a romantic interest, a family member, a coworker- anyone male. The idea of the test is to weed out films with women solely defined by their relationships with men. Given how incompletely so many women are on television are drawn, one might think this would be a provocative indicator. However, in recent episodes of the current network programming, only seven series failed this test (with the added caveat for television that the two women must be series regulars, rather than guest stars)- CBS comedy Rules of Engagement and dramas Hawaii 5-0 and Person of Interest, NBC’s Awake and Grimm, FOX’s Touch, and the CW’s Supernatural.

It’s certainly not a perfect test. Plenty of fantastic series with incredibly strong women don’t pass. Game of Thrones, which features smart, courageous, and independent women of every sort prominently only passes occasionally (the season two premiere, for example, fails), while series with less-than-empowering women can breeze by with a scene of a duo hitting the mall or vacantly chatting about their hair. More interesting is how these series pass the Bechdel. Do they succeed with flying colors or just scrape by? Which criterion is most emphasized?

Several series are right on the edge, featuring incredibly short scenes that just barely tip them over the edge (pass criteria 1, but barely pass 2), including Blue Bloods and Hart of Dixie, and several more almost fail by having women who almost exclusively talk about their men, with just a dash of work talk or character examination pushing them through, including The Big Bang Theory and New Girl. ABC is by far the network that most easily passes the Bechdel, with strong female relationships at the core of most of their series, and CBS is the network that seems to struggle the most. This may be due to their high number of procedurals, which often eschew relationships and character development in favor of the case of the week, though The Good Wife is a notable exception to this (both as a CBS series and a procedural).

The most sweeping trend of all, however, is the type of relationship that allows these series pass the Bechdel. By far the most prominent right now (on network television) is the Mother/Daughter. Most of FOX’s comedies pass this way, as do several of ABC’s comedies and a number of procedurals. There are a lot of police/crime procedurals on the air, none of which are gender balanced (there are usually 2 or 3 men to every woman on the squad) and if you take coworkers and family out of the equation, the pickings get incredibly slim. NBC and ABC are definitely the networks to watch if you want to see female friendships, but even these tend to be superficial and unexplored.

There are a few shows getting it right though. Parks and Rec (currently on hiatus) features probably the strongest female relationship on television with Leslie and Ann. The Vampire Diaries has several prominent, interesting, and dynamic female friendships and for balanced groups, it’s hard to beat Happy Endings and Community, which write just as well for their male and female characters. In fact, one or two series would fail a reverse Bechdel (two male regular cast members must talk about anything besides women), notably Once Upon a Time.

There’s still a long, long way to go. American network TV is still, on the whole, incredibly male-centric. Very few women hold positions of authority and for those that do, their gender is usually an issue. Female police officers and agents are knockouts who chase down perps in high heels while male police officers can be character actors who certainly wear sensible shoes, though the importance of men’s appearance has increased. Women have recurring (often bitchy) female rivals while men are far more likely to spend their time worrying about the women in their lives.

Simply put, women spend far less time talking to each other on television than men do. Perhaps we need more female creators and producers, perhaps we need a higher percentage of female writers in writing rooms. Perhaps the problem is a larger societal one, teaching children from early on that men’s stories are more interesting than women’s. No matter the cause, it’s past time for a change. Television allows for complex, nuanced storytelling over time- character exploration over years and on a grander scale than most mediums allow. Women spend at least half their time talking to women- it’s time we showed it.

Kate Kulzick