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Breaking Down the Bechdel

Breaking Down the Bechdel

By Hannah Lisenbee, Gaylord Extra Editor, Class of 2024

March 8, 2024

Do you see yourself in the media? If so, is it an accurate representation?

As students, our commitment to media is rooted in authentically telling stories - whether it be of others or our own. Our goal is to create content that not only resonates with those who see their lived experiences reflected but also educates those for whom these narratives are new. 

But what if it wasn’t an authentic representation of what you experienced?

Traci Williams is a beloved creative media production instructor, and for good reason. Since her arrival at Gaylord, she has fostered community for those that she encounters - whether they are her students or not. She graduated with her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kent State, she has brought a wealth of knowledge and insightful practice to the program here at Gaylord College.  

Traci Williams.

I had the honor to speak with her about her group’s current project about the Bechdel test for her Ph.D. program here at Gaylord College. Her group’s research focuses on its impact on the media we consume.

The Bechdel-Wallace test, born from both curiosity and necessity, assesses films based on the representation, context and depth of women's conversations. To pass, a film must feature at least one conversation between two named women about something other than a man. Surprisingly, a significant number of films do not meet these criteria, highlighting an intriguing (or unsettling) gap in gender representation in cinema. 

Williams has cultivated an incredible career, “My background is in film, that’s where my love is,” Williams shared. Her love for film and storytelling is exemplified in the work she has done for this project and in the seeds of passion she has nurtured in her students. Undoubtedly her career will continue and rise further as time goes on.

Pursuing knowledge around the Bechdel takes passion and care for the craft. In pursuit of this research, the question comes up, “Why are we afraid to have certain conversations?” For me, it brought up another question: “How long can we afford to avoid these discussions?” 

Media is as clear as mud and ever so strategically transparent; as storytellers our duty it to quite obviously tell stories. However, the precedent set by previous scripts has insinuated over time that the primary focus of conversation between women is more often than not about men. 

Going forward, assuming the precedent does not change, where would there be room for re-evaluation and who is in the room when these choices are being made? 

Regarding the films that passed the Bechdel in 2022, the majority that passed were animated. One of the two that were live action was, ‘Don’t Look Up’ with familiar stars like Jennifer Lawrence in the film however the reason the ‘passing’ scene from the movie was a 10 second conversation about a female character being forced to resign. 10 seconds for it to pass. 

Complex characters are treated in a different manner. Debatably when complex characters are created at the hands of men, the catalyst of a heroine’s journey as opposed to the hero is often a physical trauma, whereas a hero might face a internal conflict. Complexity in characters is the reflection of our storytelling looking back at us. We see small parts of ourselves in our characters, but knowledge and perspective on others that are dissimilar make our stories inherently complex on their own.   

To further add flame to the fire, women of color are frequently misrepresented and underrepresented in the media, further complicating the challenge for someone to find themselves reflected in most narratives. 

“For me being a Black female in the film industry and in academia has been a challenge within itself, I don’t only love making content, I love watching content,” Williams shared. Both spheres have given her an interesting perspective on the way she perceives media.  “Yet, we keep hearing that things are getting better, both for women and people of color.” 

Williams and I agree that just because we are seeing the quantity of representation going up, does not mean that we are seeing quality in that representation. As storytellers, we must be conscious of our biases and ensure we are not tokenizing anyone. Without pursuing the knowledge that others have to give in their life experiences, we do a disservice to the media we create and the people we are creating it for. 

Symbolic annihilation is a prime example that gets featured in the group’s research. The system of erasure in place to eradicate representation has a known pattern which explains the ways that women and people of color are erased, condemned or trivialized. Just as we hope that we leave our mark on media, symbolic annihilation is evidence that it leaves a mark on us as an audience. Rather than ensuring representation it encourages what has always been done. As much as things change, things stay the same.  

The study goes much further beyond this specific scope, eventually her research will lead to an answer of this precedent’s point of origin whether it be something that happens in the industry post-grad or if it is something that can be corrected in academia. “What you’re creating now is going to affect the next generation,” said Williams.

If a story is being told from the lens of a man, written by a man, and validated by a man, it inherently carries a male point of view. If a story is being told from the point of view of a woman, but a man wrote the script, how can it hit the right relatable and authentic marks? Furthermore, how can a man accurately portray the lived experiences of a woman without having lived them himself or consulting a woman on what he’s writing? 

“I understand why people are afraid of these conversations, they’re hard,” said Williams. I tend to agree, that these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult, but their purpose is not to pass blame, it is to educate and evaluate the way that we tell a story. “Making people feel bad isn’t a bad thing, it’s knowledge, it’s education.” 

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