Bechdel, DuVernay and Me

In 1985, Alison Bechdel included a few simple questions in her thoughtful, often poignant comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Far from mainstream then, that single strip has gone on to inspire a litmus test for all media – though it’s most commonly used in regard to films. Distilled to its essence, it is a series of three simple questions: Does the film in question have two women in it? Who speak to each other? About something other than a man?

If the answer is yes to all three questions, congratulations! Your film passes the Bechdel Test! More recently, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis proposed the DuVernay Test, named after African-American female filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, The 13th). Similarly simple, this one is meant to take the diversity question one step further: “do African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories?”

Both are so simple in their execution, I find myself instinctively applying them to essentially any film I’m watching. Inevitably, usually at some point in act II when I’ve settled into the story and have come to know the characters, it occurs to me that the film is glaringly devoid of diverse voices – or wonderfully full of them.

I could go on and on about why this matters: because seeing diversity on screen serves both those under-represented and those in the “norm.” Because only through truly broad perspectives can we ever begin to understand this big, wide world we live in. Because though the facts of history may not change, the experiences those who lived them are never identical. Because…you get the idea.

So, I’m doing something new here in this space. Well, two things. One, I’m going to be writing more about movies. I miss writing up my own take on what I’m seeing, and I’d like to do more of it. And two, I’m going to start noting if what I’m watching passes either or both of these tests. I already do a lot of tracking about my film viewing habits (yes, there are spreadsheets involved). I know if I saw it in a theater or via screener; I know what country it’s from; I know the date I saw it. Time to start keeping track of the diversity of perspectives, too.