Thursday, May 7, 2015

Bechdel April: Analysis

All through April, I tracked my TV viewing to see how often my shows passed the Bechdel Test. It’s been a week since the experiment ending, so I figure it’s about time we made some sense of all the data I collected.


These results are obviously biased towards my own particular TV tastes. I made no attempt to branch out and watch anything new in April. Even DAREDEVIL, the one new-to-me show featured below, falls in line with my established preferences.

In the main, I like what I call “trashy” television; shows that are, on some level, soap operas. If there’s a good chance one or more characters will discover they have a random half-sibling and/or an evil twin, I’m there. Bonus points if someone fights a ninja. Triple bonus points if they sing about their drama. Quadruple bonus points if there’s any sort of space battle.

I gravitate most strongly towards shows with female protagonists, though I've added a few more male-led shows to my viewing schedule over the last couple of years. I enjoy fantasy, both contemporary and secondary world. I’m on a quest to sample every vampire-focused TV show ever made. I love superheroes. Fight scenes bring me joy, whether or not there’s a ninja involved. Interpersonal relationships are my jam, especially if they can in any way be considered “turgid.” Friendships make me even happier than romances.

Most of my regular TV viewing is American or British.

That's where I'm coming from here.

Stats and Charts

Throughout April, I watched a grand total of 75 individual episodes of 13 different shows. 22 of those episodes were from a half-hour soap opera with 15-20 minutes of actual content1. 1 was a sitcom with 22 minutes of actual content. The remaining 52 episodes were hour-long dramas with 40-60 minutes of actual content.

22 of the 23 half-hour episodes passed the Bechdel Test.

40 of the 52 hour-long episodes passed the Bechdel Test.

That’s an overall pass rate of 83%; much higher than I expected to find, even given my established preference for female-driven shows. A greater number of male-focused shows have crept into my viewing schedule over the last couple of years, as I said above, and I've previously noted that a preponderance of female characters doesn’t always make for meaningful, non-male-focused female interaction. We’ll talk about that in greater detail below.

A by-episode breakdown of each show’s passes and failures is available by viewing week: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, Week Four, and Week Five.

A by-show, numbers-only breakdown appears as follows:

Show Title Episodes Viewed Bare/Dodgy Passes Fails Total Passes
The 100 10 0 1 9
Coronation Street 22 0 1 21
Daredevil 13 0 8 5
Elementary 4 1 1 3
The Flash 3 1 1 2
Game of Thrones 1 0 0 1
Modern Family 1 0 0 1
Nashville 5 1 0 5
Once Upon A Time 3 1 0 3
The Originals 3 0 0 3
Orphan Black 2 0 0 2
Supernatural 3 0 2 1
The Vampire Diaries 5 0 0 5

Gender Breakdowns, With Analysis

Before I began, I hypothesized that shows with female protagonists and largely female supporting casts would pass the Bechdel Test more consistently than shows with male protagonists and largely male supporting casts. This is broadly true, though it’s not quite so simple as that.

NASHVILLE, ONCE UPON A TIME, ORPHAN BLACK, and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES have one or more female protagonists and many female series regulars, with quite a few regular male characters in the mix as well. (In some cases, these male characters may arguably be considered protagonists.) Each of these shows passed the Bechdel Test with flying colours more often than not, though NASHVILLE and OUAT each featured one bare pass as discussed below. Even a female-led cast can falter when the storyline pauses to explore the male characters in more detail, or when the protagonists are in conflict with a male villain.

ORPHAN BLACK is worth singling out as an exemplar on that front. Even though the current season features a set of male clones with whom everyone is preoccupied, the two episodes the show aired in April still passed the Bechdel Test so often that I had to pause them at frequent intervals to note everything down. The show refuses to let its female characters’ own issues fade into the background even when the plot demands they pay attention to a large number of men.

THE 100 has a female protagonist and three important female series regulars, but the bulk of the regular cast is male. Most of each episode’s scenes occur between Clarke (the protagonist) and her male friends, or between said male friends with Clarke as a frequent focus; however, it feels like the writers make an effort to have Clarke interact with Raven, Octavia, Abby, or a female guest star at least once per episode2. The vast majority of the time, these interactions focus on something other than the men. Despite the large number of male series regulars, the show only failed the Bechdel Test once across the 10 episodes I watched in April. The women still did important things in that episode, but they did them with the men instead of with each other.

ELEMENTARY also has one female protagonist alongside a male protagonist and two male series regulars. While 3 of the 4 episodes I watched passed the Bechdel Test, these passes were entirely dependent on interactions between Joan and various one-off or rarely-seen characters. They never related to the case at the heart of each episode. As is the case with Clarke et al, Joan does a lot, but she does it with men instead of with women.

CORONATION STREET, GAME OF THRONES, and MODERN FAMILY have mixed-gender casts. Each show rotates protagonists, so someone who is at the centre of one storyline may take on a supporting role in another tale down the line. Corrie Street killed it on the Bechdel front, as we’ll discuss in a few paragraphs. I didn’t watch enjoy of GAME OF THRONES or MODERN FAMILY last month to make any sweeping declarations as to how either show does in the long term, though I will say that GOT’s pass came from one all-female scene. The rest of the episode either focused on men or involved the women interacting with male characters.

THE ORIGINALS is a bit of an odd duck. It (arguably) has two male protagonists to one female protagonist, which looks like a recipe for a mostly-about-dudes show; however, it generally manages to pass the Bechdel Test on multiple occasions per episode because of its assortment of female series regulars, non-regular yet recurring female characters, and female guest stars. The female villains featured this season also help, as discussed below.

That leaves us with DAREDEVIL, THE FLASH, and SUPERNATURAL, all of which are male-oriented shows with male protagonists and few to no female series regulars. They do about as well as you’d expect. 8 of DAREDEVIL’s 13 episodes fail; the rest get by on non-crucial interactions between one of the female series regulars and considerably less important female recurring or one-off characters. The women are largely isolated from one another; yet another point we'll take up again below. And I can’t swear to it because I didn’t make note of mixed-gender interactions, but I don’t believe Vanessa ever speaks to anyone beyond Fisk and Matt, except in passing.

THE FLASH's passes were entirely cursory as the two female series regulars are isolated from one another and given little opportunity to interact one-on-one with female recurring or one-off characters. SUPERNATURAL passed by taking the female villain route with one episode, but other than that the three episodes I watched last month were a complete sausage fest. This is far from uncommon for the show.

Spotlight On Coronation Street

I want to talk about CORONATION STREET in a little more depth, seeing as how it was the clear winner on the Bechdel front with twenty-one passes and a lone failure across a month of episodes. It can serve as a case study for how to Bechdel it up on a regular basis with minimal effort.

For those of you who’re unfamiliar with the show, Corrie Street is a British soap opera that airs every weekday. Each episode’s actual run time is around twenty minutes1 once you cut out the ads. And the vast majority of the time, I had my work cut out for me noting down every female interaction that occurred each day because there were a fucking lot of them.

Once upon a time, I laboured under the assumption that soap operas were forever focused on romance and thus inclined to spend most of their time talking about men. This may be the case with some American soaps, but not so with Corrie. Romantic relationships are a hot topic, yeah, but the show places a much wider emphasis on relationships of all sorts: friendships, parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, working relationships, and the bonds that form between neighbours who may not particularly like one another but still have to exist in close proximity because moving is expensive (and the actors are under contract).

Even though most of the romantic relationships on the show are heterosexual, the women have plenty else to talk about. And they are never, ever silent. They talk about everything, from the most intensely focused details of their next scandalous, plot-related move to the minutiae of their lives. Sometimes their conversations push the wider story forward and sometimes they're just an excuse for these women to shoot the shit. The show isn't flawless, but it gives its female characters the space they need to be fully realized people on a multitude of different levels.

Corrie has a few different storylines on the go at any one time, just as a good soap opera should, and women are involved in every one of them. Even those storylines that are male-focused, such as Steve’s battle with depression or David’s fight to keep custody of Max, give the women important supporting roles. Women feature heavily in these storylines as confidants or aggressors, and they talk to one another throughout. Many of these interactions focus on the men at the heart of the storyline, of course, but the women don’t let that stop them from discussing plenty of other topics in and around all that. Liz and Michelle might talk about their work in the pub when they need a break from Steve’s drama, while Gail may take time away from David’s woes to banter with Sally or ask Steph about the rota. The men’s problems don’t stop life from tripping on forward.

Said men’s problems are far from the only storylines, too. The women don’t just talk; they do. Last month, Canadian viewers saw Anna and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Faye, grapple with various issues surrounding Faye’s newborn daughter. Alya and Sally fought for Carla’s approval at the factory. Bethany battled her mother, Sarah, for the right to stay in England instead of returning to Italy. And those were just the major storylines; a dozen smaller, female-focused threads ran, and continue to run, through the show.

This is possible in large part because fully half of the show’s enormous cast is female. I made a list of every currently active character I could remember (which may not be all of them; see “enormous cast”), and I came up with twenty-nine women and twenty-eight men, counting the children older than five. There are at least three other female characters who’re slated to return once the actors’ maternity leave ends, too.

Good for you, CORONATION STREET. Keep on giving us lots of women who do lots of things.

Dodgy and Bare Passes

I’m happy to praise Corrie for allowing its women a fair measure of random, non-plot-focused banter because that ain’t all they get. The same isn’t true across all shows.

The thing about the Bechdel Test is, it’s really simple. Two women need to talk about something other than a man. The test places no restrictions as to what that “something” is or how complex the interaction should be.

Twitter loves to talk about how, “Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt” passes, and that’s true--but if that sort of statement is the only pass in 20-60 minutes, how much weight does it really carry?

Many of the shows that passed the Bechdel Test in the chart above did so with a series of complex, complicated interactions. (You can see how well they did in the weekly breakdowns linked to just before the chart, if you are so inclined.) Many others passed because they routinely padded their episodes with less consequential female interaction. The women talked, yeah, but they didn’t talk about anything that impacted the wider plot or enhanced our understanding of their characters.

Joan and her friends might spend thirty seconds planning an ironic bachelorette party and thus earn ELEMENTARY a pass, but does that count for much when the rest of the episode sees Joan solving a man’s murder alongside her male colleagues, with evidence from predominantly male witnesses? If NASHVILLE’s Layla exchanges a couple words with a reporter before Jeff takes over the conversation, does that compensate for the rest of the female characters' focus on the male characters throughout the majority of the episode?

What about the episode of ONCE UPON A TIME where the two female-focused interactions quickly segue into a discussion of the men in these women’s lives? Or the scene on THE FLASH where a woman who discusses work with her female coworker turns out to be a shapeshifter who appears to consider himself base-male3?

If a show passed solely because of one or two fleeting or debatable interactions, I marked it as a dodgy pass in the chart above. That’s not to say all the shows without a dodgy pass mark beside their name did brilliant work with all their Bechdel-passing scenes. Some of them merely layered inconsequential interactions atop one another, upping their representation without adding much to the overall story. They passed by doing the bare minimum two or three times per episode, or by following up on a single, important scene with several that didn't really matter.

DAREDEVIL is a prime example. The three women who appear in the credits never interact with each other and barely interact with anyone else. Karen gets her own storyline, but she does most of her work alongside Matt, Foggy, or Urich. She develops a rapport with Elena, but rarely consults women during the course of her investigation. Claire is entirely focused on Matt, while Vanessa is entirely focused on Fisk, barring the odd bit of filler dialogue. DAREDEVIL’s Bechdel passes are predominantly fleeting, unimpactful, or just another way to turn the conversation back to the men whom the show clearly prefers to dwell on.

SUPERNATURAL earned its lone pass for an episode in which a female villain confronts her longtime rival--and even there, the conversation eventually turns to the Men of Letters. The rest of the time, the show tends to treat its women as sex objects, victims, or mother figures. Said female villain is, in fact, the mother of a regular (male) character.

THE FLASH almost always isolates its women and filters them through their male colleagues. Caitlin interacts with Barry, Cisco, and Dr Wells on a regular basis, but she almost never talks to Iris. When Felicity comes to town, the two of them exchange perfunctory greetings or chat about Felicity’s new boyfriend; no more. Even when Caitlin engages in an epic coding battle with a female villain, she addresses her commentary to her computer or to Dr Wells instead of opening a direct line with the woman. Likewise, Iris might say the odd thing to Felicity during one of that worthy’s visits, but she has little to do with anyone else beyond Barry, Joe, or Eddie. It’s a troubling trend.

Me, I’m not too concerned about shows like CORONATION STREET, NASHVILLE, and ONCE UPON A TIME, which routinely pass the Bechdel Test but sometimes shift the focus to their male characters for an episode or so. They show us how easy it is to fail the test even when you have a large number of prominent female characters on deck, but they also demonstrate how simple it is to check yourself and ensure you get back on track. THE 100, too, makes a conscious effort to bring its women together in meaningful ways, even though there are more men than women on deck.

The shows that worry me are those like DAREDEVIL and THE FLASH, which make a practice of isolating their women from one another, and SUPERNATURAL, which most often presents women as sex objects, mothers, or victims. Each of these shows tends to marginalize female interaction in favour of a deep-seeded preference for men’s stories.

There’s nothing wrong with telling men’s stories, so long as we don’t ignore or devalue women’s stories in the process. And from what I observed in the male-led shows I watched last month, I get the impression the wider television landscape has a strong tendency to do just that.

Somewhere To Start

As I said above, I expected far less than an 83% pass rating from this experiment and I’m really, really happy so many of my shows Bechdeled it up to such a great extent. Even still, the number of inconsequential or dodgy passes in male- and female-focused shows alike is troubling.

To be clear, I’m happy to see women talking to one another in any context, but I feel we should strive for more meaningful interaction as well. Banter should contribute to world- and character-building; it shouldn’t be the main context within which female characters interact.

If we want our media to pass the Bechel Test more consistently--and we do want this, yes?--it's important that these fictional women are allowed to have relationships with one another, be they friendships, familial ties, or romances. Relationships, established or burgeoning, give characters something concrete to talk about no matter what else is going on in their lives, and they can serve as fuel for compelling storylines. It's the simplest possible place to start.

And while I composed my guest post for Jodie’s recent theme week, I realized there’s another wonderfully simple thing TV writers could do to improve their Bechel stats with minimal effort and fabulously entertaining results.

I can’t speak to sitcoms and the like, but most dramas and soap operas feature at least one character whom every other character talks about all the frickin’ time: the villain.

When a villain emerges on CORONATION STREET, she's liable to be female. The same is true of ONCE UPON A TIME. ORPHAN BLACK looks set to shift to mostly male villains this season, but the show has a strong history of female baddies. Ditto THE VAMPIRE DIARIES. NASHVILLE’s women often fill both hero and villain roles as new storylines come to prominence and perspectives shift.

All these shows Bechdel it up week after week after week because the female protagonists and their supporters are forever searching for a way to stop these evil (or perceived-as-evil) women. They have a concrete, non-male subject to discuss.

Give us more female villains opposed by at least two female heroes working in concert, and BAM! Bechdeled. The heroes talk about the villain with each other and with any men who may be helping them; the villain threatens the heroes whenever they’re face-to-face and schemes with her female sidekick (or assortment of mixed-gender minions) when they aren't. The number of shows that pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours skyrockets, and the range of roles available to female TV actors enjoys quite the jump. Everyone wins.

It ain’t the be-all and end-all, but it’s something work with.

And now...

Watching TV with such an intense focus was a fascinating process. It really got me thinking about the range of storylines we see on television, the acting roles available to women, and the sorts of gendered interactions that drive a story forward as opposed to those that simply serve as set dressing. It was an educational experience and I'm so glad I did it.

That said, it was also tiring. By the end of April, I was annoyed as all hell with the shows that failed the Bechdel Test because dude. It does not have to be hard. At the same time, though, I was annoyed as all hell with those that passed a dozen times per episode because I had to keep pausing them to make notes. The last OUAT episode I covered took me about twice its actual run time to watch, while the season premiere of ORPHAN BLACK didn’t lag far behind.

It's been nice to watch TV like a normal person again.

A normal person who scowls at any and all episodes that don’t pass the Bechdel Test, that is. I may not spend my TV time with notepad and pen in hand anymore, but you can bet I'll still pay close attention going forward. Once you start watching for this stuff, it's impossible to just turn it off.

  1. My father (who got me into the show) once timed an episode of CORONATION STREET and came out with only thirteen minutes of actual content. I think his estimate is likely a little low on the whole, but Corrie certainly doesn’t run for the full twenty-two minutes you get with a half-hour American sitcom. All the full episodes I found on YouTube were about twenty minutes including title cards and all that, which I’d guess add at least thirty seconds to a minute to the time.
  2. This trend seems to be increasing at the point where I left off with S2. Clarke has frequent, plot-focused interaction with Abby, Raven, and an assortment of other female spacers and grounders who look set to be important in the coming episodes.
  3. My own inclination is to consider Everyman genderfluid or agender, but I feel like the show treated him as male.

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