As you may have gleaned from my very first ever post: I love Alison Bechdel. I love her so much I named my dog after her.
But the actual real thing that I named my dog after, long ago before I had even watched or read FUN HOME, was The Test. The Bechdel-Wallace Test is a well-known tool for talking about gender in film. Bechdel wrote about the test in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and credits her friend Liz Wallace for the idea. In order to pass the test, a film must:
- have at least two women (with names)
- who talk to each-other,
- about something other than a man.
Lots of movies don’t pass the test. Lots of movies do…and they’re still sometimes sexist. When I named my fuzzy progeny after the test, I did it because she was the first female addition to my household, and she and I have lots of conversations about something other than a man! (Mostly food and world domination.) However, our chats are pretty one-sided.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test is a useful baseline for talking about gender in film, but many people, including Bechdel herself, think it’s not a high enough bar to signify adequate representation. Lots of new tests have popped up all over the internet to expand on Bechdel’s basic idea. My movie reviews on this site include some of my favorite tests. Good movies don’t always pass the tests, but bad movies pretty much always fail. Also I always just hate a movie slightly more than before when I realize to what extent the women just…aren’t.
These are the tests I use when considering gender in film:
- The Bechdel-Wallace Test: Discussed at length above. The OG.
- The Sexy Lamp Test: A movie fails if a female character can be replaced with a sexy lamp and the story still works. A post-it variation allows the lamp to deliver exposition.
- The Willis Test: A movie/book/song fails if swapping the gender roles would cause the art to stop making sense.
- The Ko Test: A movie passes if it contains 1) a non-white, female-identifying character, who 2) speaks in five or more scenes, and 3) speaks English.
- The Roxane Gay Test: The most rigorous test of the group, Gay’s test is my new wish-list for all media. I adore everything Gay does and this test is no different. The rules, in brief, are: 1) The protagonist is a complex woman, who 2) lives in a world surrounded by equally compelling women. 3) The protagonist does not compromise her sanity or sense for love. 4) At least half the time she is a woman of color and/or a transgender woman and/or a queer woman, but if she is the story does not focus solely on her difference. 5) She does not live an implausibly expensive life, and 6) she should be flawed, rather than a perfect example of feminism.
Whew! That’s a lot of options. So why do we need another test?
The thing about horror is, relative to other film, there tend to be a fairly large number of women onscreen (not so much behind it; we’ll talk about that more, very soon). The other day I was watching HOST (2020) and it sparked a discussion with my smart friend D. T. Burns that went something like this:
DT BURNS: Is it really feminist if there are six women onscreen but by the end all of them are dead?
BRANDY N. CARIE: … … … … … … … … huh.
If a movie has lots of women it passes the Bechdel Test (and often some of the other tests). But if most or all of them die as a Karmic punishment for being drunken sluts that doesn’t exactly feel like a narrative that celebrates Women As People (or even necessarily acknowledges Women As People). Plus, in a lot of slashers it seems like they included multiple women only to enable as many brutal murders as possible. I’m fine with a gory slasher kill, but if the men’s deaths are on average quicker and feature fewer close-ups of body parts I’m gonna notice and I’m gonna be annoyed.
In horror there’s almost always a Final Girl, which may have some of you out there saying: “look! A woman who doesn’t brutally die! My favorite horror movie is totally not sexist case closed end of story!” But an essential ingredient of the Final Girl’s survival is that she follows certain rules that make her a “good” girl/woman. The Final Girl is special. Unique. Not like other girls. Yawn.
The Final Girl stands alone among all women in her movie’s universe as The One Worthy of Survival. There are a lot of ways in which that’s both not very feminist, and not very interesting. Plus, how often is the survival of a lone woman actually meant to be, in a way, The Twist? A wink at the screen that says, “hey, don’t worry, this is all just pretend. In real life it would never be A Woman.” And then we, the audience, are all supposed to go: A woman??? What a surprise, I never could’ve guessed!?! If that’s a twist it’s the most boring twist in the history of patriarchy.
How many horror movies can you name where TWO central female characters survive? And in how many of those movies could at least one of those female characters be replaced by a lamp? Or a pet cat? (I’m really asking, throw them at me in the comments!)
This is why we need a test specifically for Horror. And you’re in luck, because we’ve created one. MERRY EARLY CHRISTMAS!
To pass the Carie-Burns Test, a Horror Movie Must:
- Include no obviously sexualized or disproportionately brutal female deaths.
- Have two or more named female characters, who
- talk to each other about something other than men or dying/survival, and
- both pass the sexy lamp/pet cat test, and
- both survive until the end of the film.
I am struggling to think of any movies that pass this test (Actually RUN (2020) springs to mind). But most classic horror/slashers do not pass, including lots of movies that get called “feminist” because they feature tough women, or just a bunch of women. I’m thinking of ALIEN (1979), and the newer THE VVITCH (2016).
One caveat I want to make to the test is that I think it’s up for debate whether the two non-lamp/cat women have to survive past the end of the credits or just be the final two surviving (major) characters. In a slasher or zombie flick everyone dying is kind of the point. It’s potentially still decent female representation if two women are the last remaining characters. Even if just one (or none) of them ultimately survives, the implication is that multiple women are tough/clever enough to last. The most important relationship is between two women. That’s badass.
What are your favorite movies that pass the Carie-Burns test? Do you have a favorite representation test that’s missing from my roster?