The Bechdel Rule (AKA Ripley’s Rule)

Like every other media-and-pop-culture-obsessed feminist out there, I’m wondering why I hadn’t already heard of the “Bechdel Rule” (also known as Ripley’s Rule, the Bechdel/Wallace Rule, or any number of other variations the internet has yet to confuse us with). Kudos to my housemate and her friend for explaining it:

Back in the day, Alison Bechdel made a cartoon in which a character won’t see a movie unless it:

1) Has two women in it
2) They talk to each other
3) About something other than a man

Just recently, the NPR blog picked up on this phenomenally simple, phenomenally telling way of classifying movies and tv. Since some folks at NPR put the story on the radio, everyone’s been buzzing about Bechdel.

If you want a more personal account of how the Bechdel Rule plays into screenwriting, I suggest this post from a former UCLA film student.

I’m more interested in the way that the Bechdel Rule creates a measure of how woman-y a movie or TV show is across genres. It doesn’t specify whether the women are talking about destroying aliens (which is where the “Ripley” reference comes from) or about the perils of balancing children and a career. Of course, this is not a perfect measure – I think that there’s room in this world for all kinds of movies and all kinds of audiences – but I think the Bechdel rule helps me articulate why I feel warm or cool toward a certain piece of fiction (e.g. Buffy the Vampire Slayer v. Angel).

Katee Sackhoff and Mary McDonnell Image from KWC’s PhotostreamRemarkably, despite what NPR blogger Neda Ulaby says about science fiction being the “traditional fortress of geek-maledom,” modern science fiction shows pass the Bechdel test at a pretty decent rate. Even shows that sexualize their female characters (say, Battlestar or Star Trek: Voyager) actually give them lots of scenes to talk to each other about things other than men. Weird, isn’t it? Is that because directors are trying to make up for their smart women with some sexiness? Or is it because the ensemble casts now popular with science fiction shows leave enough room for female characters to have a wide range of scenes?

I have also been enjoying this easy-to-read list of Bechdel winners and losers. Are there any movies or tv shows that are surprises? I, for one, am shocked that not a single recent animated Disney movie makes the cut. Who knew?

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