Bechdel Test Canon: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel created a three-part criteria for movies in her seminal comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Adopted as the Bechdel Test, movies that meet its standard must feature 1) two female characters who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man.

Bechdel Test

Easier stated than spotted in execution, the test has considerable currency nonetheless. NPR's Neda Ulaby did a piece on it and Bitch blogger Rachel McCarthy James organized television shows around it.

As a feminist and pop culture enthusiast, I believe it the test be a useful tool for dismantling and refashioning canonical texts. Out of conversations with like-minded friends, I've helped generate lists of movies that pass the test. Taking cues from the A.V. Club's New Cult Canon, I will be writing on some selections as a feminist rejoinder in the next eight weeks. In addition to the three points outlined above, I will emphasize female directors and global and independent cinema. I also intend to strike a balance between critically lauded and less commercially successful or cult movies, as I think that distinctions between the art house and the multiplex are ludicrous.

We begin the series with a feature about two Romanian college-aged women who survive a February day in 1987 that's too stressful to dwell on boys. When you're living in the twilight of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu's reign, there are more pressing matters. Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, 2007's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days focuses on roommates who try to procure an abortion, an illegal procedure under the dictatorship.

4 Months went on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes but was ineligible for nominations from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This slight has deeper political import for me when I consider what garnered Oscars for that year. I cannot speak for Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters, an Austrian feature that won Best Foreign Film. However, it's hard for me to opine No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood's allegorical significance or debate Juno's true or intended political agenda when a movie so poignantly renders the narrow margin of reproductive choice for many was in its company. While it situates the governmental sanction against abortion in a particular national and historical context, I was able to imagine a future and recent past akin to this in my own country with little trouble. The only movie that rivaled the cultural relevance of 4 Months for me was the film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, which lost Best Animated Feature to a movie about a French rodent whose culinary skills make even the most jaded food critics weep with delight.

Otilia and Găbiţa

Docile and flaky Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu) is the expectant mother, whose stage of pregnancy provides the movie its title. Proactive and brave Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is the friend who accompanies her throughout this harrowing journey and serves as the film's protagonist. Though diametrically opposed in disposition, it is tough to say whether the state engineered one of them so ineffectual and the other headstrong and resourceful. Regardless, the grim realities of adult responsibilities under or outside of a Communist dictatorship can bring out the best and worst in people.

Otilia picks up the slack when Găbiţa fails to accomplish a crucial task or lies about the execution of something in plotting out her abortion. The procedure must be done off campus. This requires booking a hotel room, which becomes quite a task when grilled by an incredulous staff. A plastic sheet must be draped over the bed so that blood doesn't stain the sheets and serve as evidence. A menacing Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) was alerted to perform the abortion but received contradictory information from Găbiţa. Otilia ends up tying up her roommate's loose ends and paying the price for her carelessness when Bebe rapes both women as cruel punishment for putting him in a precarious situation. She also has to negotiate her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean), a petulant young man who wants to use his mother's birthday party to introduce his partner to family and friends who make sure Otilia is aware of her lowered class standing that a polytechnic degree won't help her transcend.

Watching Otilia navigate these situations is riveting. This can be attributed to Marinca's mesmerizing performance and Mungiu's canny employment of long shots and lack of reliance on a film score. The mediated austerity creates a meditative space for the protagonist to reflect on her current situation yet ramps up the terror when her environment caves in on her psyche. Witness when Otilia is surrounded by Adi's family and sits through a phone call that may be from Găbiţa, who is recovering in the hotel. The scene gives her just enough room to recognize that she must escape the situation without Adi. When the two friends share a dinner table at the end of the movie following Otilia's harrowing trip to dispose of the fetus, Marinca and Mungiu demonstrate for us why the pair can never speak of what happened that day, as well as why Otilia has no energy to eat.

Final Shot of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Mungiu's stationary camera also picks up on other minor but crucial details throughout the movie. It begins by establishing the goings-on in Găbiţa and Otilia's dormitory, where several young people are studying, hanging out, and trading black market and pirated goods, which was commonplace. It suggests that we could turn our attention to any of these students and follow an engrossing story. However, the masterful acting and storytelling displayed in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days justify this as the main narrative and secures its entrance into the Bechdel Test Canon.

Comments

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While I think the Bechdel

While I think the Bechdel test is a good idea, I have one issue: The criteria that the two (or more) women do not discuss "a man" is somewhat nebulous. If there are two or more women who are shown having more than one discussion, and one of those discussions involves a man while the others do not, does the movie fail? What about a discussion in which two (or more) women are discussing sex with men, but not necessarily a particular man? Does that count as failing the Bechdel test? This is not to say that I don't think the concept of a "test" like this is a good idea, and I like the fact that passing does not connote a feminist movie or even a good movie, and, ostensibly, vice versa, because I am aware that some movies I really enjoy would fail the test. I think it's a good lens through which one can consider a film.

The first film I thought of as passing this test was Legally Blonde.

well

I think the "about a man" condition is a way to knock out most romantic comedies which by standard formula always have a spunky best friend for the female protagonist to talk to. But so often the only thing these best of best friends have to say to each other is you need to talk to that guy, or avoid that guy, or just find a guy, any guy else you'll never have sex/die alone. While there is nothing wrong with talking about the men in your life in these cases it speaks more to the flaws in the script. If the point of the film is about finding a man, most of the conversations are going to be moving the plot in that direction; the problem is the sheer number of films for women that revolve around acquiring a male as if that's the only story in our lives.

I think it goes beyond

I think it goes beyond love-interest men, though. There are plenty of movies where two female characters talk about a male character who is not the object of romantic desire. The result, though, that women only talk about their relationships to men instead of, well, anything else, is problematic, as it suggests that women identify themselves in terms of the men they know. I'm just wondering when a conversation is considered to be "about a man." A specific man? Men in general? Sex involving men? Sexual harassment by men (see my above reference to Legally Blonde)? Another topic but with a mention to a male character who is relevent to that topic? I know that the Bechdel test is only a lens for examining movies and film habits, but it does stem from what is essentially the punchline of a comic. While it's certainly an intelligent observation of movie culture, and I certainly agree with the sentiment that female presence is severely lack in many films, I don't know if it can be used as an objective "test."

If you have to ask what

If you have to ask what exactly qualifies as a conversation about a man then I think you've answered your own question. How many movies can you think of that have two female characters having a lengthy discussion about something that isn't about a man including all the ways you've mentioned above or any other variations you can think of? It's a rare occurrence especailly in mainstream film.

Good point, Owl

Ah, Legally Blonde. I love that one. It and Center Stage are my go-to Sunday afternoon movies, and both pass the Bechdel Test.

Thanks for your comments, Owl. This is a good criticism about the Bechdel Test and, during the course of the series, I hope we encounter and discuss more foibles to what is hardly a fail-safe organizational system. In my opinion, female characters can talk about men (indeed, the main characters in 4 Months do talk about Mr. Bebe and Otilia's boyfriend Adi). They can also talk about sex, though I'd like to open these discussions up to queer women who may not have any interest in male sexual partners. It just can't be the focus or dominate the exchanges they have.

Tomorrow's entry will be on Spring Breakdown, which has a tenuous relationship with the Bechdel Test because of how one female character dwells upon men. Hopefully we can continue the discussion there. 

Alyx Vesey

Right

To me, the Bechdel test seems like a good thing to keep in the back of one's mind when watching a movie, but it's not something, as was clearly stated, that can be used alone to judge a movie. I also feel like the test itself can be a subjective one--one person might think that if two female characters have many conversations and one of those conversations is about a man/men, the movie fails, while someone else might not give a failing grade unless all the conversations are about men, while others might make their call based on context.

I'm not familiar with Spring Breakdown, so I look forward to the post!

That these criteria would

That these criteria would preclude movies like Run, Lola Run is a downside, but I like the setup anyway. It breaks away from male buddy movies, insipid romantic comedies, and many films that are premised on heterosexism. And great review of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Alyx! I have been meaning to see this.

An alarming mix of humor, politics, pop culture, and queeritude. Author of Bumbling into Body Hair: Tales of an Accident-Prone Transsexual.

Total downside

When I was putting together this list from three sets of others, I regretted having to keep Run Lola Run off of it. And again, I by no means think of the Bechdel Test as a fool-proof way of organizing media texts. As it's been adopted by feminists, queer folks, and/or people of color to address how the concerns of their identity groups are overlooked, I thought it would be a good framework with which to critique from within.

It's a good one, Ev! I'm not sure how many readers are Netflix users and certainly don't want this series to be unofficially sponsored by them. However, I am prioritizing features (like 4 Months) that are available on Netflix Instant. If a movie is especially hard to track down (ex: G.B. Jones' filmography, which I'll be discussing in the coming weeks), I'll make sure to address that in the body of the post and try to come up with channels through which to view it.

Alyx Vesey

One correction...

I love this test and think about it a lot when I'm watching TV and movies. Which is how I know, just off the top of my head, that one of the blockbuster movies early in the Feminist Frequency clip's "list" didn't deserve to be there: In the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Elizabeth Swann and Anamaria have a heat-of-battle debate about strategy. Granted, it's brief and the percentage of named female characters in the movie is appallingly low (and, to be honest, I had to look up Anamaria's name), but it does technically pass the test. Anamaria, sadly, evaporated before the second movie, which bummed me out because I would have loved to see her character developed.

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