Is it time for a Native Bechdel Test?

In Uncategorized by Adrienne K.25 Comments

Native movies google

Three weeks ago*, the MacArthur foundation announced this year’s crop of “genius grant” award winners, which honored the incredible Native feminist and activist Sarah Deer, as well as 20 other amazing (and amazingly diverse) folks. Among that group was Alison Bechdel, a comic artist and author, but more commonly known for her creation of what we now call the “Bechdel Test.”

The Bechdel test is a simple test to evaluate films (and other media) for portrayals of women. To pass the test, a film must have:

1) Two female characters (some variations of the test say that they must have names, which is fair I think)

2) Who talk to each other

3) About something other than a man

It’s truly horrifying/amazing when you start to apply this baseline to many, many critically acclaimed and beloved films to see they fail. I, personally have found it to be a really useful tool for starting discussions with friends and colleagues about films, it’s an ‘objective’ measure that points out gender bias, no “feelings” involved.

Here’s the original comic strip which details the test (Bechdel actually gives credit to her friend Liz Wallace for the idea):

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

 

Two notes: 1) Many crappy films that are horrible on some other dimension will pass the test. The test is not meant to be a measure of quality, just a bare minimum starting point. And seriously, that’s a pretty low bar. 2) To paraphrase the badass Anna Sarkesian of Feminist Frequency, it is completely possible to enjoy a piece of media even if you find parts of it problematic and worthy of deeper discussion and analysis. I’m not telling you all your favorite movies are the worst and you should just never watch anything ever again. ever.

So, back when they announced Bechdel’s award, I threw out the idea, and we had a nice discussion on twitter about it (you can click on my tweet to see some of the replies):

After some back and forth with folks, we added the name requirement:

and then I started throwing out films to see if they would pass. I haven’t seen most of these movies in forever, so we (twitter friends and I, I’m not talking in the royal “we” all of a sudden) could be wrong on a few. With all of these that are on the fence, it still says something that we have to rack our brains and pull out tiny 30 second to 1 minute scenes to make it pass.

Dances with Wolves: Fails. We think. Pretty sad, when you think about it.

Pocahontas: Passes (see what I mean about not determining quality of representation).

Twilight New Moon: Passes. But *barely*–mainly just because of this scene, and I don’t know if we count scenes when they are in wolf form?

Last of the Mohicans: Unclear. I’ve only seen the movie once, four years ago. I thought there was conversation before the last epic fight scene, but I just rewatched it and there isn’t. I’m sure one of you has a better knowledge of the film and can let me know.

Lone Ranger: Fails. No surprise there.

Smoke Signals: Passes. Most Native made films pass (one would hope, but you never know).

We can keep going and include TV shows:

Law and Order, SVU: Fails. Adam Beach never gets to talk to another Native. Sigh.

Big Love: Might barely pass, according to @BlackGirlDanger

So this is just a tiny handful of examples to get you thinking. A lot of these were heralded as films about Native Americans, or at least featuring Natives heavily, and yet they don’t (or just barely) have two Native characters with names that talk to each other about something other than white people. The original Bechdel Test was designed to point out gender bias in film, and the point of this Native Bechdel Test (we can come up with a snazzier name if you can think of one) is to point out how whiteness and white narratives of history are so normalized and centered in our society–and therefore our media portrayals.

There were several folks on twitter who suggested adding a caveat that the characters are not stereotypical tropes, or aren’t romantically involved with one another, but I think the beauty of the original test is its simplicity, understanding that this would be the beginning of a conversation, not the end.

Finally, @bafroe threw out the idea of doing a second layer of analysis with the original test:

Which adds a very interesting dimension. Does Smoke Signals pass the gender test? I don’t think Pocahontas does. Just another level to think about the ways that patriarchy plays out in Native communities and Native films as well.

So, to reiterate:

Native Bechdel Test: 

1) Two (named) Native Characters

2) Who talk to each other

3) about something other than white people

 

What do you think? Is this a useful tool of analysis? What other films pass/don’t pass?

 

*I literally wrote and almost finished this post three weeks ago and never posted. Better late than never, right? Sorry!

 

 

 

 

  • Heather York

    Here are a few examples from north of the border that I *think* would pass the test: 2 recent films, Maïna and Mesnak, both largely First Nations casts/characters, filmed on or near Innu communities in Québec. (I haven’t seen Maïna yet, just judging by clips and media info – but I think it’s set pre-contact.) TV series: Blackstone, Arctic Air, Cashing In. Also some Inuit films: Journals of Knud Rasmussen; Atanarjuat, the fast runner.

    • SaveFearow

      Does anybody have a copy of 30 Days of Night (2007) to check the cast list? I know the comic book version passed easily, Eben Oleson the lead male was Inuit as were several other characters since it was set in Barrow, but Eben was white in the film.

      I recall one Native worker being in the movie, his family died in the vampire invasion, can’t remember if he talked to them first or just stumbled across their dead bodies. Sorry, been years since I saw it.

  • LS

    I would probably also toss in that they can’t be talking about “the spirits” because that shit is way more harmful than “talking about white people,” right? To portray natives as, like, obsessed w/spirituality?

  • http://michellewilsonprojects.com Michelle W

    I think “Even the Rain (Tambien La Lluvia)” might pass, if you consider indigenous Bolivians (http://www.eventherainmovie.com/) – South American/Spanish language film, very worth a watch.

  • Brad Weiss

    How do you know what a movie will have in it before you watch it?

    • Heather York

      Good question, Brad 😉 Reviews, media articles, video clips etc. can give a good idea of whether the movie has a chance of meeting these criteria. For instance I haven’t seen the full film Maïna yet (not for lack of trying), but I’ve seen several short video clips and to the best of my recollection it does meet this test. Here’s one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_9xPfCjJhQ – that’s Innu-aimun they’re speaking.

      • Brad Weiss

        I’m guessing from the emoticon that seemed like sarcasm (ironic snark?). I actually was being sincere. A categorization that tests superficial knowledge seems only marginally useful to me.To each her own, though–that very well could just be my own peeve or something. If it is useful to people and promotes better representation of NDN issues, I suppose that’s a good thing.

        • Heather York

          No no no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be sarcastic or snarky! You asked a really good question! I gave my attempt at an answer.

          Because I’m not good at temporal physics, I can’t see a movie before I see the movie, so I have to use whatever clues I can gather, and now that we have YouTube that’s a bit easier for me.

    • Jenny Islander

      Well…if you’re talking about something you totally don’t want to see because it throws you out of the story, you might have to risk spoilers. :/ I have PTSD. There are things that other people watch for entertainment that I totally cannot watch. They are very specific; a capsule summary won’t mention them, and casual viewers may not notice them. So I have to go to those extremely detailed review sites intended for parents or for Christians afflicted with scrupulosity. It means that the big twists aren’t always a surprise for me, so I tend to watch only movies and TV shows praised for their craftsmanship. Same goes for books.

      ISTM that a Native Bechdel Test might require something similar.

      • Brad Weiss

        That makes complete sense. I wish you the best in your recovery.

  • Hold on

    Northern Exposure would be the most high profile pass, I guess.

  • http://www.terpvairin.com/ Depressive Pixie Dream Girl

    Smoke Signals has those two ladies in the car that talk about…beverages? It’s been too long, I can’t remember if they have names.

    ETA: Velma and Lucy, yep, they have names! http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0023685/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cl_t14

    • http://marmota-b.blogspot.com Hana – Marmota

      Plus Arlene and grandma Builds-the-Fire (thanks, IMDb, I’m terrible at remembering names) in the beginning. Who would fail the original Bechdel trest because they talk about the male children, but they would pass this one? I guess.

      • http://www.terpvairin.com/ Depressive Pixie Dream Girl

        Yeah, I was trying to remember if they talked about anything but the menfolk, but I couldn’t remember. This warrants a re-watch for sure.

  • john Christou

    RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS would pass both this test and the bechdel test.

  • Joseph Gagné

    Wasn’t there North of 60 (tv show) as well?
    By the way, I LOVE this idea. I have another idea rattling around in my head for a historical article regarding the representation of colonial New France in movies (hint: it’s not that good…) . I was thinking of reserving an important section to comment on native representations in these movies as well (if the French colonists are already badly portrayed in these movies, I’ll let you guess how crappily the Natives are… ). I’m noting down this blog post so I can quote it when the time comes.

  • Mica

    I don’t think Pocahontas passes the gender test. Didn’t her conversations with her friend keep referring to her dad, Kocoum, and Smith, IIRC?

    I’ve learned a lot thanks to you and the other commenters here. I think the most important thing I’ve learned thus far is to exercise caution and respect (coupled with lots and lots of research!) before trying to show appreciation (and not appropriation) for Native cultures.

    Speaking of stereotypes, I bring to your attention this ‘performance’ as proof of how far pervasive stereotypes in US media/pop culture can influence another country’s perception of Natives: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9I1Qs1ZQHU

    Guess no one told the winning squad (or they didn’t care if they knew) about headdresses (to say the least). :/ Only a few posters in online forums mentioned the words ‘cultural appropriation’. Most of the other posts argued (oftentimes cattily) the strengths, weaknesses, execution of the different teams; the judging (fair or unfair, depending on what school the poster was from); and the 2nd placer’s LGBTQ-themed routine.

  • Mica

    I don’t think Pocahontas passes the gender test. Didn’t her
    conversations with her friend keep referring to her dad, Kocoum, and
    Smith, IIRC?

    I’ve learned a lot thanks to you and the other
    commenters here. I think the most important thing I’ve learned thus far
    is to exercise caution and respect (coupled with lots and lots of
    research!) before trying to show appreciation (and not appropriation)
    for Native cultures.

    Speaking of stereotypes, I bring to your
    attention this ‘performance’ as proof of how far pervasive stereotypes
    in US media/pop culture can influence another country’s perception of
    Natives: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9I1Qs1ZQHU

    Guess no one
    told the winning squad (or they didn’t care if they knew) about
    headdresses (to say the least). :/ Only a few posters in online forums
    mentioned the words ‘cultural appropriation’. Most of the other posts
    argued (oftentimes cattily) the strengths, weaknesses, execution of the
    different teams; the judging (fair or unfair, depending on what school
    the poster was from); and the 2nd placer’s LGBTQ-themed routine.

  • Ellen Fleischer

    I believe that “Where the Spirit Lives” would pass.

  • SaveFearow

    Disney’s Pocahontas would pass because Pocahontas has several conversations with her girl friend Nakoma (and not always about Kokoum, Powhatan, or the white people.) They talk about corn harvesting and whether it’s safe for Pocahontas to climb so high and dive from a waterfall ledge.

    They’re not great conversations but at least they happen. Nakoma’s even another teenage Native girl, not an ancestor or spirit, not sure what you would classify Grandmother Willow as.

    About the Native Bechdel test- can I add the requirement that the Native characters are played by Natives, even in the case of animated films where (sadly) plenty of white VAs are cast as POC. I know Pocahontas’ speaking voice (Irene Bedard) was a Native woman, but her singing voice (Judy Kuhn) was not.

    Nakoma’s VA was uncredited in the film, but I did some sleuthing and confirmed it was Michelle St. John (Cree, mixed race. Same woman from Smoke Signals and Dancing With Wolves.) So Nakoma and Pocahontas talking is actually a case of 2 Native actresses having a conversation in film!

  • Zigmond Shulthise

    I guess literature is where things are a bit better for Native-Americans and women;
    I recently read a couple of authors (Julie Black and Zoe Saadia) that pass the Bechdel test in both gender and native categories.
    But here’s the catch – they write about pre-columbian times. Can a pre-columbian novel/movie pass the Bechdel native test ? there are no white people to talk about…

  • Timon

    A Native Bechdel Test of sorts (or a Bechdel 2.0 altogether) might be applied to questions concerning folks behind the camera, since most films are written, directed, and produced by straight white guys who usually have trouble conceiving ideas informed by anything beyond their experiences or desires.

    I’d propose the following question:

    Out of the three positions of Director, Producer, and Writer, how many are actually held by Natives?

    If the answer is two out of three (in any combination), OR if one Native artist holds more than one of these positions, the film (or any other narrative media) passes.

    By this measure, all past (and future) straight-white-guy-fantasies (Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Pocahontas, The Lone Ranger etc.) fail miserably, while milestones of not only Native, but independent cinema, such as Smoke Signals and The Fast Runner, pass with flying colors.

    The processes and practices of making art and producing media today (and their ethical implications) has become as important as its outcome, which is part of the reason the 1491’s are so deservedly successful, and why Drunktown’s Finest is such a crucially important film.

    The Bechdel Test (although almost 30 years old) has not lost any of its radical potency, and there is great value and importance in always pointing out the misrepresentation of Native life, no matter who is responsible for it (which is this blog’s main focus, as I understand it). However, the media landscape has changed over the past three decades to such an extent that applying similar questions to a
    different area in the process of producing media seems equally sensible.

    • Tirotiro

      Timon,this is a brilliant point! There is a lot of hype in Aotearoa-New Zealand about the soon to be released film ‘The Dead Lands’ which is an action film set in “pre-contact” times and is entirely in Maori with English subtitles. Feature-length films in our native Maori language are few and far between but it’s a concern this film was written by a Pakeha (non Maori New Zealander) who does not speak Maori, and the script was simply translated afterwards. Furthermore, the director is also not Maori. Granted it is produced by a Maori but it still doesn’t pass your suggested test. People here in Aotearoa are so caught up with the hype and excitement of the film as ‘the first film showing mau rakau (Maori “martial arts”)’ there is very little questioning of who actually wrote it and who drove the creative representations of our people in this film. Although there is a Maori producer and Maori actors, I have heard many comments in the community about how some of the costumes and hairstyles look foreign. The film will be released next week, so I can’t comment on the story yet! But I have seen the posters, trailers and youtube clips of it’s showing at the Toronto Film Festival and have read a couple of reviews that compare it to Apocalypto. It seems heavily influenced by a Pakeha/non-Maori fantasy of creating the “first Maori ‘martial arts’ film”. I will watch it to make a more informed opinion, but already it fails your suggested test!

      • Timon

        I admit, the test is harsh. As you mentioned, you haven’t even watched The Dead Lands, yet you can clearly decide that it fails the test. The test also leads to an entirely different discussion than the one Dr. K is proposing — one about who is in charge of a given community’s representation. And to stress it again: neither test can determine the quality of the film/media. However, the tests aren’t mutually exclusive — you can still apply Dr. K’s “Native Bechdel”, regardless if the film/media failed the “Bechdel 2.0”.

  • Amy Ariel

    I know this isn’t a post about Thanksgiving. But I hate Thanksgiving and this year I’ll be alone all weekend while my wife is with her family and therefore can skip most of the things I so strongly dislike. Meanwhile, inspired by this post, I’m in search of creating for myself an anti-appropriation film festival. I’ve made a note of the movies suggested so far, and would love a longer list. I’m open to anything, any language, any era, any genre. I’ll make sure to share my list with others. Help me out? (I’ll also do some research and post back again.)