No Test Will Ever Be Able to Measure Sexism in Movies & Here's Why
Good news for people who bemoan the use of the 30-year-old Bechdel test: there's a new movie test in town. Started by The Representation Project (the organization behind the documentary Miss Representation), it's called the Rep Test, and it gives movies a "report card" of sorts based on the diversity of their characters. With questions like "Does the film represent women as more than 'objects of the male gaze?'", it's much more intensive than the Bechdel test, and one of the questions even asks if the movie passes the Bechdel test itself.
The test has a lot of potential to spark more national discussion about diverse character portrayals in the movies. The Rep Test was launched with an open letter in the L.A. Times and will even be used as a media literacy tool in schools. But as The Daily Dot notes, the test isn't flawless — by the Rep Test standards, Star Trek: Into Darkness receives a higher score than The Avengers, even though the former film has gratuitous semi-nude scenes and the latter is helmed by Friend to Womankind Joss Whedon.
Which brings up the point that people often miss when discussing the Bechdel Test: these tests shouldn't be completely relied upon as some sort of sexism detectors. Expecting a test to be able to gauge if a movie has rich representation of diverse characters is sort of like expecting the SAT to assess your character. No matter the kinds of questions asked, diversity-friendly movies may fail this test and movies with harmful stereotypes may pass, because it's hard for a few questions to determine whether a woman in a movie is expressing her own sexuality or being treated as a sex object, or whether a female character's narrative is being driven by her relationships with men. Hell, it's hard for many humans to do that.
But that's also why these tests can work as great tools. They spark a discussion about diversity and stereotypes in the movies. Many people complain that the Bechdel test is too simple, allowing many sexist movies to pass the test. But the point of the test was never to determine if a movie was sexist or not — it was to call attention to the fact that there are so few women in movies, and when they are in movies, they rarely exist outside to context of their relationships with men.
The Rep Test will likely receive the same sort of criticism, but it shouldn't. It's not an ultimate test that gauges how progressive a movie is — it's a tool that calls attention to how so few fully realized characters of color, who are disabled, who are LGBTQ, or who identify as women are showing up on the big screen. Because whether or not a movie is an appropriate representation of a group of people shouldn't be determined by a score on a test — it should be determined by the people who are being represented.