Is there a disability equivalent of the Bechdel Test? Can we design one?
The Bechdel Test is a three-point criteria for assessing the portrayal of women in movies, television, or literature. A work “passes” the Bechdel Test if it:
1) Features at least two women, who
2) Talk to each other,
3) About something other than a man.
It’s such a simple test, but so powerful. When you first read it, you think, “What’s that supposed to do?” But then you remember movies, TV shows, and books with important female characters, you realize how few of them pass The Bechdel Test, and you think, “Holy shit. That would really change things up!"
Another reason why the original Bechdel Test is so influential is that it focuses on a fairly specific and easily accomplished change, but one that corrects or compensates for a great many diverse flaws in the portrayal of women in popular culture. A few good scenes of women talking about their work, life dreams, and friendships can make up for a lot of gratuitous nudity, stereotypical “cat fighting”, and abusive men in a story. After all, sexism is still part of the real world. But pining after and competing over men isn't the only way that women relate to each other and to the world.
Since disability prejudice and stereotypes are also common in real life, we don’t necessarily want to eliminate all traces of them in entertainment. Instead of simply listing what we don’t want to see in disability depictions, we should ask what can we add that helps balance out the bad with the good … the ham-fisted with the nuanced.
Before brainstorming my own ideas, I Googled “Bechdel Test disability” and found some great suggestions from other bloggers and commenters. Here are links to postings from two bloggers, with their suggested points:
Dave Hingsburger, Rolling Around In My Head - March 14, 2012
1) There (is) a major named character with a disability in the movie who exists and takes action under personal motivation without needing approval from others.
2) And who comments on disability as a real experience - not an ennobling one, not one of pity, or one as comic relief.
3) And who isn't smothered with a pillow or done away for their own good.
I like that last bit!
Actually, I like all of these points. However, I think we still need to narrow the focus a bit, onto something that writers can easily implement, without completely remaking the stories they want to tell, and something that makes a clear difference without itself seeming like too much of a deliberate tactic.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far for a Disability Bechdel Test, with some explanatory notes:
- Two or more disabled characters supporting or advising each other on disability-related matters. (Rather than a non-disabled character “confronting” a disabled character’s depression, resignation, or self pity).
- One or more disabled characters who are involved in stories, events, and conversations not related to their own disabilities.
- Disabled characters portrayed as having both good and bad qualities. (Rather than one-dimensionally angelic, bitter, or terrifying).
- One or more disabled characters who have role in the story more complex than "the disabled character”.
- Wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment resemble what people actually use in real life. (Rather than generic hospital equipment, unless poor equipment is part of the story).
- We get to experience at least part of the story from the disabled character’s point of view. Rather than the disabled character only seen in how they affect other characters. (Rather than the disabled character seen only from other character’s point of view).
Yeah, still too many different ideas and nit-picks.
Next Friday I’ll revisit this list, maybe add to it, and take a look at which familiar movies and TV shows with disabled characters would pass or fail a Disability Bechdel Test.