Orange is the New Black and the Bechdel Test

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.24.41 PM

I remember the first time I saw this video about the Bechdel Test in one of my undergraduate courses. Since I was a child I scorned the skirt-wearing female characters in need of rescue in favor of the ones who were capable of defending themselves. For a long time, my criteria for movie heroines was their ability to wield a sword or a machine gun.

The Bechdel Test was one of the things that revolutionized the way I viewed female characters in general.  I began to realize that simply creating a character who could fight as well as a man wasn’t enough.  We need all of our characters to have real emotions and real relationships, and the female characters tend to be those most lacking in this department.

The best thing about the Bechdel Test is that it only has three rules:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

The simplicity (and humor) of this observation, made in the above comic entitled “The Rule” by Alison Bechdel, makes it easy to carry out while watching a movie. The horrifying thing is that most movies don’t pass it. This test gets at three major problems in movies: the lack of female characters, the lack of female characters interacting, and the fact that most female characters serve solely as romantic interests or even prizes.

The Bechdel test has been on my mind a lot lately after watching Orange is the New Black, a recently released Netflix original series created by Jenji Kohan. Orange is the New Black has a number of problems, specifically in addressing issues of race, class, and privilege.  These are excellently critiqued in Yasmin Nair’s article “White Chicks Behind Bars”. Despite these glaring problems, I found myself unable to stop watching.  Plus, the show has met with massive acclaim, especially from female viewers.

In my mind this is a testament to the hunger which women have for media which not only cast  primarily females, but one which actually address female relationships in a way which displays the human complications of interacting with other human beings.  Unlike most media, it does not show women as unable to get along, or as having purely superficial relationships, desires, and needs.

Orange is the New Black provides the viewer with nonheteronormative relationships, and is perhaps most acclaimed for its sensitive portrayal of a black transexual woman.  The show also depicts the pervasiveness and gravity of sexual harassment and even dares to display lesbian sex scenes that aren’t on screen simply in order to show off two sets of breast implants at once.

Because Nair’s article perfectly addresses the show’s downfalls, I don’t feel the need to critique them myself, but merely to point to it as a gleaming example of what we’re missing in most media.  This, plus the soon to be released crowdfunded movie following cult TV show Veronica Mars gives me hope for the future of television in which shows can push the envelope through the support of funding which doesn’t rely on ratings.  I can only hope that in the next few years, even more TV shows will take the sensitivity shown by Orange is the New Black with regards to gender and sexuality, and apply them as well to race and class.

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