Science Fiction Often Wins the Bechdel Test By Breaking it — Which is Part of its Job
Contains Blade Runner spoilers, obviously.
If some culture writer posted an entire essay with a title like “The Politics of The Handmaid’s Tale Aren’t That Futuristic” the response would be well, no shit. Yet, being presented an equally dark future in Blade Runner for some reason has apparently given critics a pass to completely ignore the principle content and context of the piece. And so we are presented with bafflingly simplistic criticism entitled “Blade Runner 2049 Has a Woman Problem” and, indeed “Blade Runner 2049’s Politics Aren’t That Futuristic”
In other words, some critics appear to need a work of fiction to be officially sanctioned as “hey, this is bad, by the way” by its writers in order to be given permission to understand that the dystopia is, in fact, on purpose.
“First and foremost, Blade Runner 2049 flunks the Bechdel Test.” one says. Well, it’s supposed to. But just as a Replicant can pass the Voight-Kampff, Blade Runner can fail the Bechdel test spectacularly and still be feminist by virtue of the quality and context of that very flunkage.
Feminism is a concept of an attainable social and political ideal, not a stamp of approval to be awarded only to everything that has already achieved it. Star Trek Discovery is an example of something that has done this wonderfully. But it’s a humanist story set in a decidedly preferable and markedly improved social future. Conversely, plenty of media exists on the periphery of pure feminism because it is meant to provoke its conversation and indeed, inspire its impetus for existence — not win its approval.
The Bechdel Test — which “asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man” is simple, which is why it works so well, but also why it can only tell us so much. It is a useful tool that was designed to point out the obvious trends of the portrayal of women in overwhelming numbers of media. Most literature has been historically published by men due to power structures that made sure of it. Most advertisements today are helmed by men. Women’s historical achievements have been erased or downplayed due to their not being welcome in the majority of academic history. Representation matters precisely because we have been bathing for centuries in the soup of male perceptions of women, male fantasies about women, male mythologies about women’s inner lives, and so on. We are inundated daily by messages about what feminine life is like, that are not based on what female life is like. Menstrual blood is red and opaque, not blue clear, et al.
But applying the Bechdel test on stories that ponder the nature of patriarchy itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And we should not need the writers or producers of Blade Runner 2049 to point out that, for instance, the “purchasable housewife” is not exactly a statement of ideal romantic life. The story pretty much covers that for us. They no more need to outright tell us that, than they need to tell us that living in a world without vegetation and grilled cheese is bad. They don’t mention that having the entire city of San Diego serving as a dump for Los Angeles is bad, because they don’t have to.
It is the job of science fiction to mirror our world — often by providing a better alternative, but just as often by providing a terrible future — the logical culmination of humanity’s continued abuses, continued prejudices, and continued ecological exploitation. Some downright believe there is such a thing as “human nature” such as prejudice toward The Other, that will persist until humanity is replaced. This is a dangerous, often self fulfilling philosophy that lends itself to mistaking transient cultural artifact for fixed biological truth. Others are more optimistic, but it is very rarely science fiction’s job to be morally instructive unless it happens to be set aboard a humanist starship. It’s not even the job of science fiction to reflect upon. Nope, simply to reflect: a funhouse mirror with a few warped details — better still if you can move it around and look at it from multiple angles. The hokey voiceover of the original Blade Runner was added in post in response to confused focus group test audiences, and it shows. The last thing we need is K’s inner monologue of moral exposition for a focus group version of ethics or feminism.
So when, for instance, Robin Wright’s character Lt. Joshi comes onto her male inferior K — flipping the usual sexual harassment gender script — it is beyond simplistic to say that this is yet another example of its flunking the Bechdel test. Replicants in the Blade Runner world are metaphors for our unfortunate past and present history of believing in inferior, disposable races. Gosling’s character K —ostensibly a replicant — is both Joshi’s inferior by professional rank and by social order. I’m not sure how anyone could have missed the point of that scene, which is both a tense reminder of her authority, crossing inappropriate boundaries and teasing at the danger in Gosling’s life and livelihood, and a reminder meant to toy with the audience’s assumptions that some conflicted respect for him is in fact there. These new replicants obey, to a fault. They were designed that way. We are meant to question why she didn’t order him to do what she wanted — why she desired his consent even as she dehumanized him. And the answer is she, like almost every other character in Blade Runner 2049, isn’t a monster, isn’t simple, isn’t binary — and therefore seems quite real.
After all, simple tests are mere guidelines. Helpful, but not meant to be taken to the letter. Taking a test to the letter without questioning it now and then is, in fact, one of the many themes of Blade Runner. If the Bechdel is a simple test, the better test underneath for when more nuance is required is whether each female character is interesting, is real, and has her own inner life. After all, characters in all of fiction are replicants themselves. What the Bechdel is truly testing for, then, is not merely the answer of its structural question, but what that answer seeks to reveal underneath — a shortcut way of detecting whether the woman in question seems truly real. The film passes that underlying philosophy, it just fails its shortcut.
Is Lt Joshi real, complex, interesting, does she seem to have her own rich inner life? Yes. How about Luv? Wallace’s righthand “angel” and obedient yet conflicted personal assistant henchwoman with a penchant for mimicking her god’s creepy deathkisses? Yep. Even the nameless newborn Wallace brings to life only to meaninglessly slaughter, whose scene (and life) lasts less than five minutes, is meant to express the horror and vulnerability of bodily autonomy itself in the face of indifferent power. She wriggles and squirms as a newborn, covered in fluids and manages to wordlessly inspire pity and fear for her protection as she struggles with the implied confusion of birth, only to be mercilessly left to bleed to death by the self-appointed god who created her and destroyed her as if within the same single yawn.
But what about Joi? Surely, the electric girlfriend qualifies by definition? Nope. Because Joi is another expression of the central question of the film. Joi is a poetic personification of AI, of the Turing Test, of the Voight-Kampff, indeed of the Bechdel Test itself. In a film about who is real — or less surface whether what is real is truly real — whether the replicant “is a real boy or not” is treated with just as much gravitas as whether his fake girlfriend has genuine feelings of her own, agency, and a desire to continue living — whether Joi has joy, if you will. She even dislikes Pale Fire, a book suitably complex and containing multiple thematic connections to Blade Runner 2049 — an intricately layered poem within a story about what is real and who has the power to determine the narrative that defines it. In addition to a couple lines among the 999-line poem central to Pale Fire, being quoted in K’s baseline test, the title of Nabokov’s book itself is from Shakespeare’s “The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun”… that Joi, not Joy, doesn’t like. The first lines of that poem are:
“I was the shadow of the waxwing
Slain by the false azure of the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff
and I lived on, flew on in the reflected sky”
A bird experiencing death because of the lie of the reflected sky in a window, a life lived on in that reflected sky — that Joi, not Joy, doesn’t like. “I’ve been inside you” the replicant pleasure model says to Joi, “there’s not much there” — that’s usually your first clue there is.
Speaking of Nabokov, the issue isn’t limited to science fiction. Any time you have a female character who fails the Bechdel test by the letter of its law but passes in the spirit of that law, you have a Real Girl. Lolita, due entirely to Nabokov’s skill and sensitivity, despite deliberately telling her entire life through the voice of her predator — still manages to feel more like someone who once was very much alive and who had her own thoughts and feelings, than many “feminist” characters who pass the test, but feel paper thin. Supergirl for instance passes the Bechdel letter of the law, but not its spirit (admittedly I am basing this judgement on the first three episodes which I suffered through before declaring it unwatchable by adults but great for little girls) Lolita, meanwhile ought to be read by every feminist who can withstand the potential triggers enough to get through it. So said Nabokov’s wife, Vera: “I wish someone would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence upon the monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage”.
The Bechdel Test is a great tool. But it is the beginning, not the end, of asking for better female characters.
For more of my thoughts on Blade Runner 2049, check out this podcast episode of Wired’s Geek’s Guide to The Galaxy, for which I was one of the guest panelists.