Dunkirk and the Bechdel Test


A portion of a positive review of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk has resulted in some controversy.

The trio of timelines can be jarring as you figure out how they all fit, and the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way.

The obvious counterpoint was that Dunkirk‘s setting doesn’t really allow for diversity. However, there are some people who do care deeply about whether a movie is diverse, so this can be information that is useful to them when making a decision about whether to go to the movies, and providing that information is one of the responsibilities of the critic. Anyone upset by the lack of inclusiveness in Dunkirk is wrong and stupid, and should be told so, but conservatives do often argue that newspaper writers and publishers focus too much on their own obsessions, rather than the interests of the readers, so blasting a critic for giving information that may help them make a decision on how to spend their time and money is wrongheaded.

The critic’s concerns do highlight one of the shortcomings of the Bechdel test, and various measures of inclusivity.

This comes at a time when New York Post/ National Review film writer Kyle Smith has gotten pushback for his statements on the Bechdel test.

If women don’t like movies the way they are, they could correct it on either the supply or the demand side using their market power. They could refuse to buy tickets to films that don’t pass the Bechdel Test. They don’t, because that would be stupid. More women could also write more movie scripts that pass the test and sell them. I was mocked for saying that if a woman thinks the test is important in blockbusters, she should write a fantasy series like Lord of the Rings that passes the test — a Bechdel Blockbuster. Aha! They wrote. You forgot about J. K. Rowling! You know how you can tell I didn’t forget about her? I mentioned her in my piece.

Yet Rowling, like the audience, evidently doesn’t care about the Bechdel Test, either. If she did, she could have insisted that all the Harry Potter films pass it. (Not all of them do.) I thought it obviously implied that whatever hypothetical writer wrote a hypothetical Bechdel Blockbuster series would have to make sure the resulting movies adhered to the test. Few or no women filmmakers would insist on that, because it’s hard enough to get a movie made without attaching feminist baggage to it. The Bechdel Test is so irrelevant that you can be one of the leading female filmmakers for two decades, making movies about women the whole time, as Sofia Coppola has done, and never even have heard of the test, as she hadn’t until a few weeks ago.

The Bechdel test—from the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For”—measures whether a movie meets the bare minimum for inclusiveness by featuring two female characters who talk to one another about something other than a man.


It is worth remembering that the views of a character do not necessarily reflect those of the author, although Bechdel does not make the distinction in discussions of the test.

There’s a difference between saying that more films should reach this standard, and arguing that every film has to pull it off. Progressives often fall in the latter category, not realizing that some movies just aren’t going to feature interactions between female characters. Some films are going to be set in settings that are disproportionately male, such as prison, the front lines of a military conflict, or the rooms of a Wall Street firm. In some cases, that may be the result of sexism in the settings the film depicts, but that is still going to make it less realistic to have two named women talk about other topics.

Guides on writing for film emphasize the need for screenwriters to be economic, so that every character serves a purpose, and that scenes always move the story forward. A film with a male protagonist is going to be less likely to pass the Bechdel test, because so many of the interactions are going to be between the lead and the supporting characters. If there’s also a male antagonist, as would often be the case with professional or athletic rivals, or with individuals who have amassed power in the public sphere (it can certainly be argued that they’re more likely to be male due to sexism, but that requires acknowledging that they’re more likely to be male) the film is even less likely to pass the Bechdel test, because that leaves less space in the film for interactions between women, especially if it’s not discussions about the protagonist or the antagonist.

The Bechdel test prizes certain kinds of films, especially those with larger casts and multiple intertwined storylines. Technically, Dunkirk has that, although the focus on European and Canadian soldiers in World War 2 Britain means there are going to be a lot of white guys.


About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
This entry was posted in Comics Industry, Criticism, Film, Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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