- Media DialoguesA Scholarly Roundtable
In lieu of a one-time and in-person roundtable conversation, the following discussion took place between October 10 and December 15, 2017. We asked scholars from a variety of media studies traditions to contribute to a text document that was being updated on Google Drive. The shared document afforded each scholar the opportunity to contribute to the conversation at his or her own convenience, thereby enabling the discussion to develop organically during the ten-week period. The online format was thus our own attempt to experiment with the concept of media dialogues.
Our eight panelists were MIRANDA BANKS (Emerson College), CYNTHIA BARON (Bowling Green State University), JAMES BUHLER (University of Texas at Austin), NINA CARTIER (Northwestern University), LIZ GREENE (Liverpool John Moores University), LORI LOPEZ (University of Wisconsin–Madison), MIGUEL MERA (City, University of London), and JACOB SMITH (Northwestern University).
We encouraged each panelist to share links to websites and videos, and we have added images from these links in order to preserve the interactive experience of the original conversation.
Thank you all for agreeing to participate! We wish to begin this roundtable with a look at the way popular media attends to the shortcomings of on-screen dialogue. In recent years, critics have used the "Bechdel test"—inspired by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel—as a measurement for how well (or how poorly) Hollywood films portray female characters.1 If a film depicts two women talking to each other about something other than men, it passes the Bechdel test. If a film does not include such a conversation, then it fails. The idea is to alert audiences to the unequal treatment of male and female characters, particularly with respect to the depth and development of their characters.
Do you see value in discussing and analyzing film dialogue in this manner? Do you specifically see the Bechdel test as a productive means of talking about gender inequality on-screen? If no, are there other ways of analyzing and measuring dialogue that are more useful? If yes, can the Bechdel test extend beyond gender to other problems with on-screen representation? Are there ways that you address these issues in your classroom?
It is worth remembering that the Bechdel test was never designed as an actual "test" but rather grew out of Alison Bechdel's brilliant Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip.2 It has certainly revealed some striking and astonishing inequalities, and in that sense it is very [End Page 43] useful. It can trigger important discussions. For example, there are some retrograde films that pass the test (e.g., Twilight) and other more progressive examples that do not (e.g., Gravity), and the Internet is full of conversations about cases like these. If it starts a dialogue, then I think that is a good thing.
In many films, at least those that for me are richer or closer to real human experience, the gap between what people say and what they really mean is the most fascinating aspect. So the Bechdel test does not capture conversations about men that are also feminist, nor does it capture conversations about men that are not really conversations about men. Furthermore, in order to pass the test only minor shifts to narrative events are necessary rather than deeper structural changes, so this suggests that content is more important than form. The Bechdel test does not really tell us anything about the flow and musicality of dialogue, or about voice-over, or about other modes of enunciation. Of course, it never set out to explore these, but if we are to develop it in a way that is productive in examining the problems and challenges of gender inequality, then I think we also need to look at some more subtle aspects. Britta Sjogren's Into the Vortex is very interesting in this respect because it highlights the paradox of the use of the female voice in cinema as a differentiating device.3 I wonder how it would be possible to bring Sjogren and Bechdel...