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The feminist Bechdel Test makes films better

071317 Wolfe Blog Post
The premise of the test was never to censor movies or ruin art, but rather to call attention to the way women are portrayed in mainstream media. (Photo by Steve Cohn/Invision for Open Road Films/AP Images)

This week, National Review ran an article by Kyle Smith called "If You Like Art, Don't Take the Bechdel Test." The Bechdel test, although nothing new, was the subject of the article's scrutiny. Apparently, a simple litmus test designed to help critics explore the role of women in Hollywood is the latest example of political correctness overreach.

But Smith's analysis is far from the truth. The Bechdel Test is no example of political correctness infiltrating society and art — it's simply a guide used by film buffs and critics to measure the role of women in a movie, based on whether two named female characters have a conversation with each other about something other than a man at any point.

Created by Alison Bechdel in her 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test isn't intended to justify censoring or banning movies that fail the test. Rather, Bechdel admits that the idea likely originated from Virginia Woolf's musings in A Room of One's Own:

And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in Diana of the Crossways. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men…

The premise of the test was never to censor movies or ruin art, but rather to call attention to the way women are portrayed in mainstream media. It shouldn't be a controversial idea that female characters should be as multidimensional and common as their male counterparts.

It's cheap and easy to have female characters that only care about what men think, who remain unmemorable, set in a film only to advance a male character's arc. It's harder to have complex characters like Mia Wallace from "Pulp Fiction" (though she hardly interacts with other women while conscious), The Bride ("Kill Bill"), Nina Sayers ("Black Swan"), or Annie Hall ("Annie Hall").

Even grassroots campaigns such as "Pass the Bechdel Test" approach the issue with reason. The website reads: "Films are watched by millions of people around the world, and influence our understanding of men's and women's place in society," and explains that various parts of our readily-consumable media still "affect what girls and boys think about the possibilities for their place in the world as they grow up."

Towards the bottom of the website, there's a caveat about when the Bechdel test is an unreasonable litmus, namely when a film has very few total characters, when the historical context is "set at a place or time where there were only men or very few women," or when the movie is based off a book where adding women would force filmmakers to deviate from the plot.

There's a thin line between paying attention to societally-ingrained sexism and witch hunts of the people who inadvertently continue to feed that narrative. It's frustrating to watch superhero movies where buff men regularly do the real work while busty leather- and latex-clad women remain firmly planted in love interest sidekick roles. Although more depth isn't necessary for every movie, it makes sense to hope for a shift away from tired tropes.

Regardless, movies like "Gravity" are exempt from the test, given the limited number of characters. And even movies that clearly violate the test, like "Star Wars," are not relegated to a ban list. If a movie fails the test, that doesn't necessarily ruin a film's cultural significance or artistic worth, even to the most feminist of movie critics.

Caring about the complexity and number of female characters isn't an insane new social justice frontier — it's a consideration that will, in many cases, make movies better. And since the Bechdel test isn't used as justification for censorship, but rather a test filmmakers can voluntarily choose to consider, artists aren't being oppressed and art isn't being ruined.

Just because some political correctness crusaders have gone too far doesn't mean all feminist pursuits are foolish. Pursuing private means to create more equal representation is something conservatives and libertarians alike should champion––unless they're not interested in gender equality. Neither feminism nor social critiques should be seen as the enemy just because they're championed by the same people whose illiberal tendencies leave a bad taste in conservatives' mouths.

Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is managing editor at Young Voices.

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