Sunday, August 5, 2012

Close, but no cigar

Anita Sarkeesian is the author of Feminist Frequency, a blog where she writes and makes videos about the portrayal of women in popular culture. She has made a couple of posts analyzing movies using the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test first appeared in the comic Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. The test lays out three simple rules as follows. To pass the test, a movie must...
  1. Have two female characters...
  2. Who talk to each other...
  3. About something other than a man.

The good parts

In Sarkeesian's latest post about the Bechdel test, The Oscars and the Bechdel Test, she uses the test on the 2011 Oscar nominees. On the whole, Sarkeesian does a good job of analyzing the movies and applying the test in a sensible manner. For example, she notes that the Bechdel Test was not originally conceived of as a serious metric.
Let’s remember that this was made as a bit of a joke to make fun of the fact that there are so few movies with significant female characters in them. The reason the test has become so important in recent years is because it actually does highlight a serious and ongoing problem within the entertainment industry.
I also agree with her analysis of how application of the Bechdel Test can be useful.
Again, to be clear this test does not gauge the quality of a film, it doesn’t determine whether a film is feminist or not, and it doesn’t even determine whether a film is woman centered. Some pretty awful movies including ones that have stereotypical and/or sexist representations of women might pass the test with flying colours. Where really well made films that I would highly recommend might not.
She goes on to note that the Bechdel Test is most informative used in aggregate when applied to a group of films. Her choice to use the 2011 Oscar nominees is also good, as it lessens the chance of selection bias.

The Rest

Unfortunately, with all the good things she has to say, her post has one major flaw that undermines any conclusions that can be drawn from her analysis.
In response to the Bechdel Test, I’m often asked, well, what about the reverse? “Why isn’t there also a test to determine if two men talk to each other about something other then a woman”. The answer to that is simple, the test is meant to indicate a problem, and there isn’t a problem with a lack of men interacting with one another.  The Bechdel test is useful because it can point out an institutional pattern and since there’s no problem with men and men’s stories being underrepresented in films, the reverse test is not useful or relevant.
Her dismissal of a Reverse Bechdel Test is very misguided. In fact, not only is the Reverse Bechdel Test relevant, I'll go even further and say that the Bechdel Test is useless without it. To demonstrate this, let me give you a similarly flawed analysis of labor statistics.
Historically, women have been under represented in technical positions, such as engineers and medical doctors. Unfortunately, these problems persist even today. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 there were only 198,000 female software developers in the United States. There are similarly paltry numbers in psychology, with only 140,000 female psychologists during 2011.
Anyone should be able to see the obvious flaw in this paragraph. I've omitted the number of men working in these disciplines. Let's apply the same logic here that Sarkeesian used to dismiss the Reverse Bechdel Test.
What about the number of men in these disciplines? The answer to that is simple, these statistics are meant to indicate a problem, and there isn't a problem with lack of men in these fields. These statistics are useful because it can point out an institutional pattern, and since there's no problem with men being underrepresented in these fields, the number of men in these fields is not useful or relevant.
Unfortunately, this reasoning fails to support its conclusions when you look at all the relevant data. It is true that women are underrepresented among software developers. Compared to the 198,000 women working as software developers, there are over 840,000 men working as software developers. However, it is not the case at all that women are underrepresented among psychologists. While there are 140,000 female psychologists, there are only 56,000 male psychologists. That comes to women making up 19% and 71% of these fields respectively.

"Ah, ha!" you might say, "But Sarkeesian has already accounted for this. She notes that 2 out of 9 movies clearly pass the Bechdel test. That's only 22%."

The problem here is that she is comparing the wrong things. That 22% is a ratio between those movies that pass the test and those that do not. This would be equivalent to comparing the number of women who are psychologists and the number that are not. Of course, this is silly, which is why we compare the number of psychologists that are women to the number of psychologists that are men. Similarly, to make sense of the Bechdel Test, we need to compare the number of movies that pass the test against the number of movies that pass same test with the genders reversed.

If you are still not conviced that the Reverse Bechdel Test is relevant, then I have one simple question for you. What percentage of movies should pass the Bechdel Test, and how do you arrive at that number?


For the sake of clarity, I'd like to follow up with a couple points.

First, the two employment statistics I selected were clearly cherry picked. I selected one where women were in the clear minority, and another where they were in the clear majority. This was so I could demonstrate that while a flawed analysis can't affirm a position, neither can it disprove it either. My use of these statistics should not be misconstrued to say anything about representation of women in the work force in general. If you look at all the statistics, it's clear that women are still underrepresented in STEM fields. It certainly took a while for me to find a suitable statistic with women in the majority.

Second, this post is only to point out that Sarkeesian's conclusion is unsupported by her methods, not that her conclusion is necessarily wrong. In fact, I expect that her conclusion is entirely correct. However, without a proper analysis we have no way to accurately assess whether progress towards equality is being made, and if so, how much. We also won't have a good way of determining when the problem has been fixed.

Update: It seems I'm not the first to notice this problem. Ryan over at Mad Art Lab already covered this several months ago.

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