The Bechdel and Mako Mori tests: When will Nollywood pass?
In the era of representation and how people are portrayed on screen, we have to look at how Films and Television portray women; Women characters in a lot of works of media function in their relationship to a man.
They spend all their time discussing the need for a man or the men they are dating/married.
This has been prevalent in mass media over the decades it’s easy not to notice. Passing works of Media through the Bechdel Test shines a light on the portrayal of women in media.
The Bechdel Test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, it is also known as the Bechdel-Wallace test , named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel who credited it to her friend Liz Wallace who was inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf.
There two simple rules about The Bechdel Test: The movie has to have at least two women in it and, they must talk to each other about something besides a man. Feminist critics now use this as the standard in which to judge television, movies, books and other media.
It explores the agency of women in works of fiction, having their arc and goals’ not being prizes for the protagonist or existing for the sole purpose of being in a romantic relationship.
American reporter, Ned Ulaby said of the test “it articulates something often missing in popular culture; not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories and the range of their concerns”.
There is also the Mako Mori test which says a film should have: at least one female character, who gets her own narrative arc, and which is not about supporting a man’s story. Wife, Mother, Girlfriend characters, who exist solely for the purpose of the male characters story, motivation, goal fail the test.
Nollywood’s report card on the Bechdel test reads, Mene Mene Terkel Urpasin.
Starting from the Cinema era of Nollywood, circa 2009 till date, it’s very hard to find films which pass either test.
There is an abundance of films about finding a man, keeping a man, desperation for marriage, worrying about the biological clock and being an old maid. We see characters who spend all their girl time, only ever talking about men; the man they want, the useless men they don’t, how they are living up to expectations or not.
This is not solely a Nollywood issue, Hollywood and some of our favourite movies also fail the test, especially the rom-coms.
But the West does not have anything close to the level of cultural shaming Africa and Nigeria does to unmarried or single women, even when they are successful.
Part of what cinema does is to explore, investigate, challenge ideas, shows a flipside and alternative to the normal narrative or what is expected.
The issue with films that fail the Bechdel Test is that it perpetuates the ideas of women existing for the sole purpose of bringing pleasure or being of service to men.
Single shaming and painting the narrative that once a woman is of a certain age, her number one purpose must be achieving an excited “She said ‘Yes’” post from a man.
This is not advocating that those films shouldn’t exist or those stories discard escapism, but there should be locally made films with characters a young lady can watch and aspire to be much more of herself, as a human, a member of society; without marriage being her “reward”.
However, The Bechdel Test is not without its flaws; it does not give room for women characters having conversations about; concerns, troubles, frustrations or joys involving the men in their lives; Fathers, Husbands, Bosses, Co-workers, which is inherently part of a woman’s wiring to share and decompress.
Chimamanda Adiche called it, the danger of a single story. As a screenwriter, the test is a challenge to all of us to think hard about how we write women characters and the stories we give them.
Every writer has a right to tell the stories they want to tell and aren’t obliged to tick boxes determined by a social scientist.
“Failing” the Bechdel Test does not make a film bad, a lot of factors authentic to the world of the story can lead to such and the work should not be dismissed . Telling an engaging and coherent story, with characters we enjoy seeing on screen is paramount above anything else.
Nigerian women are strong, resilient, resourceful; and as movies are a huge influence on society maybe we need to start telling different stories about them. We need female characters with their own journey and agency, independent of a relationship; characters, whose arc inspire viewers in their struggles and challenges, in their career, ambition, personal growth. Women as heroes, mentors, explorers, rebels, sages.
No more limiting them to care givers or the damsel in need of rescuing from her spinster days.
Now, wouldn’t that be something.