The Bechdel Test
If you don't know what it is, the Bechdel test is explained here. A character says she'll only watch a movie that has two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
On one hand, I really do appreciate the sentiment. It's often frustrating to me when male characters are the default, and the female characters are just there to be defined by their relationship to men. I definitely won't judge someone on their personal criteria for watching movies, since life is short and why waste at least an hour and a half on something that you're not going to enjoy?
But as a form of feminist critique, I think it is overused.
As an example, one of the critiques I've seen of the Dark Knight was that it failed the Bechdel test in a big way (particularly in the scene where Bruce, Rachel, Harvey and Bruce's ballerina date have dinner and Rachel and the ballerina barely say two words to each other, and what they do say is about Batman.)
And yes. It did fail the Bechdel test. But, and it's possible that I'm being a bad feminist for saying this, it's a Batman movie. I'm paying money to see a Batman movie. Batman (or a monniker affiliated with Batman) is the title of the movie. And when you stop and think about it, even very long movies like Titanic, or the Lord of the Rings movies are only what? three hours? It's a long time to sit in a theatre, sure, but it's not really that long to get all the character and plot development that needs to be in there. (Compare it to a weekly tv-show, which can have like twenty hours a season!) And while I'm sure an intelligent woman like Rachel Dawes could have many an interesting conversation with a professional ballerina... I would rather not waste the finite minutes of a movie about Batman on something that's not related to Batman.
It's a personal taste thing, really. And while I don't judge someone for deciding that "hey, this isn't the sort of movie I want to see", I really don't think it's fair to make it a part of a feminist critique of a movie. (Tangentially, I personally found the movie and Rachel Dawes in particular fairly satisfying from my own feminist perspective. Your mileage may vary, naturally.)
Just because something is a movie about men doesn't make it anti-feminist. It just makes it a movie about men.
But sometimes even in an ensemble movie, I think the Bechdel test is used as an unfair basis of feminist critique.
Take, for example, the new Star Trek movie. There's been a fair bit of feminist discussion about that movie online, resulting from Uhura's more significant role in the movie. (One particularly interesting debate is whether the fact that Uhura's significant role includes a love interest component is a step forward or a step backwards in terms of feminist progress. Personally, I liked the change, but there's some good argument on either side.)
But I've seen the Bechdel rule brought up there too. Specifically for the scene with Gaila and Uhura. Though Uhura talks about the plot significant transmissions, Gaila is talking about a man/an experience with a man. Which, okay. If you're looking at it objectively, it probably doesn't pass the Bechdel rule.
But can I be blunt for a moment?
I'm a twenty-seven year old woman. I spent a considerable portion of the last ten years in a college type environment in frequent company with other twenty-something women. And while I'll caveat that this is based on my experience and is not necessarily true for every one, I have to say...
Young straight women? Tend to talk about men and sex a LOT. In fact, I'd suggest that within a certain age group, men and sex make up a pretty large chunk of the conversation topics. Sure, we talk about other things too, but the conversation will usually inevitably veer back to that subject. (I'd imagine the opposite is true for many young straight men.)
So the fact that two young twenty-something presumably straight (or bisexual) women in a college-type environment are talking and one keeps veering the conversation back to men? Seems pretty true to life to me.
Personally, I think a better feminist critique of that scene has to do with the fact that a fairly important piece of dialogue establishing Uhura's importance to the greater plot at hand has to happen in a set up that basically is just there for Kirk/the audience to see an attractive woman in her underwear. But that's a different kettle of fish.
There are situations when I do think the Bechdel test makes a good situation for feminist critique however. One of these is in weekly television shows.
In the case of a weekly television show, it doesn't matter if it's centered around a male character because there is almost inevitably going to be some kind of ensemble cast. And while I wouldn't say every single episode needs to pass the Bechdel test, if you have twenty some odd hours in a season? You can make room for at least ONE conversation between women that's not about a man.
Likewise, even if the main female characters in the cast are college age and of the sort that 75%-80% of their conversations would have to do with men and sex, you have time to insert SOME conversation that fits in that last 20% area.
In the case of a seasonal television show, there really is no excuse for creators not to put SOMETHING there. Preferably more than once, but once at least shows that there's been some effort to define the female characters beyond their interaction with men.
The same is true, I think, for monthly ongoing comic books (with the caveat that it's a bit harder to determine an appropriate interval. With television shows, you can base it by a season or half-season. But it's harder to figure that out for a comic. Maybe once a story arc?)
That said though, I still think that, in general, the Bechdel test works better as a personal taste gauge than a feminist critique.