Named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who introduced the idea in her 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test requires that a film include at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Since cinemas in Sweden started rating films against this test last year, debate has emerged with regard to how few films of merit succeed in meeting its criteria and with this, renewed concern has developed around how women are portrayed on screen, with specific attention devoted to the alarming shortage of films that investigate compelling relationships between women – as friends, as rivals, as relatives or as allies. In fact, in the nearly 40 years since the publication of Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), in which Laura Mulvey identified a pattern whereby female characters were typically used as ‘the bearers of meaning’, too little has changed in this respect. 

This season presents a selection of films from a range of directors who have explored complex, nuanced ties between women that are not merely a feature of one scene, but an integral aspect of the films’ narratives. The season aims to encourage conversation around films – a number of which have been neglected or unfairly overlooked – that offer challenging portrayals of interactions between female characters and that stand out by engaging female protagonists as the creators or makers of meaning within these contexts. The selection also highlights those relationships between women defined by difference: in age, in race, in sexuality, in class and in perspective, thus underlining the absence of a universal female identity and drawing focus on the varying, often contradictory relationships and roles that women can fulfil on screen.

Introduction by Alice Butler. Image courtesy Alison Bechdel/Courtesy Firebrand Books.

This season continues across several programming strands at the IFI in July, including Ireland on Sunday, Wild Strawberries, Archive at Lunchtime, From the Vaults, Feast Your Eyes, IFI & Experimental Film Club, Afternoon Talk (FREE event), The Critical Take (FREE event), with the addition of a FREE panel discussion on Presence and Absence: Women in Contemporary Cinema. Tara Brady, Film Correspondent at The Irish Times, will be running a Girl See, Girl Do Workshop (Ages 9-12) on the Bechdel Test as part of the IFI Family Festival. 

Read our blog, The Female Gaze: Heroines of Irish Cinema Portrayed by its Female Directors, by Eilís Ní Raghallaigh from the IFI’s Tiernan MacBride Library.

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Arts Council of Ireland