Crowdsourcing: A Bechdel Test for People of Color

by Tami Winfrey Harris

It’s not easy being a woman in Hollywood. Nor is it easy to be a person of color. Television and film are littered with sidekicks, tokens, “magic” brown people and shallowly-rendered girlfriend roles. Even the fabulous, Oscar-nominated Viola Davis can’t find good characters to portray. Earlier this year, Davis told Tavis Smiley in an interview:

“It wears me out that there aren’t enough multi-faceted roles for women who look like me…roles when I open up a script and the character goes on a journey, where I see a balance, where I’m not always…this straight-backed, black woman, friend, all-seeing whatever. I’m talking about a human being–a multi-faceted human being that actually lives, breathes and all of that…” Watch… 

We have ample illustration of how writers and directors fail women and people of color, but can we explain what it would look like it they got it right?

Alison Bechdel, in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a strip called “The Rule,” (above) introduced what is now called The Bechdel Test, a simple method of determining gender bias in film. It goes like this: One character says she will only watch a film if it:

  • Has more than one female character in it
  • Who talk to each other
  • About something other than a man

To be sure, quality portrayals of women in film require more than that, but this is a good baseline–sort of a minimum standard. You would be surprised how seldom Hollywood can do even this.  But even when a film or TV show handles gender well, it often biffs portrayals of non-white people. While the masses have been fellating Lena Dunham for her hot new HBO show, Girls, many of us have noticed that for being set in a city (New York) that is predominantly “of color,” Girls’ protagonists have shockingly-little interaction with non-stereotypical, fully-actualized non-white people.

What is the minimum standard for portrayals of people of color? I’ve been trying to crowdsource a Bechdel Test for POCs. (And not just so I can see my name immortalized in The Winfrey Harris Test. But, y’know it wouldn’t be awful.) I asked a few folks who care about such things for suggestions:

Miz Jenkins  offered that a film or show should include 1) one of more named people of color, 2) not in a service capacity (for avoidance of doubt, saving a White person from imminent disaster using only basic common sense constitutes working in a service capacity), who 3) speak in unaffected accents. (If they do have accents they must be authentic and not employed for comedic effect).

Clutch contributor Renee offered that characters of color should be 1) subjects and not objects, and 2) aware of their culture and history.

Arturo Garcia of Racialicious  and Jennifer of Mixed Race America both championed Community’s Troy and Abed as examples of quality characters and nailed Ken Jeong’s character Ben Chang as a travesty. Jennifer also lauded Mindy Kaling’s Kelly Kapoor on The Office.

A minimum standard for portrayals of people of color in film and television might look something like this:

  1. One or more named people of color
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. Who don’t act in a service capacity (No magical brown people!)
  4. Who are reflective of their culture and history, but don’t communicate that through stereotyped action, such as an affected accent

 

Let’s interrogate this measure. Does it work? What would you change or add?

  • http://stacialbrown.com Stacia L. Brown

    I remember being so impressed with The Office when they hooked up Kelly and Darryl. I don’t think either of them referenced race in their interaction; they were just two people who worked together and decided to date. None of the white coworkers seemed to find their coupling “logical” b/c they were both PoC, either. People just took it as a matter of course.

    That was refreshing.

  • http://www.myblackfriendsays.com myblackfriendsays

    “Who are reflective of their culture and history, but don’t communicate that through stereotyped action”

    What does this mean? The way I’m reading it, the only way something would be commonly accepted as being reflective of a culture, is if it was based on some sort of stereotype.

  • http://elegantblackwoman.blogspot.com Elegance

    That rules out many Black movies and shows where the people are stereotypes. It would be more important to me that the show/movie doesn’t perpetuate negative stereotypes (e.g., criminals, gangbangers, unintelligent people).

    I would also include depictions of Black people only being capable of dancing, singing, rapping, playing as sport and becoming a star being the focus of the movie. There are way too many movies like that so that it’s all some people want to be. Those films have been done to dealth! Multicultural movies would be better too so that people stop limiting themselves and learn how to get along with other people.

  • http://www.whattamisaid.com Tami Winfrey Harris

    Do you happen to watch “The Vampire Diaries” on the CW? The show’s sole major character of color is named Bonnie. Even though the show takes place in a (mythical) Southern town, it seems suspiciously devoid of African Americans. Bonnie has little contact with anyone but the show’s white protagonists, and has few needs or wants beyond theirs. The show glorifies the antebellum South. White characters are seen hosting endless balls honoring the area’s founding (slave owning) families and Bonnie is right there with them.

    Now, if the show runners really thought about it, it is unlikely that a young Southern black woman would be down with Confederate fantasies. But they have no sense of her cultural history.The point is that shows can and should recognize a character’s race and culture without resorting to stereotype.

  • Mina

    Preach @Tami!!

    Yes, we know absolutely nothing about Bonnie except that she’s a witch and that she’s only needed to do spells and then we never hear from her again. We don’t know her mom, dad, or if she even has any more relatives. Her mom and grandma are all dead now because they got involved with Elena’s crap. Bonnie sacrifices her life and everything for Elena but does not do anything to save her own family. Now she’s assumed dead, probably not dead, but they needed to kill her because she’s not needed anymore.The only person Bonnie saves is the people she’s romantically involved with (Jeremy and the new guy).

    There needs to be more people of color who aren’t used as tools. Tyler is also Latino (which is why he’s a werewolf) so he serves as a person of color, but again, he is also used as a tool in the show. He is Claus’s tool or whatever, to do his bidding. The Asian vampires on the show weren’t needed either. We just knew the Asian girl and her mom loved each other but we didn’t really know their history. We just knew about them because Jeremy was involved with her, but again, they don’t matter. Only the originals and those who were around back during slavery, matter in the show.

    There’s still prejudice too because all of the black characters are used and abused, killed or tortured and are just tools for the white vampires plans. They aren’t seen as equal or superior to them, even though they have abilities that can make them cringe and weak, the witches (blacks) are still beneath them.

  • http:www.chicnoirhouse.blogspot.com Chic Noir

    Oh this is a good post.

    I’m kinda tired of the mystical negro trope.

    For examples please see Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones and the Oracle in the Matrix.

    I would also like to see a decrease in the number of Blk single mothers when other characters are married mothers and Obese blk women.

    The weight issue spreads across all racial categories in this country but I can only think of Melissa McCarthy as the plus sized White woman who gets work and it’s almost always in a comedic role.

  • http://www.whattamisaid.com Tami Winfrey Harris

    In the Racialicious article I linked to [http://www.racialicious.com/2012/04/19/dear-lena-dunham-i-exist/], did you peep the casting notes for some upcoming characters of color on “Girls”?

    I quote:

    JAMAICAN NANNY: Female, African American, overweight, 40s, good sense of humor, MUST DO A JAMAICAN ACCENT. Encounters Jessa in a group of nannies and helps her out.

    Damn! They hit nearly every trope with one character!

  • iQgraphics

    but brown people are magical
    mystically too

  • Mina

    I would like to see more sci-fi movies with black characters in it like Irobot or something where Black people are intelligent, crime-fighters, who don’t get killed from the start.

    Maybe even a movie about a dark skinned nerdy black guy who’s a writer and wants to become a movie director from the hood who falls in love with another dark skinned, skinny, black girl who was raised by white parents. You know the whole, rich and poor, Romeo and Julliet thing but without a tragic end. I’m tired of black tragedy movies, give me a happy ending.

    I wish there were more movies about “Black nerds”. Movies where the characters want to become successful authors, writers, painters, comic book illustrators, scientists, inventors. That is something I’ve been trying to find in movies for years but to no avail. I’d really love to see a movie about a black female inventor who invents a cure for some strange disease or a movie/documentary about blacks from the projects upcycling trash, shopping carts, etc junk to rebuild their community and make it better.

  • iQgraphics

    even in brown movies, brown people are magical

  • http:www.chicnoirhouse.blogspot.com Chic Noir

    @Tami- Yea I saw that the other day. That’s exactly why I said I would prefer they didn’t cast one of us versus giving us yet another stereotype.

    Why couldn’t the blk character casted be a bohemian, natural hair having, vegan, brownish in color ,Philosophy grad student debating if taking out 20K for a year abroad to study in France is worth more student loan debt.

    Then they could do an entire episode around the money issue of young 20 somethings compounded by student loan debt and cost of living in NYC.

    Some people like to act as if images on TV and media don’t matter but they do. Birth Of A Nation is all the proof you need.

  • Mina

    There’s also Asian mystical people (Wise one, all knowning monk), Native American mystical people, (witchdoctors, healers, Natives who can see your future or warn white characters about death…hint, hint, Twilight bs), same goes for the Mexican/Latino mystical people too. They always do the same crap with them.

    Dravidian, Black and Native American roles: Healer, witchdoctors, have tons of potions and recipes to see into the future or heal the main character. Help the main character find shelter or safety if they are being hunted. They preach on about peace and non-violence, etc. Usually end up hurt or killed. Can usually transform into some sort of animal or play animal roles. Native = Wolf. Blacks = Black animals (gorillas, crows, etc, monkeys/apes, animals found in Africa (Madagascar), Indians = Elephants, tigers.

    Other black, latino, Native, South/North Indian, roles: Thugs, killers, bad guys, they sing and dance (bollywood, musicals), comedic relief.

    Asian roles: Wise monk, Old man with gray hair, teaches kung fu or some other skill that the main character will need. Will usually be killed and the main character will want revenge. Or they’re all ninjas and samurais…but those with stereotypical Asian features are usually secondary characters or don’t exist (Ex: Naruto, Inuyasha, One Piece, etc) Even Asian authors see these roles and cast white looking or non-stereotypical looking Asian characters with blonde, silver, etc color hair as the main characters. Naruto and Dragonball Z are successful because the characters are blonde…for the latter, can go blonde and green eyed.

  • iQgraphics

    @Mina
    All of the people you listed are considered brown people to me ;)

  • Mina

    Oh ok lol. Well technically we’re all brown, even tan white people.

  • Whatever

    Great Article! I would add that the character should offer up a back story. I say this in relation to “Mad Men” because there was a character (Carla, the nanny) on for 4 seasons and we knew absolutely nothing about this woman. The audience knew more about the random one night stands than Carla. Also, up until the current season (5), the only black people were either in the service capacity (elevator operator, nanny, maid, janitor), or some type of girlfriend with one line and no back story.

    I am tired of black characters in general being the wallpaper. Since these characters rarely offer anything new meaningful or relevant to the story, I can only assume they were cast for “diversity”.

    There are a few television shows that accomplish this like Law & Order and The Practice. (honestly I can’t think of anymore)

  • Netta

    @whatever-I agree about Carla the nanny on Mad Men. If we had known more about her as a person, maybe we would have cared more when Betty just up and fired the poor woman! I’m not satisfied with the token secretary this season either. She had a moment with Peggy but she still seems one-dimensional b/c we know very little about her.

  • nikki

    thanks for writing this Tami! I plan to apply this litmus test to any movies i see this summer :) this is the kind of article i like to see on clutch. keep ‘em coming.

  • http://www.crowdsourcingpost.com Top Crowdsourcing Sites

    Great article, it make some sense which brings lots of doubts clearly vanished to make up our mind to know about crowdsourcing values. Nice initiative Chic Noir, great job.

  • Janice

    Movies that portray Black males escorting Black females on peaceful, issue-free laughter-filled dates. And have them discuss unusual topics.

    I’d like to see a great decease in the number of films that portray Black males verbally and physically assaulting Black females. Particularly in contrast to Black male characters affectionately interacting with white females, Latinas, etc in the same movie. This formula appears in a staggering number of films. For example: “ANY GIVEN SUNDAY” – Black man smiles at white woman and asks her on a date. CONTRAST- Black man argues with Black woman and curses her out. “THE STREETS OF BLOOD” – Black boy calls his princess-gown-wearing younger sister (about 4 years old) a “bit**.” CONTRAST- Black man smiles at white woman dining with him. “IRISH JAM” – Black man violently kicks Black woman in the face as he escapes from her via the window. CONTRAST – Black man playfully interacts with white woman and he marries her. For a lot more of these Black female-white female contrasts visit the blog: sistahwise.wordpress.com

  • Socially Maladjusted

    mmm!

    interesting topic

    black characters must survive to the end of the film – not merely be there to see the white hero complete his (crooked) objectives and safely home to his blond wife & kids,

    I can almost get with a “subliminal” message that says – black people who help white people get killed, But ‘almost’ is still a million light years and never gonna happen away from where you’d need to get me, to make me co-sign white people’s genocidal fantasies. .

    Simply – no matter how foolish they are, I don’t like to see people who look like me being hurt by white people – In the real world or on screen.

    We could avoid that problem if we make it that the black character has his own agenda, and is not simply a bit part player (or pawn) in some WHITE AMERICAN agenda, eg – protecting america from “terrorists”.

    You might wanna give the brotha a few lines expaining why he aint down wid whitey’s cause.

    There should be CLASS diversity in the representation of so called “positive” or “role model” black characters. I’m sick of seeing “bl?ck” role model characters, who are little more than blacks in white midddle class face. (weave and all)

    Why does every “positive” character have be some hotshot buppy – the black lawyer, black super cop . . . etc etc rar?

    Why can’t a blue collar working man whose first language is EBONICS – be positve? Why can’t a HOOKER be positive as was done in Pretty Woman and Trading Places?

    Dialogue between black characters should contain some in-community politics that reflect the DIVERSITY of opinion among blacks.

    Not all black people want to look like white people – act like them, talk like them, think like them or love them.

    WE ARE NOT A MONOLITH – right?

    LMAO!

    In fact – I believe that insightful dialogue between black characters, in a movie would, be very enlightening to those with little exprience with blacks and destroy a hellova lot of assumptions about who the BAD nigros are and who the GOOD black people are -

    :-)

    Might have to write the shit myself coz I’ve never seen this done well in any film featuring blacks.

    If race relations crop up in the story the black character should always establish his non-racist credentials as follows .

    I’m not racist – I like white people as much as white people like me.

    LMAO!

    and that’s my wish list.

  • http://www.whattamisaid.com Tami Winfrey Harris

    I cosign all of this.

    You’re right that Law & Order generally did a wonderful job of a) showing a diverse New York City, including ethnic white people and people of color; and b) gave people of color depth and personal lives. S. Epatha Merkerson is awesome throughout the series. I especially appreciated the way they handled her cancer, treatment and recovery. And the way they showed her being supported by her boyfriend. (I know she was married in the beginning of the show, but I think she divorced and the Ernie Hudson character was a beau, yes?)

  • http:www.chicnoirhouse.blogspot.com Chic Noir

    *chic noir takes a bow*

    thanks top crowdsourcing

  • isme

    I’m not so sure about “Who are reflective of their culture and history, but don’t communicate that through stereotyped action, such as an affected accent”

    When dealing with actual cultures, yes, but perhaps that should be reworded to deal with fictional worlds? Also, does that include things that someone outside their culture would react the same to? I mean, they could be responding correctly, but without their culture playing a part.

  • http://tgstonebutch.tumblr.com/ Corey Alexander

    I posted a link to this on my tumblr and rawkblog (http://rawkblog.tumblr.com) responded drawing my attention to the POC Bechdel Test developed by AngryBlackWoman a couple years ago: http://theangryblackwoman.com/2009/09/01/the-bechdel-test-and-race-in-popular-fiction/

    Thought you might find it useful.

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