‘Fire Island’ and the Bechdel Test: Turning the Debacle Into a Learning Opportunity

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In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel drew a sequence in her strip Dykes to Watch Out For that depicted a pair of women walking by a movie theater. “I have this rule,” one says. “I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements: One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” The punchline is that under those standards, the last film she was able to see was Alien — released six years prior.

The Bechdel test, as the three rules came to be known, has since entered the cultural vernacular as an earnest gauge of gender representation in media. It has spawned variants aiming to account for inclusion behind the scenes as well as intersectionally, sometimes getting extremely granular about stereotypes and tropes in depictions involving women (“one point if a sex scene shows foreplay before consummation”).

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Crucially, Bechdel, who has credited the ideas in her original strip to her friend Liz Wallace as well as the work of Virginia Woolf, provided the context for her commentary in the backdrop of each illustrated panel: The two women’s conversation takes place as they walk past movie posters with titles like The Barbarian and The Vigilante, featuring burly men.

In the 2022 summery romantic comedy Fire Island, Joel Kim Booster might be similarly ripped, but his gaysian take on Pride and Prejudice is hardly the type of patriarchal narrative Bechdel, Wallace and Woolf were attempting to challenge. Yet writer Hanna Rosin, a novelist and editorial director of New York magazine’s portfolio of podcasts, chose to apply the Bechdel test to the film and found it wanting: “So @hulu #FireIslandMovie gets an F- on the Bechdel test in a whole new way,” she wrote in a now-deleted tweet on Monday afternoon. “Do we just ignore the drab lesbian stereotypes bc cute gay Asian boys? Is this revenge for all those years of the gay boy best friend?”

After the tweet was swiftly ratioed, Rosin apologized the next day, acknowledging, “The movie was telling a story about queer AAPI men, whose experiences don’t show up enough in movies or anywhere else.” But the initial impulse, as well as Rosin’s admission that she didn’t anticipate the pushback, still serves as a useful object lesson about how ideals about inclusion can be misapplied or even weaponized:

Stories about one historically excluded identity do not have to be about all of them.

If the movie, written by Booster and directed by Andrew Ahn, isn’t the first to center the experiences of gay Asian American men (particularly in their joy), it’s safe to say it is the most high-profile project ever to do so. The Searchlight rom-com, released June 3 on Hulu, has received plenty of press, including features in The New York Times and Vulture and an EW cover story, so it might stand to reason that the predominantly male ensemble would draw the scrutiny of a feminist critique — if not for the looming shadow of the No. 1 movie in America, Top Gun: Maverick, the literal sequel to the macho, predominantly male blockbuster that came out a year after Bechdel’s comic.

So why was Fire Island singled out for its lack of adherence to the Bechdel test? Why was there an impulse to hold a film being celebrated for being a “Diversity Movie” to a higher standard than a film that doesn’t even attempt to be anything of the sort? What is it about a story giving voice to one chronically excluded group that invites others to demand it include them as well?

It’s a rhetorical question, but not an uncommon one. The “Fire Island ignores lesbians” feedback is reminiscent of some criticisms of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians that decried that rom-com for not reflecting the experiences of the diaspora’s middle- and lower-income brackets, as well as the much more valid concerns surrounding the lack of Afro-Latino actors to portray the Dominican American characters in 2021’s In the Heights. In all cases, the grievances between two marginalized classes stem from the same culprit: the sustained scarcity of representation for everyone who doesn’t belong to the straight white minority claiming the majority of narratives. Their ubiquity renders them invisible, leaving the Visibly Different to resolve the representation and inclusion deficit for all.

Some people still seem to have an Asian problem.

Three’s a trend, and Fire Island is the third Asian-focused film in as many months to be hit with a complaint about the stories it chooses to center. In March, the managing editor of Cinema Blend said that Turning Red, unlike other Pixar films, was not made for a universal audience. “The target audience for this one feels very specific, and very narrow,” he wrote in his review (which the site later pulled) of the animated film about a Chinese-Canadian adolescent girl. “If you are in it, this might work well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting.”

And in May, two of the only critics to pan Everything Everywhere All at OnceThe New Yorker’s Richard Brody and The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw — found the Chinese immigrant family at its core lacking in characterization. “The protagonists are universalized, stripped of history and culture, lacking any personal connection to the wider world,” Brody wrote, while Bradshaw dinged the film for “never letting up for a single second to let us care about, or indeed believe in, any of its characters.”

When it comes to art, each person is entitled to their opinion (even when it’s an unpopular one). But the sentiment underlying the criticism of this trio of wildly different films has something in common with the perpetual foreigner syndrome that continues to plague Asian Americans, even a couple of centuries into their presence on this continent. In art and in life, Asians face a presumption of unrelatability. At best, that results in a dumb tweet, but at worst, it can lead to deadly dehumanization.

Inclusion standards must continually be reevaluated for context and complexity.

A substantial portion of the backlash to Rosin’s tweet called out white feminism for holding Fire Island to its own metrics when the movie, about queer Asian men, was about other types of marginalized people altogether. In other words, the Bechdel test was never designed or equipped to account for other excluded demographics that lie outside the (white) patriarchal/feminist binary. Gender, race and sexuality intersect and interact in ways complicated by the fact that unequal power dynamics exist along each axis, with white supremacy a pervasive force across identities.

“Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Bechdel test or other similar kinds of things because I think they are over-simplified,” tweeted the feminist writer Jenn Fang, who runs the culture blog Reappropriate. “They don’t take into account the specific political landscape a film occupies; instead, they universalize the politics of second-wave feminism.”

Just as standardized testing is now understood to be an imperfect, biased form of evaluation that privileges those who designed it, industry inclusion models should take into account their origins, and not be afraid to amend as new insights come to light.

Case in point: Early Tuesday evening, Bechdel herself weighed in. “Okay, I just added a corollary to the Bechdel test,” she tweeted. “Two men talking to each other about the female protagonist of an Alice Munro story in a screenplay structured on a Jane Austen novel = pass. #FireIsland”

And now it’s official. Case closed.

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