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Sexploitation and the Bechdel Test

As a woman/feminist, I put little stock in the Bechdel Test. Yes, it’s a quick means of exposing the macho-centric ways of Hollywood, but the picture grows hazier in independent and experimental film. Kevin B. Lee addressed this in a recent video essay, where he makes the case that Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours contains a richly drawn female character, despite the fact she confides in a gay man and not another woman. In a follow-up of sorts, Lee considers sexploitation films in the context of the Bechdel Test, noting that questionable motives can nonetheless earn a passing grade.

While Doris Wishman’s bold melange of genres frequently downplays nudity’s shock value, Al Adamson “[co-opts] female sexual liberation for cheap stimulation.” In Blazing Stewardesses, a Bechdel approved scene involves a madame recruiting women to her brothel. So, yes, perhaps the Bechdel Test is meant to be viewed as more of a conversation starter and less as an unflappable rubric.

But Lee also touches upon the ambiguous intentions behind recent depictions of sexually voracious female characters, as epitomized by Maja Miloš’ Clip. I like Clip, but to a certain extent, it’s almost impossible not to question the necessity of each of the films’ innumerable sex scenes. This is not Sarah Jacobson, in which women talk through the role of sex as it relates to their identity; Milos’ protagonist asserts herself any which way she can so that sex is seemingly incorporated into her identity. The question then becomes, is she re-appropriating her sexuality, or is she simply being appropriated? Decades ago, what may have been groundbreaking can now seem gratuitous, but both extremes point to our discomfort with a sexually agressive woman.

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