This Is Only A Test


Tests are all around us, ubiquitous to every day.   You probably took a test the minute you were born.  Today we look at a number of test, from movie theaters to hospitals, that are named for the people who created them.

It’s known as the Bechdel test, and it goes like so: For a given work of fiction, usually a movie, to pass the test, the piece must have at least two female characters in it, with names, who talk to each other about something other than a man.  That must be pretty common, you say to yourself. You’d be surprised how many movies don’t meet the criteria. Think back to the original Star Wars or Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those movies have so few female characters that you can count them on one hands and those characters rarely share a scene, let alone a conversation.  The highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar, has named female character, but they only talk to each other the male characters. Half of the nominees for the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017 failed the Bechdel test, as do half of the Pixar movies. It’s not better at Disney; The Lion King, Finding Nemo, even Up all fail.

With all these movies failing, should we be worried?  Little no, big yes. The no is that Alison Bechdel herself was not a psychologist or an anthropologist or any other sort of -ologist.  She created the test by happenstance when working as a cartoonist. The standard got its name from a 1985 strip from her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, introduced the idea as a winking criticism of male-dominated movies.  One woman is explaining her three-point system for movie selection to her friend. “Pretty strict,” the friend says, “but a good idea.” “No kidding,” the first woman says, “I haven’t seen a movie since Aliens.”

Bechdel, however, wasn’t the originator of that system.  She has long attributed the idea of the Bechdel test to her friend Liz Wallace, who mentioned the standard to her as Bechdel was looking for ideas for her comic strip.  Bechdel also attributes the idea, more broadly, to author Virginia Woolf, who in A Room of One’s Own, remarked, “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple,” that the women of literature, contrary to dynamic real life women, are almost always depicted only “in their relation to men.”

That’s where the big yes comes in.  While the test is simplistic and works can pass that meet the criteria without actually having strong characters.  For example, insipid films like Twilight pass while Gravity, which has a fierce, clever and interesting heroine, fails.  The test also doesn’t address the content of the conversation. A 30 chat about nail polish would pass, while a feminist conversation about bullying by male coworkers would fail.  And there are some works that arguably shouldn’t be measured by it, such as the WWII drama, Dunkirk. The Bechdel test’s most important function is as a start to analysis and conversation.  It gets people talking about female representation in media, which matters more now than ever.

Media can play a powerful role in shaping children’s interests and ambitions early in life, and influencing decisions of what they become as adults.  It’s gained in influence now that many kids have almost non-stop internet access and are spending more time watching TV than at school. Gender stereotypes are rooted in the mind between 5 to 7 years of age and gender bias is prevalent in media as much as it is in real life.  According to the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media, in family films, male characters hold 81% of the jobs and they outnumber female characters 3 to 1. In the documentary Missrepresentation, Davis reveals that between 1937 to 2005, there were only 13 female lead characters in animation films.  13 leads in 68 years. The main story arc for all of them, save one, was romance. When the majority of our stories portray women as sidekicks or damsels in distress, what message does that give of what women can achieve?

In the face of criticisms on the limitations of the Bechdel-Wallace test, writer Roxane Gay proposed a six-part test: Is there a central female character, with supporting female characters, who doesn’t compromise herself for love or live extravagantly for no explained reason? And at least half the time, is this character a woman of color, transgender, and/or queer?  Gay’s sixth point is a non-requirement: Female characters “shouldn’t have to live up to an unrealistic feminist standard.” They can be flawed, so long as they feel like real human beings.

The Ellen Willis test requires the story (or pop song) to make sense if the genders were flipped. (It’s meant, of course, to call out gender roles, not biological factors.)

There are also tests named after characters.  The Tauriel Test is named after Tauriel, a female character in the films Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies.  The test simply asks if the canon has at least one woman who is good at her job. There are no named female characters in the original The Hobbit novel.  The Mako Mori test was created after Pacific Rim failed the Bechdel Test despite a strong female character. A film passes this test if one female character gets her own narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story.  This test is more subjective than Bechdel’s, but so is the issue they both address.

The satirical Sexy Lamp test created by comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick is the easiest to pass: If your female character could be replaced by a sexy lamp without the plot falling apart, “you’re a hack.”  Many movies fail it, especially if, as one Tumblr user suggested, you’re allowed to stick a Post-It on the lamp. If you want to get more frustrated by the film industry, Google “headless woman posters.”

The Crystal Gems test, named after the cartoon heroes in Steven Universe, combines the Bechdel-Wallace, Mako Mori, and Sexy Lamp.  To pass this omnibus test, a work must: pass the three aforementioned tests, have at least four female characters, each character must pass at least one test, and each test must be passed by at least one major female character.  Doing that once each earned the piece a minimum passing grade. Is it a high bar? Yes. Is a high bar needed? In this reporter’s opinion, you bet your sweet bippy.

Another area in which the media really needs to get its representational act together is racial diversity.  Ava DuVernay, director of the Martin Luther King film Selma and A Wrinkle in Time, was the first black woman to win the director’s prize at Sundance, earn a Golden Globe nomination, and a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, with many people contending she should have been nominated for Best Director as well.  She is also the namesake of a Bechdel-Wallace-style test for racial inclusion.

In Manohla Dargis’s review of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the New York Times film critic wrote that a barometer was needed for persons-of-color.  “In honor of the director and Sundance alumna Ava DuVernay, what might be called the DuVernay test, in which African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.”  DuVernay’s name has come to symbolise the ongoing battle by African American film-makers to get movies made in Hollywood, given the furore over the Oscars’ decision to limit her acclaimed civil-rights drama Selma to just two nominations (for best picture and best song) in 2015.

While DuVernay didn’t start the eponymous test, she does approve.  After the feminist film blog Women in Hollywood tweeted about Dargis’s coinage, DuVernay posted: “Wow. Floored. What a lovely cinematic idea to embrace. What a thrill to be associated with it. Absolutely wonderful.”

However, if you look at DuVernay’s work both on and off screen, the homage should come as no surprise.  DuVernay has been one of the most consistently outspoken critics of diversity in Hollywood and one of those leading by example in the movies she’s been making around the industry.  For starters, she has been pushing the conversation forward with the point that diversity isn’t simply about representation; it requires a commitment to cultivating a culture of “belonging.”

“There’s a belonging problem in Hollywood,” she said at this year’s festival. “Who dictates who belongs? The very body who dictates that looks all one way.”  Diversity, for DuVernay, isn’t something you can be; it’s something you do. But that hinges on commitment to provide space for people with different backgrounds in a way that accords those who have been left out a value beyond mere tokenism.

The Bechdel-Wallace test has also inspired the Russo test for LGBTQ representation.  Developed by GLAAD (gay lesbian alliance against defamation), the “Vito Russo Test” takes its name from celebrated film historian, GLAAD co-founder and author of The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo. These criteria can help guide filmmakers to create more multidimensional characters, while also providing a barometer for representation on a wide scale. This test represents a standard GLAAD would like to see a greater number of mainstream Hollywood films reach in the future.  To pass the Vito Russo Test, the film must contain a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. That is to say, they would still be a complete person without their sexuality. The LGBTQ character must be integral to the plot, meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary or set up a punchline. The character must matter.  Of the 109 film releases GLAAD counted from the major studios in 2017, only 14 or 12.8% contained characters identified as LGBTQ.

REVIEW

There are a lot of annoying things on social media.  Two of the things that irritate me most are horoscopes and personality tests, especially the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  That’s the one that assesses extraversion versus introversion, intuitive versus sensing, feeling versus thinking, and judging versus perceiving and gives you one of 16 results like INFJ or ESTP.  The MBTI has become a weirdly ubiquitous piece of pop psychology. Businesses have used the Myers-Briggs test to make hiring decisions, there are academic papers published evaluating the correlation between MBTI and employment satisfaction, it shows up on Tinder profiles and there are literally thousands of personality-type clubs on meetup.com.   

Too bad it has not more scientific basis than online quizzes for which Harry Potter house you belong to (add that to my list of irritations, by the way).  “The research out there says that [the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator] doesn’t predict behavior in a consistent way, and psychometrically, the way it’s constructed, is pretty odd,” says Ronald Riggio, who earned his PhD in Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and currently teaches at Claremont McKenna College. “My first encounter with the scale was when a student presented it to me, and since it was so poorly constructed, I thought it was the student’s work.”  His contempt for the test echoes many voices in the professional psychological community.

The primary complaint about the MBTI has to do with the way the scale measures cognitive instinct.  Myers-Briggs works in absolute binaries, black & white — you’re either judging or perceiving, intuitive or sensing — and it only takes one questions to tip your results either way.  That doesn’t reflect the complicated reality of human personality. There’s no room to be in the middle.

The MBTI sounds really science-y, but there was precious little science involved in its creation.  On 1921, Carl Jung declared that all personalities could be sorted into one of either categories. But wait, you say, isn’t Jung one of the fathers of psychology?   That’s as may be, but he worked in the time before psychology actually used the tools of science, like controlled experiments. Jung’s personality types were his own arbitrary choices.  Fast forward twenty-some years to the mother-daughter pair novelist Isabel Briggs-Myers and magazine-writer Katherine Cooks-Briggs. Katherine began reading Jung’s take on personalities when her daughter became engage to a young man who, while nice enough, saw and reacted to the world quite differently than they did.  They decided to take Jung’s ideas and turn them into “type indicators.” They came up with 93 questions and doubled the personality types from eight to sixteen, but they were still completely arbitrary and not all that meaningful. Even with the questionable, licensing the testing is a multi-million dollar business for the company that owns the rights to the name Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

So what explains the MBTI’s popularity?  It’s probably the soft-ball way the personality descriptions are written.  They all sound positive and optimistic. The Type Indicator will never tell you that you’re a bad person  “[Psychologists] call that the Barnum Effect.” says Riggio. “The Barnum Effect says that if you write something that’s so general [it can apply to anyone]. They all sound right, they’re all so positive and kind of generic, people say, ‘Oh my God, this is a miracle—it totally applies to me.'”  Basically, they’re like horoscopes. There’s no danger in taking your Myers-Briggs temperature, as long as you don’t get too invested in the results. Think of it like you would a fortune-teller at the fair or a BuzzFeed quiz, a bit of fun and not something to base decisions on.

While your Myers-Briggs results may be rubbish, there was proper science behind the creation of the Apgar test.  It may sound like an acronym, but it’s actually the last name of Dr. Virginia Apgar, whose post-birth assessment protocol has saved countless infants.  

While parents might be eager to hold their baby as soon as it’s born, the first minutes of its life must first be devoted to the Apgar test.  This test provides a numerical score the for infant’s heart rate, muscle tone, physical appearance, and breathing. The test is performed at one minute and five minutes after birth — sometimes it takes baby a few minutes to get going.  There’s an easy mnemonic to remember it – Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration, which spells Apgar. You could say it’s an acronym after all, but since the doctor’s name came first, this would be called a “backronym.”

Dr. Virginia Apgar developed the test while working as a professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of obstetric anesthesia at Presbyterian Hospital in 1952.  Her impact on infant survival has been as great as the test is simple. “The score gave physicians and nurses a requirement to look at the newborn in an organized method,” says Dr. Richard Smiley of New York Presbyterian, “and it’s helped prevent the death of countless babies. Once physicians and nurses had to assign a score, it created an imperative to act to improve the score.  It was essentially the birth of clinical neonatology,” Smiley says.

Before the scoring system was adopted, newborns who had trouble breathing or were small and blue were often labeled as stillborn. It was assumed they would not live and would be left to die.  There was no protocol for trying to resuscitate newborns or intervene medically, even things as simple as oxygen and incubators.

Virginia Apgar was just one of nine women in a class of 90 students pursuing an M.D. from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She graduated fourth in her class, and followed this with a two-year surgical internship at what is now NewYork-Presbyterian/ Columbia University Medical Center.  Although Apgar was an excellent student, her mentor, the chief of surgery, worried that as a woman, she wouldn’t be able to establish a surgical practice, and encouraged her to pursue anesthesiology instead. Apgar threw herself fully into the field and would become director of the new division of anesthesia within the department of Surgery.  Her role included clinical responsibilities as well as building the residency program.

Apgar continued to break barriers. From 1949 to 1959 she was Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons’ first female full professor there, and the first female physician to hold a full professorship at the college.  When the division of anesthesia within the department of surgery became an independent department, Apgar became the director of obstetric anesthesia.

During this time, she attended countless births and worked with colleagues to quickly assess a baby’s health in the first minute of life, looking for birth defects as well as the effects of labor, delivery, and maternal anesthesia.  Newborn circulatory or respiratory issues were not always conspicuously apparent, often resulting in death. She presented the score at a national anesthesiology meeting in 1952 and published it in a full manuscript in 1953. After the creation of the Apgar score, the first neonatal intensive care units were started.

Virginia Apgar’s work inspired clinical scoring system in other areas of medicine, use as intensive care.  The Glasgow coma scale provides the status of the central nervous system, while APACHE II attempts to predict the morbidity and mortality rate of patients in the ICU.

Apgar never stopped working or learning until her death in 1974.  She obtained a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which led to a role at March of Dimes as the head of the new division of congenital malformations.  With journalist and writer Joan Beck, she wrote the popular book Is My Baby All Right? (1972). She made her own musical instruments, performed with the symphony, and learned to fly a single-engine plane in her 50s.  Virginia Apgar not only championed newborn babies; she also paved the way for women to pursue careers in medicine. I don’t know about you, but I suddenly feel like I need to get my butt in gear.

Of course, Apgar isn’t the only woman in medicine to have given us a test that bears her name.  The Ashby technique is a method for determining the volume and life span of red blood cells in humans, first published by Dr. Winifred Ashby in 1919.  Helen Ollendorff-Curth was dermatologist whose name was synonymous with the now rarely-used test “Ollendorff probe sign,” after demonstrating in her thesis that the lesions of secondary syphilis are sensitive to touch.  William’s Stain is a superior testing method for rabies, courtesy of Anna Williams in the New York City Health Department at the turn of the last century.

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bjv8y5/the-myers-briggs-personality-test-bullshit
https://news.avclub.com/10-of-14-pixar-films-fail-the-bechdel-test-1798273680
https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/call-it-the-bechdel-wallace-test/402259/
https://lifehacker.com/the-bechdel-test-and-other-media-representation-tests-1819324045
https://medium.com/thrive-global/why-representation-matters-now-more-than-ever-d4c7d7e1fe93
http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Crystal_Gems_test
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NQqSnkI32A
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5pggDCnt5M
https://www.vox.com/2016/2/1/10888212/duvernay-test-movie-diversity
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/01/ava-duvernay-test-racial-diversity-hollywood-selma-director-oscars
https://www.fandor.com/posts/women-in-film-ava-duvernay
https://www.glaad.org/sri/2014/vitorusso
https://healthmatters.nyp.org/apgar-score/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5419037/

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