So about that “cowboy test” National Review article…

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By special request! I declare a snark battle with that dumb National Review essay comparing women to cowboys.

But first, I do want to acknowledge something. It must be hard styling yourself as a “serious” or “intellectual” conservative these days. With Trump as standard-bearer of the Republican party, it has to be getting more difficult — exponentially, with each passing day — to continue convincing yourself that Republicans are the Very Serious Party, the party of thoughtfulness and prudence and sensible decision-making, with policies forged in the purest fires of academic rigor and based only on rational clear-headed notions and historic principles.

You really have to work to generate the right smug supercilious tone in which to engage in recreational hippie-punching — or perhaps, as more appropriate to the modern era, middle-aged-women-in-pussy-hats-punching.

That, I believe, explains the remarkably untimely appearance of this article in the National Review:

Suppose your favorite film critic started sprinkling his reviews with references to the “Cowboy Test” and made it clear that he was factoring into his appraisal of a work of art whether it contained cowboys.

I think we all know, based on the headline, where he’s going with this, but let’s make note of two things here. One, is that he set this up assuming it was your favorite film critic, which implies that it was already somebody you liked and respected, so you might be willing to consider whether or not maybe there’s a good reason to talk about films in terms of cowboys.

Two: cowboys. How many cowboys are there in the world? How many cowboys do you know? How many cowboys do you see in a typical day? Are you a cowboy? Are you married to a cowboy? Is your mom, sister, cousin, best friend a cowboy? Does every heterosexual romance involve at least one cowboy?

Are cowboys half the human race?

La La Land? Manchester by the Sea? Moonlight? All problematic, as these benighted films contain no cowboys.

Ironic bonus point for near-miss on use of “problematic”

On the other hand, Cowboys and Aliens, Armageddon, and the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music, each of which contains cowboy characters, would easily pass the Cowboy Test and receive a hearty blessing.

Don’t forget Dr Strangelove, The Big Lebowski and all three Toy Story movies.

You would think this approach to movies a bit odd.

Perhaps. Although if this is really my favorite reviewer we’re talking about, I bet it would still be interesting.

It is. But no odder than the Bechdel Test, a feminist litmus test that is currently being thrown around by movie critics as an important way to assess the quality or at least the political correctness of a film.

It is, in fact, objectively weirder than the Bechdel Test, given that women are, as I mentioned, approximately half of every natural human population.

And let’s think about this for a moment. He’s basically just admitted movies that pass the Bechdel Test are as rare as movies with cowboys.

Assuming you’re a normal person, and not a film critic, you may never even have heard of the Bechdel Test.

This means the writer just heard of it. Or possibly this article has been in the can for a while and just trotted out for publishing now, when the NR was running out of material to distract its readership from the fact that their Republican president is in Europe careening around like a buffoon, making us a laughingstock of a country and possibly damaging the US relationship with key allies forever.

In a way I get it. NR probably had all sorts of ideas for anti-feminist articles their base would’ve found really relevant during a Hillary Clinton presidency. The typical NR reader — who I imagine as a doughy middle-aged white dude who describes himself as “more of a libertarian, actually” — could’ve really enjoyed getting all fluffed up with outrage over this pop culture trifle.

Believe me, typical NR reader, I get you. I, too, looked forward to a 2017 sparring with supercilious Republicans over things like whether or not the Bechdel Test is worthwhile, and not neverending high-stakes battles over whether or not treason is okay and whether the Confederacy or even the Nazis had the right idea after all.

By the way, as a “conservative,” are you experiencing any cognitive dissonance at all over the Republicans, your party, enabling treason? I’m genuinely curious. Back in the 80s, when you were telling us liberals that we should “move to Russia,” if we wanted a more robust safety net, did you have any inkling of the kind of treasonous Russian entanglements your own party would eventually be complicit in? Or are you as surprised as everyone?

Named for the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel,

Not “cartoonist.”

“Lesbian cartoonist.”

Technically accurate, but in this context it strikes me as loaded.

 it first appeared in an underground comic called Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985,

Portions of this article could’ve been in the can for a looong time.

in which it was called “the rule.” “The rule” is that a movie must have at least two (named) female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Accurate. One point.

One Bechdel character sniffed that she would go only to movies that pass this test.

He totally misses my favorite part, which is that the last movie that passed was Alien, because two women talk about the monster. Plus, I think “sniffed” is the wrong word here, pure projection — haughty sniffing is what NR writers do. But also not entirely inaccurate. Half a point.

Today Bechdel is an over-ground artist, a very big deal.

Jealous much

In 2014, she won a MacArthur “genius award.” A show based on her graphic novel Fun Home had a successful run on Broadway and won a Tony for Best Musical.


She is regarded as a feminist savant by the left-leaning cultural cognoscenti.

What the hell does that mean? I swear to God I am not a cognoscenti of any kind. In fact, I refuse to Google it.

Sigh. Fine. Okay. Apparently cognoscenti means “people who are considered to be especially well informed about a particular subject.”

Experts, I guess? Scholars? Critics?

Whatever else it’s intended to mean, it’s a pitch-perfect example of what I was talking about earlier, re: the correct smug and supercilious tone when liberal-punching. They steer for this tone where they simultaneously make us, liberals that is, sound like some snooty and rarified cultural elite (who could be described by using a four-dollar word like “cognoscenti”), and also make themselves sound smarter than we are (because they would use a four-dollar word like “cognoscenti”).

Anyway. I like Dykes to Watch Out For because it’s a humorous, strip-style comic. Is anything less elitist than the funny pages?

In the past few years,

In the can forever, nailed it.

the Bechdel Test has begun popping up casually in reviews like a feminist Good Housekeeping Seal of approval.

That’s… approaching fair. And the dog whistle-y sexism of the Good Housekeeping ref is almost subtle. One point.

Take this appreciation last month of the 1992 film A League of Their Own, published by Katie Baker on the site The Ringer: “It is, in my possibly blinded by love but also correct opinion, one of the best sports movies there is. And it is an honest ode to women and sisters and friendships, with a story that breezes through the Bechdel test by the end of the opening scene.”

So the reviewer used the concept of passing the Bechdel test as shorthand to indicate a film is solidly woman-centered? I just did that same thing, in person, to my husband, a couple of months ago, when I re-watched The Craft for a Crypticon panel. Maybe if woman-centered movies were the default such a thing wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but



They are not

Neither of these two tests gives you any hint as to the worth of a film,

No and that’s why most people don’t try to claim the test all by itself is a measure of quality or even feminism. Showgirls and I think Zombie Strippers both pass, for example.

and furthermore neither of them tells you anything about a film’s general feminist wokeness.

Minus  a point for clumsy self-conscious use of “wokeness.”

It doesn’t even tell you whether the film is entirely about a woman.

Whoa if true

Dude. Dude. If you hadn’t just stumbled on the Bechdel Test last week or whatever, you would know that people who use the test seriously as a way to talk about movies will tell you the exact same things. It’s a data point, a handle you can use for talking about the movie’s characters in terms of gender roles.

Your logical fallacy is: strawman

Lots of films that have female protagonists fail the Bechdel Test [..]Lots of blockbusters with beloved female characters fail the Bechdel Test [..] So do many classic Hollywood films

Dude, you don’t know it, but you are explaining exactly why the test even is a thing. Because of how often movies don’t pass it.

Some promoters of the Bechdel Test, stung by the many writers who have pointed out its utter vapidity and uselessness,

Yeah, weird, if you tell me something I find interesting is vapid and useless, that is going to sting.

Tell me, does it sting when I point out your Republican president is a treasonous moron using the highest office in the land as part of a tawdry scheme to make himself and his family richer at the expense of the American people and the free world, possibly for decades to come?

say it isn’t meant to be a litmus test but rather a strategy for drawing attention to the general way women are sidelined in Hollywood.

Yes, and?

But movies aren’t intended to be a proper demographic cross-section of America.

“It’s okay that movies don’t represent you, because they aren’t intended to!”



Stop and listen to yourself for a second


Movies (at least Hollywood movies) are about people on the extremes of society — cops, criminals, superheroes. These extreme characters tend to be men,

[Falls face-first on the bed, groaning through a pillow.] Did you. Did you really. Did you really just try to argue SIMULTANEOUSLY that movies are about men because movies are unrealistic and also that movies are about men because they have to be realistic?

I don’t quite know how to tell you this, dude, if you haven’t already figured it out: MOVIES ARE THINGS THAT WE MAKE. They don’t just magically exist somehow, popping in from an alternate dimension at regular intervals. They are financed, written, directed, costumed, produced, edited, all by human beings who make choices.

and men tend to be the ones who create them.


Women enjoy much more prominence in the milieu of low-budget independent movies,

Uh, not really.

Have you ever seen a Wes Anderson flick?

It might be true that there would be more women prominently featured in movies if more women were writing and directing more movies.

Yes let’s try that and see what happens.

But it might also be true that the reason there aren’t as many women making films is that women’s movie ideas aren’t commercial enough for Hollywood studios.

Or maybe you could talk to some female filmmakers and they could tell you that’s the stupidest thing they ever heard.

But anyway, Dear Hollywood: if you would like to make an action-adventure series about female werewolves who run around kicking ass, I HAVE GOT YOUR HOT PROPERTY RIGHT HERE TALK TO ME NOW

To be slightly less reductionist than the Bechdel Test, women tend to write movies about relationships, and men tend to write movies about aliens and shootouts.

And he’s basing this on what secret knowledge, exactly? He doesn’t even cite particular screenplays by particular writers. It’s a fact-free assertion so blatantly old-school sexist that it seems like it has to be deliberate, a self-aware taunt from somebody who surely must know better.

“Oh, chicks, they don’t get more work in Hollywood because they like to write about relationships and stuff, right? I guess? And who wants to watch that stuff? Nobody! Well, maybe chicks, but they don’t count. Anyway, the Bechdel Test is stupid and tells you nothing.”

Listen, if women just wrote and directed movies that only women went to go see, we’re still talking, wait, where was that figure? Oh, yeah. HALF THE POPULATION.

Anyway, the greatest romantic comedy of all time, The Empire Strikes Back, was co-written by a woman, and is also about starships and laser battles, and also has a fantastic female lead character RIP Carrie Fisher, and also doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. I mean, are we still talking about the Bechdel Test here or what?

Have a wander through the sci-fi and fantasy section of your local bookstore: How many of these books’ authors are female?

Pretty close to half. When was the last time he wandered through the SF&F section of a local bookstore?

Yet these are where the big movie ideas come from.


But seriously. Right now the “big movie” ideas seem to be coming mostly from traditionalist superhero comic books, which, even though there are many prominent female superheroes, somehow the movies always seem to end up male-centered anyway, even the ones with an ensemble cast. Movies nearly always end up less female-centered than the source material they’re based on, even when that source material is the Bible, if you want to hear my rant about how Prince of Egypt totally cut Moses’ sister Miriam out of the story.

And also, was this written before the Wonder Woman movie came out, because…?

If a woman wants the next Lord of the Rings–style franchise to pass the Bechdel Test, then a woman should come up with a story with as much earning potential as J. R. R. Tolkien’s.



So much to unpack here, starting with the fact that LORD OF THE FREAKING RINGS is a ridiculous point of comparison, considering that everyone (including baby yours truly) spent much of the 70s and 80s trying and failing to write the next LOTR. It’s like saying “why don’t you just go be Shakespeare, then?”

Which, incidentally, Virginia Woolf already handled the question of why there wasn’t a female Shakespeare although “Shakespeare was secretly his sister” is the only “Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare” theory that interests me. But that’s point two: there are, even in the modern world, many forces that make it less likely a woman will get the chance to write the next LOTR in the first place, less likely to get it published, less likely to have it achieve the prominence of LOTR, and less likely to make it to the screen with all its Bechdel-passing qualities (assuming they exist) intact.

Furthermore, we have recent historical evidence that the “just write it yourself” approach doesn’t result in female-created works enjoying the same prominence as, for example, LOTR. It results in gamergate.

Because dudes don’t really mean “create it yourself if you don’t like it.” They mean “shut up.”

Header image is a portion of the original The Rule comic, shown here on Alison Bechdel’s blog.


  1. Yes and… notice that he uses the Harry Potter series as an example of films that don’t pass the Bechdel Test even though they feature strong female characters. Then he goes on to say women don’t tell the kind of stories that make billions at the box office.

    Does… does he think it stands for Jacob Kevin Rowling?

    It’s amazing how this dude’s article rides the line… it’s almost so stupid that you can dismiss it out of hand, but then it’s so wrong on so many easily correctable points that it forced me to engage with it. Ugh.

    So. Great take down, and I’m buying tickets now for your female werewolf ass-kicking movie.

    1. Author

      Yeah, I don’t quite understand how you can write an article, disprove your own point, and not notice.

  2. It’s really pathetic that this is what Society has to talk about in this day and time. I’m ashamed that I even attempted to read the article I was so bored out of my mind within the first two paragraphs that I quit and went directly to the comments section.

  3. Great article, Julie, and well observed, Josh Nite. I keep grinding my teeth over the fact that ANT MAN got a movie when somehow (bizarrely but unsurprisingly, I guess) Black Widow never did. (Nothing against Paul Rudd, of course. But ANT MAN? That’s pretty deep catalog when Scarlett “Money in the Goddamn Bank” is standing RIGHT THERE, waiting.) Anyway, thanks for the sharp analysis.

  4. The Virginia Woolf link is broken. I think it might be a smartquote problem.

  5. His article does explain why I see maybe one movie a year in a theater. Just think how much money the movie industry would make if they made a few more people like me would go see instead of staying at home and finding BBC series on Amazon Prime to watch.

  6. What’s insane is that he could not have written this before June 30th, since that’s when the League of Their Own review was written. So, he somehow completely missed the existence of Wonder Woman.

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