Hamilton and The Bechdel Test

For a musical theatre person with a deep interest in history I’ve been surprisingly slow to get around to investigating the music of Hamilton. But, this past week I finally caved and purchased a copy of the music on iTunes.

I’ve listened to the music all the way through a couple of times and agree that it is fresh, intellectual, clever, funny, and has incredibly powerful character depictions. Lin Manuel Miranda has a real talent for meta-theatre; there are constant, clever nods to the fact that this is a story about the past told by a self-deprecating historian hungry to understand how things were and who these people were. The show also totally fails the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel test is a screening test used for storytelling art forms (movies, books, plays) used to evaluate the level of realism in depictions of female characters. The test jokingly suggests that stories should be evaluated for whether or not there are at least two, named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a guy. According to http://bechdeltest.com/statistics/ only about 58% of movies manage to pass this ridiculously low standard for depictions of women as actual human beings.

I did some quick Internet research about Hamilton and the Bechdel Test and discovered there is technically some debate as to whether or not the musical passes the test on the grounds that about 3 sentences worth of lyrics inside one song (The Schyuler Sisters) can be interpreted as the sisters discussing the American Revolution.

I think the question of whether or not Hamilton *technically* passes the test is irrelevant. If you have to obsessively focus on the lyrics of a single song in order to uncover the hidden implication that women might actually have opinions about the war they are living through then you aren’t doing a good enough job of representing women as real people with thoughts, ideas, and relationships with each other that have nothing to do with men.

You could, in theory argue that this show is focused sharply on Alexander Hamilton, and to a lesser extent on Aaron Burr, and so it only makes sense that the characters are shown solely in their relationship to these characters. I think this isn’t a good enough excuse for two main reasons:

Reason One – All the other male characters floating through are allowed to have opinions, thoughts, and political positions that aren’t about Hamilton/Burr, nor about their relationship with their wives and girlfriends. Without changing the focus of the story a bit, the male characters are seen as fully developed characters with independent thoughts who interact with each other in addition to interacting with Hamilton/Burr.

Reason Two – Stories about two women and their relationship with each other do not struggle with the reverse gender version of the Bechdel Test. For example, yesterday Sam and I watched Frozen. Aside from the fact that in this supposedly female-centered movie Elsa and Anna are the only two females in the whole movie who have names, there are about a gazillion examples of males talking to each other about things other than women. Daddy and Grandpa B talking to each other about Anna’s injury and Elsa’s powers, Oaken and Kristoff talking to each other about Kristoff’s purchase of supplies, Prince Hans and the Duke of Weaseltown talking about Prince Hans’ handling of the unexpected ice age, etc. It is possible for small characters to have fully developed personalities and motivations, it just isn’t the storytelling norm when it comes to female characters. Hamilton creates the character of Angelica as Alexander Hamilton’s equal in intelligence, yet never allows her to talk about anything but her feelings for him. There was ample opportunity for the women of the show to also have opinions about war, independence, government, politics, the constitution etc. They just don’t. Is it really so far fetched to think that women would also care about the structure of the country they have to live in?

When I was 8 years old I spent 3 solid weeks of my life walking around the house with a dish towel draped on my head (like a kerchief) singing all the female parts from Fiddler on the Roof (another story that fails the Bechdel test). By the time I was 10 I had memorized the entire Rogers and Hammerstein canon (several more shows that don’t pass the test). My obsession with musical theatre runs deep.

When I hear the female songs in Hamilton, I can’t help but picture the next generation of musical theatre girl, who has just been given 5 more songs to sing about men. The songs are always about men. With every song memorized we reinforce the idea for her that the only thing women are ever supposed to think about, talk about, and care about, is men. There is no place for her ideas, thoughts, opinions on other topics in the cultural narrative. By refusing to treat women as independent, three dimensional people in our culture’s storytelling we perpetuate the idea that girls are lesser people who have no right to equal representation. We are building the culture that pushes girls out of board rooms and political halls.

Lin Manuel Miranda has written a brilliant show. He has also written a show that reinforces the idea that women exist primarily to be supporting players to men. We must demand better of our storytellers.

3 thoughts on “Hamilton and The Bechdel Test

  1. I do like to hold things up to the Bechdel test. Here is one that is kinda hard to slice, Into the Woods. I’m not sure it passes, although there are plenty of named female characters, and they talk to each other… Often the conversations turn to the men in the story…

    1. Cinderella and her step-mother/sisters talk about the ball. Red Riding Hood and the Baker’s Wife talk about buying bread. The witch and Rapunzel have many conversations about their relationship as mother and daughter and where the line is between protection and smothering. Red Riding Hood, the Witch, and Cinderella are all part of the group discussion about who is to blame for the troubles. Cinderella and Red Riding Hood talk about not being alone because even as an independent person you have friends to lean on.

      It passes.

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