The Magill Test – A Masculine Corollary to the Bechdel Test

This post is brought to you by my husband, Dr. David Magill, who teaches literature and gender studies at Longwood University.

In 1985, lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel offered a tongue-in-cheek proposal for judging female representation in films.  Her cartoon “Dykes to Watch Out for” presented this vision:

Bechdel test comic

Resurrected by film students via the Internet, the “Bechdel Test” has become the de facto approach to thinking about women in film, to the extent that Swedish theaters announced that they would begin grading films for compliance with the rules.  The Bechdel Test has garnered several spin-offs and revisions, all of which share a desire to understand how cinema functions to depict women in demeaning or stereotypical ways for the pleasure of male viewers.

As a scholar working in gender studies, I think this discussion is vitally important; however, I also think we need to have a similar discussion about portrayals of men in cinema and television.  These depictions define masculinity in narrow and at times harmful ways for men.  Thus, I want to offer corollary to the Bechdel Test:  The Magill Test.  I am not the first person to suggest this idea – Eivind Skjellum offers a simple alternative for men in his blog.  But I want to suggest different criteria that, to my mind, more accurately address the issues of masculinity in our culture.  So, a film passes the Magill test if it

  1. Has two men (easiest criterion ever!)
  2. Who talk to each other about
  3. Something other than women, money/career, violence, or sports.

This test has the benefit of easy application, and it allows us to distinguish between portrayals of stereotypical masculinity and ones that might offer men an alternative possibility.  For example, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) would fail the test since its leading character Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) spends the film objectifying women, scheming to make money at the expense of others, and threatening violence against other men.  The Avengers, The Terminator, and The Godfather would also fail my test.  In contrast, the film Dead Poets Society (1989) would pass because its young men discuss friendship and poetry as well as women and sports.   Brokeback Mountain would also fit well here.

But a problem arises when we consider a film like David Mamet and James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992).  This film has multiple men who talk only about how they will make their next sale, using demeaning language to undercut each other as they strive to reach the top of the board and get the good leads.  It also has one of the most famous cameos in cinematic history in Alec Baldwin, who plays an anonymous speaker using threats and insults to motivate these men to become better salesmen.  As such, Glengarry Glen Ross would fail the Magill test, but that would be a problem.  The film is actually an important film for understanding masculinity because it critiques dominant understandings of American manhood by showing their costs and heavy burdens.  The whole point of the film is to show us how American manhood’s extreme focus on economic success has damaged men and forestalled the potential for real relationships because of the focus on competition and manliness.

This flaw in the Magill test was foreshadowed by the reception of the Bechdel test, which has also garnered criticism, even from Bechdel herself, for being too narrow and limited in its application.  So we really need a two-part test, one that takes the results of my “eyeball test” above and then asks further questions of the film:  how does it position itself to understand the men it depicts and their problems?  Does the film glorify the acquisition of women, money, and power?  The Wolf of Wall Street serves as an example of a film whose cinematic excess undermines the potential critique represented in Belfort’s downfall.  Does the film criticize patriarchal structures as oppressive to men and women, albeit differently?  We could pose a list of questions that would clarify a film’s work in envisioning its subjects.  Nevertheless, I think it is important to have that “eyeball test,” despite its limitations, as a means of beginning to make masculinity visible within the media that we consume daily.  We need to see how dominant masculinity defines the possibilities for men in narrow ways and limits access to power and agency to a select few.  We need to question those ideals as problematic for men and women, and demand more accurate and complete portrayals of our present and our futures.

4 thoughts on “The Magill Test – A Masculine Corollary to the Bechdel Test

  1. diahannreyes says:

    I really appreciate the Magill Test. Men need to be able to see broader reflections of who they really are beyond the stereotype on the big screen, just like women. And its up to all of us to start asking the necessary questions.


  2. Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

    Thanks, Diahann and Matt–I’ll pass along your comments to Dave! Matt, I love your addition of friendship! (Makes me think of the struggle in When Harry Met Sally to define friendship–though of course that one eventually gets romantic.)


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