Beyond the Bechdel Test: The Power of Procedural Rhetoric

In my last post, I reflected on why we should care about how women are represented on the screen. I drew attention to the fact that women constitute a majority of the humans on earth, but numbers alone should not dictate how we portray people in our media. In a democratic and liberal society, we hold all of humanity to be equally valuable and, as such, equally deserving of being portrayed realistically and robustly. What I only briefly noted before was that beyond women, misrepresentation (or lack of representation entirely) also affects a number of other demographics, particularly minority groups. For example, the lack of African-American representation in Hollywood was a concern raised a few years ago with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

Addressing representation on the screen is an important and worthy task; however, over the past semester, I have come to realize how a focus on visual representation can distract us from deeper, more insidious dysfunctions in our media. It is those, often invisible, factors that I want to address in this post. 

To do so, we first need to take a brief detour into a book I had to read for my class on Digital Games & Society this past fall semester. The book by Ian Bogost, a scholar and game designer, is called Persuasive Games but before we talk about games (which we will!), I want to look at an idea he proposes in his opening chapter: procedural rhetoric.Bogost writes:

Procedural rhetoric is the practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively (28).Ian Bogost

When we talk about issues of visual representation in cinema, we are thus focusing on visual rhetoric. We are thinking about how what we see on-screen makes an argument for how we should view and understand the world. 

If we were to focus on a film’s dialogue, then we would be considering its verbal rhetoric. We would be exploring how what a character says and how they say it might make an argument for how we should view and understand the world.

But Bogost wants us to think about this new form of rhetoric that is based not on images or words but on procedures.

Procedural rhetoric is a general name for the practice of authoring arguments through processes. . . . its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models. Ian Bogost

Bogost is wanting us to think about how things are made to work. In a cinematic narrative, what arguments do the filmmakers make about how the world-at-large works through the world that they create within their film? For instance, The Matrix introduces us to a version of the world in which our daily realities are actually lies: what we see is a false facade. Thus, The Matrix makes a procedural argument about the nature of reality and about our capacity for knowledge.

The Matrix


In computation, those rules are authored in code, through the practice of programming.Ian Bogost

Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric is easier to understand within the context of the digital realm. Computer code is a very tangible means by which individuals can construct new worlds, programming certain ideas and procedures into their infrastructures. However, computer code is also not an ideal example since most of us are illiterate in that regard. (Another topic to address in the coming days.) Instead this is where I will turn to video games as a more accessible example, which allows us to think about procedural logic through the mechanics of how the game works, i.e. how the game is coded.

In a paper I wrote this semester, I looked at a game called Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The game is part of a larger franchise in which gamers play as Nathan Drake, an intrepid explorer and supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake. The Lost Legacy, however, did not feature Nathan Drake and rather told its story through the eyes of two popular female characters from the franchise: Chloe, the Indian-Australian thief and occasional ally to Nathan Drake, and Nadine, the South African mercenary who was Nathan’s opponent in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The game does a fantastic job in terms of representation. Both main characters are women of color, and they talk about many things without referencing a man (i.e. passing the Bechdel Test). Chloe and Nadine are not sexualized; they are capable, witty, and intelligent. Much of the game dialogue is actually dedicated to critiquing the male-centric nature of the previous Uncharted games, which was unexpected and quite enjoyable, especially for me as a female gamer. 

I appreciated Uncharted: The Lost Legacy on so many levels, yet I couldn’t fully embrace the game–because of its procedural rhetoric.

In my paper I wrote:

Despite positive representation, the game continued the same exploitative game mechanics of the previous Uncharted games. Besides the absence of an interminable appearance of crates that need to be pushed off cliffs, the game is still a mixture of combat and puzzle solving in a foreign, exotic land whose treasures have yet to be uncovered.

The Lost Legacy does attempt to justify the treasure hunting in the character of Chloe, who is ostensibly also on a mission to deepen her knowledge of her heritage and provide the country of India with access to a hidden part of its history. In addition, both Chloe and Nadine are not only women, they are also women of color, so the narrative is no longer one of white men invading and plundering.

However, once one peels back the narrative layer of the story and examines the game’s mechanics, one still finds an inherently imperialistic game, where killing and raiding ancient monuments is framed as not only acceptable but also pleasurable. Nadine’s ethnic identity also does not change the fact that she is helping Chloe not for altruistic reasons but for the payout.Rachel Lara Watson

It can be easy with games like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy to recognize the positive representations and laud the game developers for their commitment to progress. But these representations interact with the procedural logics to construct new meanings. What does it mean that the game developers at Naughty Dog replaced Nathan Drake with two women of color who perform the same exploitative (and often destructive) actions that he used to perform? My stomach actually turns when I think about this. That isn’t progress!

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Screen Capture

Though cinema does not require its audience to engage with and play out a set of mechanics, there are still procedural rhetorics built into cinematic worlds that necessarily also interact with a film’s visual (and verbal) rhetorics. A similar cinematic example to Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is the film The Help. The Help is a film whose main characters are all women, several of whom are also women of color, and it passes the Bechdel Test. However, if you pay attention to the procedural rhetorics of the film, the narrative is essentially one of white women “saving” helpless black women while trying to work through their white guilt. In addition, Skeeter, the main character and a white woman, ultimately reaps a financial benefit from the whole situation by writing a book in which she takes it upon herself to tell the stories of “the help”. (To read a more comprehensive argument about why The Help is problematic, check out this article.)

My argument in this post is not that we should disregard visual rhetoric and questions of representation. My argument, rather, is that when we focus on those elements and fail to consider the procedural rhetoric, we fail to understand how the visual representations are worked out in the film. 

In conclusion, I want us to be more attentive to the arguments in cinema, video games, and other forms of media that are made “through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models.” What is being modeled to us on-screen? What arguments are being made about how the world works? And how do those logics then shape how we must read and interpret the visual representations?

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your responses in the comment section below. And please, as always, remember to subscribe!

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    1. Without having had time to watch the video, I’d say your statement sounds accurate though I think it is possible to extend Ian’s approach to an analysis of content, albeit one that is dissimilar to a traditional literary approach.

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