How to pass the Bechdel test and why it is IMPORTANT at all

The Bechdel test or Bechdel/Wallace test was developed by Liz Wallace and became widely known after Alison Bechdel featured it in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For.

The Bechdel test is a test of female characterisation in movies. Passing the Bechdel test requires that the movie (or media):

  • has at least two women characters;
  • who talk to each other at some point;
  • about something other than a man or men

Of course passing or failing the test is not an ironclad guarantee of well-rounded, feminist, characterisation or a great, interesting movie; however it is indicative of the problems of token women characters that are plaguing the film industry. A vast amount of geeky media fails the test although you have to admit the criteria cannot be called exorbitant. Just a minute or two of small talk between two chicks, no guys mentioned – is it such a big deal? Is it?

Now, I am really not a proponent of limiting yourself to shows/movies that pass the test; if you did so you’d be cutting out a lot of otherwise-worthy entertainment. Indeed I admit a fair number of top-notch works have legitimate reasons for including no women (e.g. The Name of the Rose, a not exactly great movie but based on a brilliant book by Umberto Eco which was set in a medieval monastery), or with no conversations at all, or having only one or two characters.

A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. Conversely, it’s also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. What’s a problem is that it becomes a pattern — when so many movies fail the test, while very few show male characters whose lives seem to revolve around women, that says uncomfortable things about the way Hollywood handles gender. There are also lesser-known variations of the rule, such as the Race Bechdel Test, in which two characters of colour talk about anything other than the white leads and the Reverse Bechdel Test, with the roles of men and women swapped.

Now you might be surprised if you consult the list of famous films that failed the original test miserably.
1. Run Lola Run
2-4. The Entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy
5-7. The Original Star Wars Trilogy

8. Avatar
9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II

10. The Social Network
11. Matrix

12. Inception
13. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
14.Shrek
15. Princess Bride
16. Sex and the City
17. The Avengers
18. The Hunt for Red October

Quite a list, isn’t it? If you want to know more or if you want to check whether your fav movie would pass the test without actually rewatching it, please visit http://bechdeltest.com/ where movies are listed and assessed properly. You can comment there as well. 🙂

Some people MIGHT get twitchy at the idea that more female protagonists would be a positive step in cinema. Shouldn’t cinema be just about art and good films telling interesting stories? No, it shouldn’t –  here’s a few reasons why I think the Bechdel test is important, and what it can tell you:

1. You don’t notice it until you have it pointed out…

…and then you can’t stop. It’s amazing how the relative absence of women in film is so normal, so acceptable and so widely spread it can barely be noticed.

Think about it this way – how weird would a reverse Bechdel world be? Most movies only have one male character and if he gets any dialogue at all with a rare second male character, it will inevitably be about women. Challenge of the day: have you ever seen that film? Think, and think hard, and if you come up with a title please comment. If you can name one, what kind of film is it? Is it making a point, or aimed at a particular demographic – or is the lack of testosterone entirely by accident, because no one is paying attention.

2. “Women aren’t interesting enough to deserve more time in a movie…”

…is a very short-sighted fallacy. While cinema can’t – shouldn’t – rebuild the world as an equal-opportunities utopia, a great many test-failing stories seem to arise through laziness and ignorance. This can’t be simply pigeonholed as a “feminist issue”. If you’re only telling stories about men, you’re ignoring 50% of the ideas, thoughts, and experiences in the world. That’s a whole lot of movies not being made. Not a big deal, really?

3. It demonstrates the lack of good, strong female protagonists so the lack of good, strong female models

And, connected to that…

4. Film shapes popular culture and popular perception of male and female gender far more efficiently than school, any piece of legislation or government policy.

If you think the way women are treated nowadays matters and should be improved/changed you simply cannot neglect such a powerful tool as pop culture entertainment. As much as film is a product of a culture where women are dull accessories with nothing to say or do, it reproduces this culture. If you learn most of your information about a world outside your so-called comfortable, contemporary  existence through cinema how are you to know how realistic say City of God or Das Boot is? But when you happen to discuss street kids or submarine operators, those vivid images come to your mind. If you want to change the way men perceive and treat women start with the entertainment.

5. It says a lot about the industry and the world we live in.

Why is it so difficult for a movie to pass such a simple test? Is it because most scriptwriters, directors and producers are male? And therefore inclined to write from their personal experience?  Even assuming they’ve managed to name two women, perhaps their understanding of what women are interested in is limited? I am inclined to think this must be the case. Maybe women are traditionally a rarer cinema-going demographic precisely because of a lack of realistic women on screen? Why would Hollywood willingly shut off a source of income otherwise?

If you are a writer or a scriptwriter: do you have two well-developed female characters in your books/scripts ? Are they important enough to the plot that they need to meet and talk? Do they have enough to say beyond just discussing the men in their lives? It’s cheating to stick in a token scene just to pass – their contribution must be as real and measurable as the men in your scenario. Is it worth the effort though? I think ‘yes’ every time I hear or watch news about home violence, worse treatment of women at work, physical, sexual and psychological abuse of women and related issues. If something can be done, let’s do it damnit.

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19 Responses to How to pass the Bechdel test and why it is IMPORTANT at all

  1. AD Starrling says:

    Gosh! Now this really got me thinking about my own writing. One of my editors made a related comment on the book that I'm about to release next month, the second one in my supernatural thriller series Seventeen. He asked 'Why aren't there more women in the Order of the Hunters?' That question stopped me in my tracks. (The Order of the Hunters are kinda like the army/police/bodyguards of the immortal races that feature in the series).The main protagonist of the second novel is female and is an exceedingly strong character. There is one other female character in the novel, who is the main protagonist's mother figure. They have a couple of scenes where they interact and talk, and the subject matter does not concern a man. I did wonder whether I SHOULD add more women fighters in the book. But then, they would be side characters that I would have artificially introduced and who would do nothing to move the plot forward at such a late stage in the writing process (the novel was finished and was going though final edits). If these characters didn't 'come' naturally with the plot, should I introduce them to seem more 'fair', even if I have to change my entire plot-line? In the end I decided not to with the second book. Because the rest of the series feature strong female figures, either as main protagonists or strong secondary characters. My personal feeling is that if a female character 'comes' with the plot, she stays. I don't want to have to introduce one just to be politically correct. And I hope that the ones that do feature in the series come across as the strong, independent women I want to portray.

  2. Blodeuedd says:

    You are gonna hit me now, but I just do not care 😉

  3. What's really sad is when you start reading books that are a century or more old and realize they pass the Bechdel Test more than contemporary novels do. :p Like you, I don't think the Bechdel Test is an ironclad measure of whether or not a movie is feminist, but it's more about whether female characters are fully-realized. If they simply exist FOR the male characters, to lust after or play against, then no, they're not going to pass the Bechdel Test, and it's clear a lot of (male) directors/writers never even think about what women do with their lives when men aren't around. On the other hand, I've read soooo many books or seen movies by women that don't pass the Bechdel Test, either, so I think it's more a reflection of how our society doesn't see women as having their own agency. Women never drive the action, so why would you have a film with a bunch of female characters, right? le snore

  4. I know it was a passing comment from you, but I truly have always wanted to write a novel that doesn't pass a reverse test, then release it without telling anyone and seeing if it was ever discovered. Of course I have never got past the outline stage anytime I have tried to write, so it will need to be someone else baby to happen.

  5. Aurian says:

    Hi girls, I did see some of your conversation about this on Twitter, and had no idea what you were talking about. Thanks for this post, and I can say I have never ever given this a thought at all, but now I do know you are very right. There is not a lot of female friendship in the books I read. With the exception of cozy mysteries.

  6. Oh you are about to release a book? *salivates*I did wonder whether I SHOULD add more women fighters in the book. But then, they would be side characters that I would have artificially introduced and who would do nothing to move the plot forward at such a late stage in the writing process (the novel was finished and was going though final edits).As much as it pains me I think you took the right decision. Personally, as I reader, I would rather get an interesting book with characters which make sense than a book which passes all possible tests around, is politically correct, featuring people of colour, puppies, kids, cute animals and whatnots, but is also bland/insincere/spurious.

  7. At leat you are honest. Still the temptation to hit you is strong. 😉

  8. On the other hand, I've read soooo many books or seen movies by women that don't pass the Bechdel Test, either, so I think it's more a reflection of how our society doesn't see women as having their own agency. Women never drive the action, so why would you have a film with a bunch of female characters, right? le snoreThat's exactly in a nutshell a tendency which makes me mad and which justifies the existence of the Bechdel test and such essays as this one. If you don't speak up for female characters things will stay the way they are. With all the consequences.

  9. Hey, until you are alive you can do it!

  10. Hear hear. As if women couldn't have female friends *snort*. Thanks for your visit Aurian!

  11. AD Starrling says:

    LOL! One of my beta readers wants me to put a monkey in one of the books. I told her, 'There are NO immortal monkeys.' She said, 'I don't care. I WANT the monkey.' It's kinda my fault really. I introduced this character called Bobo the monkey during one of my Facebook conversations when I was sleep-deprived and quite frankly delusional last year. But coming back to topic, yes, characters HAVE to have a function. I'm prepared to be slapped on the hand if I ever portray any of my female characters as weak or existing only for the purpose of being the male protagonist's plaything 😉 (of course, you'll have to come to the UK to slap me on the hand…)

  12. I'm prepared to be slapped on the hand if I ever portray any of my female characters as weak or existing only for the purpose of being the male protagonist's plaything 😉 (of course, you'll have to come to the UK to slap me on the hand…)I hope it won't be needed but I am always the game ;). I live in Europe, the UK is close, especially by plane so yes, beware.

  13. Dog would be really ok. I think I am going to buy the first part to find out what those guys have against rats.

  14. rameau says:

    That's because even lesbians' lives revolve around men. I think this was why I skipped watching that The Kids Are Alright.

  15. rameau says:

    Never give up. It'll happen when the time is right.

  16. rameau says:

    Don't worry. I wrapped Bridget's hands in fluffy pillows.

  17. rameau says:

    I vote for a cat character but only if it makes sense for the plot 😉

  18. rameau says:

    The really sad thing is, I've been thinking and I can't remember more than one or two films that pass the Bechdel test and none that I would call good films. Also, why didn't you add The Hunt For Red October on your list?

  19. Those hands wrapped in fluffy pillows are to be blamed. ;p Typing is a real chore.

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