Occasional thoughts on diverse subjects

The Bechdel test

By Dave Menendez
Saturday, August 2, 2008, at 5:32 PM

Summary: The Bechdel test reveals some of the hidden sexism in movies, books, and television, but the point isn’t to praise or condemn individual works.

Think of the last few movies you’ve seen. How many of them had two female characters that, at some point, have a discussion that isn’t about a man?

This question comes from an old Dykes to Watch Out For strip and goes by various names. Lately, I’ve seen it called the Bechdel test (which isn’t entirely accurate, since the author, Alison Bechdel, got it from a friend of hers, but she did popularize it), so I’ll call it that here. There’s a long discussion about it over at Charlie Stross’s blog, which is what brought it to my mind.

Obviously, there are a lot of ways to interpret something like this, and you can see several interpretations in the thread. A lot of people bring up specific works and examine whether they pass the test. A couple of people nitpicked the rules of the test. (It’s common, for example, to require that the two female characters having the conversation be named.) As I see it, this misses the lesson of the test.

I think the word “test” misleads people. Whether or not an individual film (or book) passes the test isn’t important by itself. What’s important is that the proportion of films which fail the Bechdel test is so large.

There’s an asymmetry here, since films which pass the test have stricter requirements than films which fail the test. So let’s introduce the counter-Bechdel test, which a film passes if it has at least two (named) male characters who, at some point, have a discussion that isn’t about a woman. How many of the films you thought of before pass that test? Again, it will depend on your viewing habits, but I’ll bet it’s more than the number that pass the regular Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test and the counter-Bechdel test are not opposites. It’s possible to pass both, and it’s possible to fail both. For example, a film with only one named male character and one named female character can’t pass either. This isn’t a judgement on quality; there are terrible films which pass one or more tests, and there are excellent films that don’t. It’s the proportions that are off. Films which fail the Bechdel test are so commonplace that they hardly get commented on. Films which fail the counter-Bechdel test are pretty much dismissed as “chick flicks”. Consider all the men in the media who were amazed or disgusted by the success of the Sex and the City movie. (Which I haven’t actually seen, so I haven’t confirmed it fails counter-Bechdel.)

For writers, the point is not to create a litmus test. Don’t add a one-scene conversation just to pass. Just be aware of the gender ratios, and why they are that way. There are many, many movies and TV shows and books where the protagonists are a bunch of men and no more than one woman. It isn’t bad to have a few stories like that, but it’s a problem when you have to hunt for exceptions.

(For more reading, see Mr Stross’s follow-up post.)