Getting to know: The Bechdel Test

March 18, 2019

Alison Bechdel at the Boston Book FestivalImage by: Chase Elliott Clark [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

So you’re reading a book and there’s just something you don’t like about it, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Or maybe this movie is just so good, but you’re not sure how to explain what makes it that way. Learning media criticism gives you the tools to talk about the stories you consume, how they affect you, and how they affect our culture. Learning feminist criticism gives you the tools to talk about the stories you want to see.

When you look up the Bechdel Test these days, you come across a lot of things that say ‘maybe it’s time to get rid of the Bechdel Test’, but I can’t say I agree. The Bechdel Test is pretty limited, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful at all. Let’s look into it.

The Bechdel Test grew out of a comic strip by Alison Bechdel where two protagonists talk about their rules for watching movies. There’s a bit more history to the idea, but the long and short of it is that there are three rules:

  1.  the movie has more than one woman character,
  2.  they talk to each other,
  3.  about something other than a man.

The test has since been applied to many other forms of media as well, like books, tv shows, and even video games. It has also spawned similar tests about having characters of colour who talk about something other than race, and having LGBT+ characters who talk about something other than being queer.

This test format is so popular because it touches on some foundational problems of representation: whether a minority is represented at all, and what defines them as characters. It asks whether marginalized characters are being presented as individuals with their own personalities and interests, or if they only exist in relation to the majority: if their personality is only about how they’re different from the majority, that is, how a woman feels about a man, how a person of colour feels about their race and about white people, or how an LGBT+ person feels about their identity and about cis, straight people. The Bechdel Test is about making sure that minorities are represented as people with complex identities, and this is a good place to start a strong, intersectional feminist critique.

Pass or Fail?

But it’s true that the Bechdel Test, and others like it, are pretty limited. For one thing, there are a lot of other feminist issues to be solved in media, especially around difficult questions of how women’s bodies and sexualities are portrayed. The Bechdel test doesn’t touch on that. Another problem is that it’s a very low bar: people can pass the test by including just one short conversation between two women— they don’t even have to be major characters! Then, because it’s a Bechdel test pass, they say their work is feminist, even if it has a lot of other problems with its portrayal of women.

Lastly, just because something doesn’t pass doesn’t necessarily mean the work is anti-feminist. Sometimes a movie can do really well in creating female characters who are complex and at the center of the plot, but don’t talk to other women: Sandra Bullock in Gravity is an example. Similar problems come up when you’re testing for characters of colour or LGBT+ characters. So the test isn’t perfect.

There’s one other thing that the Bechdel test is good for, however, and that’s for looking at culture as a whole. When we’re doing media criticism, we’re also talking about ourselves and the culture around us. The tools we use to discuss media also tell us something about the real world, and that is the case with the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is not always a perfect measure of how feminist something is, but the fact that we can still use such a low bar to evaluate our media is a measure of how feminist our culture is. When we see how many movies, tv shows, and books don’t pass, or pass on the smallest technicality, perhaps we find that our culture is not quite where we want it to be yet.

By Sarah Regier

Further learning:

https://bechdeltest.com/

https://thehathorlegacy.com/why-film-schools-teach-screenwriters-not-to-pass-the-bechdel-test/

https://feministfrequency.com/video/the-bechdel-test-for-women-in-movies/

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/08/beyond-bechdel-test-two-new-ways-looking-movies/311930/

https://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/after-bechdel-test-i-propose-shukla-test-race-film

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jan/18/hollywoods-race-problem-film-industry-actors-of-colour

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