The Bechdel Test is famous as a litmus test for fully-realized female characters in film and other media. It’s not an academic invention like Schrödinger’s Cat (although it can be as elusive); instead, it comes from a comic strip, called Dykes to Watch Out For, where a female character says she won’t watch a movie unless there’s 1. a female character who 2. talks to another female character (both with a name) about 3. something other than a man. That was in 1985, and people are still talking about the Bechdel Test. Why? Because finding movies, books, video games, and television shows that pass this deceptively simply test is still a challenge. Mark Harris wrote recently that if Comic-Con included only media that passed the Bechdel Test, it would last forty-five minutes instead of five days.
The point of the Bechdel Test is that, as Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room ofOne’s Own, “ . . . all the great women of fiction [are]. . . seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that. . . .” If your token female character exists purely for the progress of the male characters’ story arc, your work won’t pass the Bechdel Test.
Not that the test is foolproof, of course (keep in mind it did start out as kind of a joke). There are movies that pass the Bechdel Test that few would call feminist—in Alien, for example, Ripley has a brief conversation with another woman about the alien, thus technically passing the test. Then again, Ripley was originally written as a male character. And there are movies where passing the Bechdel Test wouldn’t make sense to the story. In romantic comedies, for instance, both men and women only talk about members of the opposite sex because that’s what the themes of these films revolve around. Even so, once one starts looking at media through the lens of the Bechdel Test, it’s illuminating to see what sorts of shows pass and fail it.
Passing first: quite frankly, the UK is kicking the US’s ass in producing shows about strong, fully realized women. During the past spring, we’ve seen the debut of the fantastic Bletchly Circle, a Criminal Minds-type show about a group of former code breakers (all women) who decide to chase down serial killers in post-War London. Or take Mr. Selfridge, a drama about an American who opens a department store in Edwardian London. Even though the title character is a man, this is the type of show where the women always win. If historical drama isn’t your thing, Orphan Black is a sci-fi series about a group of clones who are trying to survive and escape from a mysterious organization. Of course, one might wonder, does talking to a clone of oneself count as “another woman”? Good question! One might argue yes, because all the clones have unique personalities. Even if it doesn’t, though, Orphan Black still passes the Bechdel Test: the main character, Sarah, talks to her foster mom about her daughter.
And now an annotated look at what doesn’t. It’s shocking how many shows and books fail the Bechdel Test. And not just a D+ fail, either; we’re talking F-minus-did-you-even-show-up-to-class fail. In Suits, a bromance about two lawyers, all but one of the female characters serve at the male characters’ pleasure, whether they’re sleeping with them or not. The single woman who doesn’t never talks to the other women, because they are secretaries. Even romance novels, which are arguably one of the few media created by, for, and about women, sometimes fail to pass the Bechdel Test. Julie James’ recent novel, Love, Irresistibly, fails to pass even the second rule of the Bechdel Test: there are NO other main female characters aside from the heroine. She has friends, but they are all men.
Does this mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water and stop watching shows that don’t pass the Bechdel Test? Not at all. Just because a film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean it isn’t good or entertaining or valuable—take Lost in Translation, for example. However, it is important that both consumers and creators are aware of the Bechdel Test, because in the preponderance of media that doesn’t pass it is an insidious message: women have no agency. Their actions are dictated by the actions of men. One needs only look at the statements of writers to see that this belief is the real reason there are still so many books and movies that aren’t populated with fully-realized female characters. For example, Julie James said once that she gives all her heroines male names (Peyton, Jordon, etc.) because she wanted them to sound like strong characters. Because women can’t be “strong characters” on their own? In an interview, author Neil Stephenson stated in response to a question about a lack of female villains in his work that in order to be convincing, he thought villains needed to be powerful. Ouch.
The Bechdel Test isn’t a call to action, but a call to awareness. It gives people a simple starting point to question how women are being portrayed in art and why. We may never live a world in a world where the Bechdel Test is irrelevant, but hopefully writers and audiences can use it to demand more gender equality in television and movies.