The Bechdel Test: What is Says and What it Doesn’t Say

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September 3, 2013 by Devin

So I have been on a bit of a feminist kick lately, and because I am always thinking about movies, I have been thinking about the Bechdel test. Then it occurred to me that not many people know about the Bechdel test, and that is a shame because it highlights some important issues that need to be addressed. So here is a beginner’s guide.

The Testing Standards

The Bechdel test is a litmus test for gender equality in movies (and other art, but it works best for movies). In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must:

  1. Include at least two named female characters.*
  2. They must talk to each other.
  3. Their conversation must be about something other than a male character.

Sounds simple, right?

You would be surprised by how many movies fail this simple test. Many movies only have only one significant female, and she is usually tied to the male lead. For example, when Joss Whedon was writing The Avengers, Marvel asked him is he really needed Agent Maria Hill because they already had a female spy in Black Widow (as if having two female spies in a gigantic spy organization might be redundant).

What is great about this test is how simple it is to look at and how well it brings up issues of gender. For example, try to find 5 movies that do not pass this test. Easy, right?

Then, try to find 5 movies that do not pass this test if this test was about men. Not so easy. It is clear that there is a difference that is affecting how Hollywood makes its stories.

What this test does not say

I wanted to clarify something with this test. This test is not a measure of movie quality. A movie can absolutely fail the Bechdel test and still be an excellent movie. Now, strong female characters are a bonus to any movie, but for some reason or another, that might not be appropriate. For example, a movie about monks in a monastery obviously would not have much room for anyone besides male monks, and it could still be excellent. On the other hand, The Hunger Games is not necessarily a better movie for having female characters in it that do not just talk about boys.

Furthermore, a movie can even fail the Bechdel Test and still have strong female characters (I would argue that The Avengers fits into this category). This is not a perfect test for feminism by any means, and it is important to recognize those limitations.

But what it is is a conversation starter.

What this test does say

I like to view the Bechdel Test as more of a test for the movie industry rather than the movies themselves. If the only movies being made are about monasteries and no one is making movies about convents, then those movies are not necessarily bad, but the industry that is producing them clearly has some problems.

Consider how many roles and opportunities are open to male actors. They could be the hero, the best friend, the bad guy, the wise old mentor, etc. One of the reasons why I was really happy that The Hunger Games succeeded was because it did have a female main character. It is not a necessarily better film, but it is a more important film.

But the roles available for actresses are usually limited just to love interests. They may be fantastic love interests, but Hollywood has a narrow mindset about the types of stories people want to see. Hollywood has this idea that movies need to have white, male leads who do a lot of things with their male friends, and this mentality shuts out a lot of good talent for no good reason.

Further Thinking

This test is an excellent way of raising awareness for this really important issue, but it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. I have no interest in discussing whether movies pass or do not pass the Bechdel test based on narrow mindsets and strict adherence to rules. The Bechdel test is about starting conversation, and the best way to view the Bechdel test is to view it as a springboard into conversations about women and their roles in the art we view.

The test is about making one problem apparent, and after that problem is apparent, moving on and discussing the best ways to fix it.

_____________

*The original test did not specify whether the characters had to be named or not, but that has been a fairly universal adoption by people interested in this subject.

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One thought on “The Bechdel Test: What is Says and What it Doesn’t Say

  1. megpie71 says:

    The core thing about the Bechdel test, the core thing which really does need to be included in any discussion of the test and of responses to it, or uses of it or anything of that nature, is that the test itself was mentioned as the set-up part of a joke. The joke being that one of the two characters discussing going to films uses this test to determine whether or not a movie is worth watching, and as a result (the punchline), she hadn’t gone to any movies in five years. The strip was published in 1983, and the character speaks of the last film she attended being “Alien” (released in 1978).

    The Bechdel test, as a bar, is set incredibly low. Yet a vast number of Hollywood-created movies stumble on it. (“Avengers: Assemble“, incidentally, is one of them. Natasha Romanoff and Maria Hill never speak during the movie). It’s a joke about female representation, which is why very few women are laughing…

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