“Well, I dunno. I have this rule, see… I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.”
“Pretty strict, but a good idea.”
“No kidding. Last movie I was able to see was Alien…
Allison Bechdel, “The Rule” (1985)
And with that, the comic strip dialogue that Allison Bechdel intended as a “little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper” forever changed the nature of feminist literary critique. Unsurprisingly, given its obscure origins, “the Bechdel test” (as it later came to be known) took thirty years to hit mainstream consciousness as the litmus test du jour, but the idea that women are laughably underrepresented in fiction had existed for much, much longer:
“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple… And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that…” -Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own” (1929)
The Bechdel test can capture the base level of female representation in any work of fiction, but it is most commonly applied to film (as the original joke intended). Entire websites, such as bechdeltest.com, are devoted to providing scores and ratings for popular and classic films as submitted by their users. The “failures” are often the type you would expect: Harry Potter films (2001-2011), Avatar (2009), the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), and so on. The “passes” can be a little more surprising. American Hustle (2013) only barely passes the test, despite the presence of two multi-dimensional and vocal female characters – its saving grace is a single scene where the two women discuss nail polish. Legally Blonde (2001), notorious for its shallow depictions of female characters and adherence to gross stereotypes, passes with flying colours. Many Disney films pass (yes, even before Frozen (2013)), despite the fact that they’re almost always characterised by regressive gender roles. All of this is to say that the Bechdel test doesn’t always reveal exactly what you’d expect.
Of course, the results of each analysis depend largely on how rigorously the test is applied by a given viewer, and rigorous application is made all the more difficult by a lack of clarity and consistency as to what constitutes a “character” or a “conversation”. Some adherents consider any speaking role to be a character, while others insist that the character must be named. Comments sections are filled with debates as to whether a conversation must meet criteria for duration or depth. Would Hooker #3 saying “How’s tricks?” to Hooker #4 count as a conversation? Could a film “pass” or “fail” the Bechdel test on those grounds alone?
Ultimately, regardless of the rigors of application to an individual text, the Bechdel test functions purely as an indicator of the active presence of women in that work. To falsely assume that a “pass” makes the work “feminist” is reductionist in the extreme, and gamifies the creation of inclusive feminist fiction. Passing the test in and of itself does not guarantee substantial representation in the work, nor does it indicate (more broadly) its quality or significance. Indeed, there are films laudable for their representation of complex female protagonists, which – for one legitimate reason or another – fail the test completely, the most recent high-profile example being Gravity (2013).
Given that the test is so blatantly fallible, providing boxes that are all-too-easily ticked by filmmakers looking for a pink seal of approval, why use it at all? The answer lies in its application on aggregate. The true value of the Bechdel test is realised in datasets spanning thousands of films, over decades of production – and in such cases its simplicity becomes its greatest asset.
Depending on the data source, most analyses reveal that around 50% of films pass the Bechdel test. That figure had steadily increased over the latter half of the 20th century, but plateaued from the start of the new millennium. The same Hollywood filmmakers who criticise the test as being “too simple” are failing it at least half of the time. It would seem that they steadfastly refuse to be motivated by the social benefit (not to mention the moral imperative) of adequate female representation in film.
Luckily, the Bechdel test provides ample data to make a financial case as well. In 2014, Versha Sharma and Hanna Sender (writers at Voactiv) undertook an analysis of the top 50 box office movies of 2013. They identified that the 24 movies which passed the test grossed $4.22 billion at the U.S. box office, a full 59% more than the $2.66 billion grossed by the 23 that didn’t (three films were excluded from the count for various reasons – read the full article here).
Later that same year, Walt Hickey (contributor at FiveThirtyEight) performed his own analysis of 1,615 films released between 1990 and 2013. He found that the median budget of movies that passed the Bechdel test was substantially lower (35%) than the median budget of films that failed the test. These figures indicate that Hollywood throws more money at male-oriented films, leaving films in which women actually talk to one another high and dry.
So, if films passing the Bechdel test see higher gross profits, despite being made with far less money, why aren’t producers making more of them? Explanations abound, usually with reference to the “celluloid ceiling” in Hollywood (a concerning lack of gender diversity among scriptwriters and other movie professionals). Whatever the reason, the Bechdel test is one of the best tools we have to identify the problem(s), and measure improvements over time. Much like a measure such as Body Mass Index, the individual results mean almost nothing, but considered on aggregate the number of films (and fiction works more generally) that do not pass the test is staggering.
The absurd simplicity of the Bechdel test is the very element that allows it to most credibly articulate the dearth of women represented in fiction. What’s more, it captures a pattern of female characters that do appear often lacking the range and depth that would accurately reflect a true lived experience. As such, while the Bechdel test does not set a high standard as a gauge of “feminism”, it does make for a highly effective cultural barometer.
Alternative tests have been proposed, almost all of them adding degrees of complexity that could potentially yield more nuanced insights, but none have caught on to the same degree. In large part, this could be due to the fact that more complex requirements (e.g., the Mako Mori test requiring one to determine whether a female character’s narrative arc exists merely to support a male character’s arc) call for a higher degree of subjectivity in analysis, which causes problems in the aggregate application from which the Bechdel test derives its value. Yes, we may quibble as to whether female characters should be named in order to “count” or whether a conversation has to last a given number of seconds, but on the whole the measure provides quantifiable, binary results. No alternative (as yet) can boast such a robust operational definition… except perhaps the (probably) satirical Furiosa test, which requires only that a film “causes misogynists to boycott it”.
Given that the Bechdel test is demonstrably well-trod ground for film, our attention should perhaps turn to its application in literature. Fiction writing and poetry has historically been largely excluded from Bechdel-style analyses, despite the recent global Year of Reading Women, and an increased awareness of gender imbalance in publishing. Diversity having now officially caught on as the watchword, the climate is set for an assessment of our reading lists, and indeed our own works: are they (we) as diverse as we think?
Casting our eyes back to the classics, it’s a mixed bag: some of the old favourites pass (Anna Karenina (1877), Jane Eyre (1847), Pride and Prejudice (1813)), while others fail dismally (The Odyssey, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Romeo and Juliet (1597)). One striking pattern does emerge immediately: classic works of literature that pass the Bechdel test were almost always written by female authors (Tolstoy’s “first true novel”, listed above, being the exception rather than the rule). This alone gives valuable insight, highlighting the importance of inclusion in high school and university set reading lists.
Of course, we do encounter difficulties with the application of the Bechdel test that are specific to the format of written fiction. For instance, if the work features a male protagonist in either first-person or third-person limited narrative, the only way to satisfactorily “pass” would be to have two female characters have a conversation in the presence of the protagonist that did not involve or mention him. The reduction of the central character to observer status can be stylistically problematic. Such a circumstance demonstrates ways in which individual texts can fail the Bechdel test for reasons unrelated to gender bias per se. Another issue, perhaps not unique to written fiction but still worth considering, are settings (geographically and historically) that ipso facto exclude women – for instance, Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” (1980), set in a medieval monastery.
Placing these issues aside, a wider application of the Bechdel test to literature – especially classic prose – can be illuminating, at the very least drawing attention to the biases that are so often overlooked in favour of nostalgic attachment. A Bechdel analysis does not inhibit one’s enjoyment of a text that fails, nor does it detract from the artistic achievement of the work, but it does perhaps highlight weaknesses in canonical pieces that we might not otherwise consider. We gain nothing from an ostrich’s approach to problems in classic literature; indeed, identifying underrepresentation and critical analysis of its sources is imperative in a truly comprehensive understanding of any given literary period.
Lest we give ourselves a pass, the Bechdel test has applications in our own work as well. Scouring online discussion groups will yield endless rants from writers alleging it is “convoluted” to meet even this low benchmark – usually in the same breath as arguing that it is “too simple” a rule to be an adequate gauge, and all of their characters are Strong Independent WomenTM that don’t have to do silly things like talk to one another to be FeministTM. Such a defensive self-assessment is neither useful nor productive. As we have seen with film, and as we have seen with literature, the Bechdel test as applied to an individual piece provides little more than a fun fact about whether women appear and speak. Once again, the value we can derive comes from the application of this low standard across a body of our own work, and in assessing the patterns that emerge.
A quantifiable autocritique of this fashion gives rise to a number of probing questions about the origins and nature of our own writing, and in so doing affords us ample opportunity for creative development. If the Bechdel standard is usually met, then how? Is it due to a series of tokenistic interactions between stereotypes, or a reflection of the interwoven narrative arcs of two (or more) deep and complex female characters? If the standard is usually not met, why did that happen? Is there a tendency to place stories in settings that are hostile or exclusionary to women? Are there different stories or different creative pathways as yet not considered that could bear fruit? Asking ourselves these questions, answering them honestly, and using that analysis to pursue other artistic lines of enquiry will ultimately lead to better writing. The Bechdel test isn’t about a simple pass/fail on a single piece; in considering the results, it can become an ethos and a mindset for representative creativity. And, if nothing else, sales figures borrowed from the film industry would suggest that pieces with female characters who speak to one another might just sell more books.