Women’s History Month: What is the Bechdel Test?

Alison Bechdel

This is Alison Bechdel. She’s been calling Hollywood out since 1985.

Throughout my life, I’ve had the pleasure to meet, befriend and work with brilliant women. My career as a writer has afforded me even more opportunities to come to know and understand just how awesome women are. And each day, I have the esteemed pleasure of chatting up ladies who give me so much life. I only hope I do the same for them.

Why just last night, I was speaking with a good friend about her potential relocation to Atlanta. Before that, I chatted with my sister about a class she’s taking and a paper on which she is working. Before that, I touched base with my Editor-in-Chief to talk about our upcoming issue. And before that, I had an illuminating conversation with a good friend about the joys, pains, struggles and successes of writing.

Not a single one of those conversations was about propping up, pining for, or puzzling over a man. Because in reality, women’s lives, existences, thoughts, actions, dreams, aspirations and motivations aren’t centered on men.

However, most films would have us believe otherwise. In movies, female characters tend to fall into the same tired tropes. The trophy wife or girlfriend. The crazy ex. The cold-hearted bitch. The mammie. The insatiable (often Latina) sex kitten. The dirty old lady. The black widow. The angry Black woman. The gold digger. The dorky chick who’s never gotten laid. The hottie that ends up dead. The tragic mulatto. The master (mistress) manipulator.

Notice how many of these tropes are directly related to their relationship with men?

In most movie projects, men are typically in the lead roles with perhaps one woman falling into any one of the above-mentioned categories. And that woman rarely seems to interact with any other woman except when it’s time to talk about a man. Hence the dire need for the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel or (Bechdel-Wallace) Test was named for Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist and graphic novelist who created the Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip. In a 1985 issue of this strip entitled The Rule, Bechdel introduced the following parameters which constitute the bare minimum standard for creating female characters with depth and complexity:

(1) it has to have at least two women in it

(2) who talk to each other

(3) about something besides a man.

And that’s it. According to Bechdel, this test is just a summarized version of a portion of Virginia Woolf‘s A Room of One’s Own (full text here) in which the 20th Century English author notes:

“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.”

So again, the Bechdel Test challenges how women are represented in film. And all any movie has to do to pass the test is produce two women who have one conversation that is not about a man. Seems like there should be a plethora of films that fulfill this very basic standard, right? As per this article on FiveThirtyEight.com:

In a larger sample of 1,794 movies released from 1970 to 2013, we found that only half had at least one scene in which women talked to each other about something other than a man.

 Now let’s consider some of the most popular movies of all time. Do they pass the test?

 The Godfather. Nope.

Star Wars. Nope. (Though The Last Jedi did.)

Titanic. Yes!

The Avengers. Nope.

Avatar. Nope.

Matrix. Yes!

The Lord of the Rings. Nope.

The Harry Potter Series…except for The Deathly Hallows, Nope.

What about the most recent crop of Emmy-nominated films? Do they pass the test?

Green Book. Nope.

Black Panther. Yes!

BlacKkKlansman. Yes!

A Star is Born. Yes!

Bohemian Rhapsody. Nope.

Roma. Yes!

If Beale Street Could Talk. Yes!

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Nope.

Okay, much better BUT…Best Picture went to Green Book and ALL FILMS SHOULD PASS THE TEST BECAUSE WOMEN AREN’T ONE-DIMENSIONAL MOVIE PROPS!

Life inspires art inspires life inspires art inspires life. Films reflect who we are and are very much a bellwether of who we aspire to be. When films dismiss both women and entire racial groups of people, they are effectively telling us all that only White men matter and only White men have a future. If you don’t believe that the images we see on the big and small screen don’t influence society and the culture at large, then you’re trippin.’

 The 1915 film A Birth of A Nation ushered in Jim Crow, segregation and racial issues we still experience throughout the country today. The 1993 film Philadelphia raised awareness of the AIDS/HIV epidemic like never before. It’s said that the 2001 show 24, was hugely responsible for warming America to the idea of a Black president. And a 2019 Lifetime documentary by the name of Surviving R. Kelly finally got R. Kelly’s ass arrested after all these years. The fair, accurate, multi-dimensional depictions of women in films–and its potential positive impact–is necessary. Hollywood better recognize and we should too.

If you’d like to test your favorite movies, simply Google that movie’s title and “Bechdel Test” to enlighten yourself.

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