The Bechdel Test

Quick — name your favorite film. Got it? Now, name the main characters. Listo? Okay — see if you can recall any one scene that features two women talking about anything other than a man. Stumped? It’s okay, we can come back to it.

What you are doing is something called The Bechdel Test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel for introducing the idea in her “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic. (She credits the idea to a friend, Liz Wallace.) In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule,” an unnamed female character says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it
  2. The two women must talk to each other
  3. They must talk to each other about something else other than a man
A character in Dykes to Watch Out For explains the rules that later came to be known as the Bechdel test (1985) – via Wikipedia

Today, this test is “the standard by which feminist critics judge television, movies, books, and other media.” “Pacific Rim” is one of the most recent films to be ripped apart for spectacularly failing this test. How does your favorite movie fare against the critics’ firing squad? A few of my first picks did not do so well; however, some passed by mere loopholes:

The Matrix

Trinity and Switch have ONE exchange in the entire time:

(while getting that creepy, computer bug-thing out of Neo’s stomach)
Switch: It’s on the move.
Trinity: Shit.
Switch: You’re going to lose it.
Trinity: No I’m not. Clear.

So, the Matrix has two women in it, who talk to each other about something other than men. It passes, but come on — Shouldn’t this “test” be expanded to “two women having a substantial conversation about something other than men?” I guess rules are rules, though; “The Matrix” passes.

Lost in Translation

While this film is one of my favorites and features many women characters, none of the women actually talk to one another. Well, you could count the scene where Charlotte stumbles upon a group of women making floral arrangements, and one women welcomes her to help out via hand-gestures  — language barrier and all. And this exchange between Charlotte and Kelly:

John: Have you meet Charlotte? My wife?
Kelly: No! Hi! So great to meet you!
Charlotte: Hi, nice to meet you.

Also, I’m not counting the phone conversation Charlotte has with her friend Lauren. Lauren is never actually on-screen. For technicalities sake, it passes, but Charlotte does not have a real (on-screen) conversation with another woman.

Edward Scissorhands

This barely passes due to a conversation between Peg and Helen, in which Peg tries to convenience Helen to buy some Avon cosmetics. So, two women talking about something other than a man — makeup! (Seriously, this test needs to be amended with more rules.) And then the rest of the film all anyone can talk about is Edward — a man, even if he is a robot of sorts.

Run Lola Run

Lola, the main character, does not talk with another female throughout the entire film.

The Room

The test results came back and, yes, it’s definitely breast cancer.

Examples of Films that Pass (with flying colors and a million gold stars):

Tank Girl
Ghost World
Chocolat
The Hunger Games
Memoirs of a Geisha
The Ring
Thelma and Louise
Death Proof
The Craft
Hocus Pocus
Matilda
And let’s not forget a certain TV show about everyone’s favorite teenage cynic: Daria. Because I can’t make a list about women in film and not mention Daria, even if I am not talking about TV shows.

It’s worth noting that the Bechdel test is more of a general scale of women’s visibility in movies, not a feminism scale. Plenty of great movies fail the Bechtel test, and that doesn’t mean would should take to the streets and boycott. For example, “Sucker Punch” passes the Bechtel test, but no one would call it feminist. It is also worth noting that movies that pass the Bechdel test can and do make more money. In an analysis of the top 50 films of 2013, one site discovered that films that passed the Bechdel test for female representation collectively made more than films that didn’t.

via themarysue.com

So, writers — put some ladies in your stories and make them talk to each other about important things, damn it!

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3 thoughts on “The Bechdel Test

  1. I love the Bechtel test! Sadly, many of my favorite movies don’t pass. Some of my favorite shows do, though. Question: do trans women fit into the test or is it strictly cis-gendered women?

    Excuse the comment, just wanted to queer things up a little… :-p

    -Kristen

    1. You know, that is a great question. I wonder if the author had that in mind when she wrote it into her comic strip. I would say: of course trans-women fit into the test. However, I cannot think of an example of a trans-woman talking to a cis-gendered woman in a film, in a way that would pass the Bechdel Test.

      I’m sure that demographic in film is extremely small, considering the percentage of American films that do not even pass the test. (Ed Wood’s “Glen or Glenda” might, although I have never seen it. Would Norman Bates in “Psycho” count? Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs”?) I’m assuming we are talking about real trans-women and not men who like to cross-dress, but with that in mind, where do Female Impersonators fall on the spectrum? If we are counting all types of female representation, then movies like the ones I mentioned above would pass the test, even if Buffalo Bill is telling another woman to “put the lotion in the basket.”)

      1. That’s a wonderful point. And exactly the reason why passing the test doesn’t always mean it’s feminist or even positive representation, as it falls into the category of “queer people can be soooo scary!” Of course this opens up another question having to do with the social differences between positive representation and complex representation. As in, do we necessarily need 100% positive representation of gender minorities or is there power in making representation complex. If that’s the case, something as seemingly vapid as Sex and the City could be interpreted as being powerful representation whereas the L Word could border on rampid oversimplification, making it problematic to say the least.

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