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"Your women characters are awful. None of them have anything to say for themselves, and most of them either get shot or stabbed to death within five minutes... and the ones that don't probably will later on."
The Bechdel Test, Bechdel-Wallace Test, or the Mo Movie Measurenote named after Mo, the main character of DTWOF, even though it was introduced in a one-off strip before Mo was introduced, is a litmus test for female presence in fictional media. The test is named for Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, who made it known to the world with this strip.
In order to pass, the film or show must meet the following criteria:
It includes at least two women,note Some make the addendum that the women must be named characters
who have at least one conversation,note Because of quibbles regarding what length of time makes a valid conversation, some have proposed the addendum that it last at least 60 seconds.
about something other than a man or men.note The exact interpretation of this can vary; some feel that it's okay to mention a man or men so long as they're not the primary subject of the conversation—e.g.: two businesswomen are talking about the next move for their firm, and one casually mentions what their (male) lawyer says about something or other—while others will demand a conversation where men aren't mentioned at all. Some make the addendum that the conversation also cannot reference marriage, babies, or romance—although these often also have a caveat where it's OK if the marriage, baby, or romance is (1) someone else's and (2) purely a subject of professional interest (e.g. the women are family lawyers and the marriage is that of a client, or the women are medical professionals and the baby is a patient). There is, after all, a big difference between "Isn't married life hard/wonderful!" and "Babies are so cute, I wish I had one!" on the one hand, and "OK, so I think this is how we should go about the Madison property settlement" and "Don't give that medicine to the baby, it'll kill him!" on the other.
If that sounds to you like a pretty easy standard to meet, it is. That's the point! Yet, try applying the test to the media you consume for a while. There's a good chance you'll be surprised; mainstream media that passes is far less common than you might think.
Now, by limiting yourself to shows/movies that pass the test, you'd be cutting out a lot of otherwise-worthy entertainment; indeed, a fair number of top-notch works have legitimate reasons for including no women (e.g. ones set in a men's prison, or on a WWII military submarine, or back when only men served on juriesnote Since jury selection is tied to voting registration, and since the play is set after passage of the 19th Amendment, the jury could have had women. Gender/ethnic balance wasn't a standard expectation then, though, and truth be told all-male and all-female juries aren't terribly uncommon; for instance, in 2013 a (six-member) all-female jury tried George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, which incidentally would, if it were a movie plot, probably firmly fail the Bechdel Test but also probably be pretty feminist (women sitting in judgment of men, after all).), or with no conversations at all, or having only one or two characters; hell, if it's a romantic comedy, then it's natural that the female characters would talk about men and romance the male characters will likely only talk about women too. You may even be cutting out a lot of works that have feminist themes (it's been revealed that Mulan, the quintessential Sweet Polly Oliver story and generally held up as one of the most feminist movies in the Disney Canon, failed - though with good reason, as she spends the majority of the movie as the sole woman in a male-only group of soldiers and the rest of the time being around women who are fixated on her wedding, something she was obviously uncomfortable with). But that's the point; the majority of fiction created today, for whatever reason, seems to think women aren't worth portraying except in relation to men. Things have changed since the test was first formulated (the strip in which it was originally suggested was written in 1985), but Hollywood still needs to be prodded to put in someone other than The Chick.
The test is often misunderstood. The requirements are just what they say they are; it doesn't make any difference if, for instance, the male characters the women talk about are their fathers, sons, brothers, platonic friends, mortal enemies, patients they're trying to save or murderers they're trying to catch, rather than romantic partners. Conversely, if a work seems to pass, it doesn't matter if male characters are present when the female characters talk, nor does it matter if the women only talk about stereotypically girly topics like shoe shopping or even relationships, as long as it is not relationships with men.
This is because the Bechdel Test is not meant to give a scorecard of a work's overall level of feminism. It is entirely possible for a film to pass without having overt feminist themes in fact, the original example of a movie that passes is Alien, which, while it has feminist subtexts, is mostly just a sci-fi/action/horror flick. A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. For instance, the infamously bad "Manos" The Hands of Fate passes the test, but its treatment of women is incredibly squicky. So does The Bikini Carwash Company, which is little more than tasteless pandering. Conversely, it's also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. What's a problem is that it becomes a pattern when so many movies fail the test, while very few show male characters whose lives seem to revolve around women, that says uncomfortable things about the way Hollywood handles gender. There are also lesser-known variations of the test, such as the Race Bechdel Test, in which two characters of colour talk about anything other than the white leads, and the Reverse Bechdel Test, with the roles of men and women swapped.
It's obviously easier for a TV series, especially one with an Ensemble Cast, to pass this test than a film, because there's far more time for the conversation to occur in. To compensate for this, Bechdel-inspired analyses of television often look episode-by-episode, or compare the series' passing Bechdel's Test with its passing a "reverse Bechdel test" (even without such compensation, it's often surprising to notice how long it takes many TV shows to pass). Another tactic would be the probability that a typical two-hour collection of episodes would pass.
On an aside note, fans of the film Pacific Rim came up with a similar alternative test, the Mako Mori Test, which a film passes if it:
has at least one female character
who gets her own narrative
that is not about supporting a man's story
Compare The Smurfette Principle. Works that follow The Smurfette Principle include a female character strictly for demographic appeal but make no real attempt to treat her as an interesting character in her own right, outside of her relationships with the male characters. See also Never a Self-Made Woman, which shows that even a well rounded female character with her own goals is most often only relevant to the story by her relationship to a man. Finally, see Token Romance and Romantic Plot Tumor for the effects of Hollywood's belief that both male and female audiences are generally uninterested in female characters except in the context of romance with a male character. See also Deggans Rule, which is a similar rule regarding race.
For other tropes regarding the representation of gender in media, see Gender-Equal Ensemble (self-explanatory) and Chromosome Casting (works featuring only male characters or only female, but not both; the former would be the exact reverse of this trope, whereas the latter could be something resembling its logical extreme).
And for those curious, it's pronounced Bec-tal, as in rhymes with Rectal.
Works that reference the Bechdel Test (named or not):
A wholly feminine conversation was a novelty to Elizabeth, and perhaps to Susan as well. Both of them lived in a world where masculinity either ruled or was present. Here, in their private conversations, they found they not only could but wanted to move away from that. The conversation over the next four weeks was not of lipsticks and nylons and invitations; for such things are only feminine, they realized, in so far as defined by men.
Alluded to in Seven Psychopaths when Hans reads Marty's script; not only does he note that they have nothing interesting to say for themselves, but the only notable thing they do is die horribly five minutes later.
Hans: Your women characters are awful. None of them have anything to say for themselves, and most of them either get shot or stabbed to death within five minutes... and the ones that don't probably will later on. Marty: Well... it's a hard world for women. You know? I guess that's what I'm trying to say. Hans: Yeah, it's a hard world for women, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together.
The Doctor Who fandom book Chicks Dig Time Lords includes an essay about companion Nyssa of Traken. The author points out that many of Nyssa's episodes pass the Bechdel test, and includes a brief explanation of what the test is.
In the Smallville episode Magnetic Lana Lang and Chloe Sullivan are enjoying a day at the Lowell County fair, their "girls' day out" when Lana mentions Clark by name. Chloe responds with, "And we almost went through an entire day without mentioning our favorite farm boy."
In The Big Bang Theory Amy and Bernadette comment that, without Penny around, they can talk candidly about their work instead of it devolving into a discussion about guys and relationships. This falls apart when some prospective suitors at a bar send them some drinks, and they turn into giggling schoolgirls (Mainly since they realize it's to get to THEM rather than to get closer to their hot friend).
Played with in the Series 8 Doctor Who episode, Mummy on the Orient Express. The Doctor's companion, Clara has accidentally gotten herself locked inside a car with another female passenger, Maisie, and when Maisie asking her about the Doctor, and Clara points out that it is hardly the right time or situation to talk about some man. Of course, the episode had already passed the test at this point, as the previous subject Clara and Maise talked about was Maise's grandmother's mysterious demise.
The test is mentioned on A To Z in the episode "H is for Hostile Takeover". The Stinger takes it to a meta level with Zelda and Stephie discussing the test and wondering if two women discussing the Bechdel Test passes the Bechdel Test. They decide it does, and a "Bechdel Approved" graphic appears on-screen. Then Stephie starts talking about her boyfriend and the graphic is crossed out.
Discussed starting in thisDumbing of Age strip. Also played with — as pointed out in the last panel, most lesbian porn will automatically pass the Bechdel Test. It further elaborates on the flaws of the test not necessarily indicating feminism, and later one male character implies that his own life would not pass the reverse Bechdel Test.
Unwinder: You may know a bit about [Warren Rastov] actually. Ever heard of the Rastov test? Barbecue Sauce: Is that like where a book or movie is only good if it has less than four warring factions, and they have to say at least one sentence that isn't full of made-up space jargon? Unwinder: That's the one. It was actually a pretty direct response to his father's work. They had some issues.
"Roommates #304 - Bechdel" And yes, it has girls talking about something else than men (revenge). In general it's not a female centric work, but a fangirl oriented meta fanservice comic with Cast Full of Pretty Boysnote It doesn't even have any female characters till page 9 and they don't talk to each other more than a sentence on-panel till #62, which almost passes the test with its subject being university stuff but that sadly includes professors..
Bravoman: In the Webcomic titled "Test Failed Bravowoman and Waya Hime get into a fight when Waya Hime mistakes Bravowoman for Bravoman's wife. Bravowoman lampshades it, and Alpha man says her meta jokes are better than Bravoman's. They later realize that the strip would be getting angry letters if the only two females killed each other off so Bravoman stops the fight.
"This is Stupid! You realize that we're the first two female characters in this series and we're fighting over a dude? You're ruining our Bechdel Test score!"
Level 30 Psychiatry: the author comments for this strip mention that it is the first with an all male cast, thus passing the Reverse Bechdel Test.
A Feminist Frequencyvideo shows a large number of popular movies that fail the test. In a running joke, Anita yawns, wanders away, comes back with an apple, and eats it, while the movie posters are still blinking steadily along in the background. Anita discusses the test again here. She proposes that the test be modified so that the scene in question must last at least sixty seconds to pass. She also describes a variant of the test for people of color, where at least two named non-white characters discuss something other than a white person. She rejects the concept of the Reverse Bechdel Test as she believes it contributes to the idea that women aren't oppressed.
Name Dropped in AH Dot Com The Creepy Teen Years episode 2x19. It's noted as being the first time the series actually passed the test. The two women are discussing vacation plans.
Linkara brings up the importance of the third point during his review of Sultry Teenage Super Foxes. Yes, the cast is almost uniformly female, but they never talk about anything but men. Unless you count the villains, that is. Even the protagonists obtaining superpowers was nothing more than a means to the end of them attracting men.
In her review of X-Men: First Class, she pointed out that it was one of the only superhero movies to pass the test. She then told her audience to go look up what the Bechdel Test was.
When she reviewed Matilda, guest reviewer Mara Wilson mentions that everyone's gender in the movie seems entirely incidental, and that it passes the test.
In Vampire Reviews (a spin-off of The Nostalgia Chick, above), Maven, desperately trying to find ten positive things to say about Twilight, notes that it technically passes the test when Bella talks to other women about shoes and having babies.
Bernie Su, a writer of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, comments as Word of God on passing the test with episode 16, in which Lizzie and depressed Charlotte discuss their career plans and prospects. Bernie Su says it was fairly late episode, but not that surprising when you consider that Pride and Prejudice is the source material for their adaptation. However, earlier episodes might count as passing with flying colours, e.g. episode 2 has Lizzie and her sister Jane discussing Jane's professional life.
A Platypus Comix article dedicated to the obscure Archie Comics series Marvelous Maureen comments on a scene of Maureeen and Clarissa DuBois arguing over Wonder Blunder like so:
...if they're trapped in the vacuum of space with a presumably finite air supply, and they want to spend their time flunking the Bechdel Test, then I guess so be it.
Referenced by Doug Walker in the Sibling Rivalry of Despicable Me 2, as he complains that the movie would have been better if Lucy and the daughters had actually talked to each other. His brother and co-reviewer (Rob) however, thinks that's a stupid thing to complain about in a kid's movie and makes him drop it.
While agreeing with every point about female representation, and even stating the test, when taken on the whole, is useful for provoking thought, Bob Chipman delivered a scathing criticism of making too much of a particular movie passing or failing. He points out that Terminator 2: Judgment Day with Linda Hamilton's kick-ass Sarah Connor, and the very progressive Pacific Rim with its strong leading lady Mako Mori, would both fail. Meanwhile, Debbie Does Dallas and The Bikini Carwash Company two movies which, to state the obvious, are about as far removed from the feminist movement as could be would both pass with flying colors, as would many Nicholas Sparksmoviesnote Though Sparks is a novelist, Bob Chipman is a movie critic and is limiting his commentary to films, calling out "the inane Safe Haven" as an example of how dreck can pass the test without having any feminist themes or characters. He proposes an alternative test, one that judges films by whether they have
at least one major female character,
who has a fully-developed story arc,
that doesn't revolve around a male character.
The test was discussed by Cheshire Cat Studios in this video here, where the test is criticized for being taken too seriously in some circles that suggest that the only good movies in existence are films that "pass" the test, and criticizing the Swedish ratings board for even considering to use the test in their consideration of a movie's age rating.
This article explains why so few movies pass the test lately, identifying it as a systemic problem that has its roots in what Hollywood producers believe about women and their difficulty with the characterization of women in general.
Several Swedish arthouse cinemas use the Bechdel test to give an indication of the level of gender bias in films, similar to warnings about films containing violence, sex, language etc.