The Bechdel Test, Bechdel-Wallace Test, or the Mo Movie Measurenote
, is a sort of 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
- who have at least one conversation,note
- about something other than a man or men.note
If that sounds to you like a pretty easy standard to meet, 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 were on juries
), or with no conversations at all
, or having only one or two characters
. You may even be cutting out a lot of works that have feminist themes (it's been revealed that Mulan
although it does make a twisted sort of sense; she spends the majority of the movie as the sole woman in a male-only group of soldiers, with the rest of the time being around women who are fixated on her wedding, which 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. 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 rule, 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 follow this rule 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' compliance with Bechdel's Rule with its compliance with a "reverse Bechdel rule" (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.
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.
And for those curious, it's pronounced Bec-tal, as in rhymes with Rectal
Works that reference the Bechdel Test (named or not):
- The novel-length Chronicles of Narnia fanfic King Edmundís Crusade lampshades it, though not by name.
A wholly feminine conversation was a novelty to Elizabeth, and perhaps to Susan as well. Both of them lived Ö 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.
- 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."
- Questionable Content references the reverse Bechdel test in the title of this strip.
- Discussed starting in this Dumbing 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.
- Skin Horse namechecks it here, when even the lesbian cast member decides it's fine to discuss local Memetic Sex God Tip.
- Leftover Soup: "Bechdel Test passed, bitches."
- In Magick Chicks, when Cerise and Callista go to a date, Callista complains that the movie they've seen didn't pass the test.
- Unwinder's Tall Comics references the test on page 100 with the Rastov Test (which, instead of dealing with feminism, is a dig at overly-elaborate Space Operas and Technobabble).
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.
- In Sinfest, part of the flood of words that beat down Slick when he searches on feminism.
- In Skull Panda Loves Everything, Rikk Estoban creates a series of "Skull Panda Passes the Bechdel Test" strips.
- In Wondermark, Punching Stuff Until it Blows Up 2: Strong Female Character passes the Bechdel Test: she talks to the ROBOT QUEEN about EXPLOSIONS!
- "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 .
- A Feminist Frequency video shows a large number of popular movies that fail the test. In a running joke, the commentator yawns, wanders away, comes back with an apple, and eats it, while the movie posters are still blinking steadily along in the background.
- Feminist Frequency 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.
- 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.
- Talked about in Extra Credits in the episode "Diversity".
- The Nostalgia Chick:
- 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.
- Stuff You Like references this when reviewing Underworld here. The scene is Selene and Erika (briefly) discussing dresses (before going on to talk about... umm... men).
Did they just pass the Bechdel Test?
- The website of Bitch magazine ("Feminist responses to pop culture") has posted an entire article on this subject.
- 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.