"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
, 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
- 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, 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
), 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 (Mulan
, the quintessential Sweet Polly Oliver
story and generally held up as one of the most feminist movies in the Disney Canon, fails
). 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 use something other than The Smurfette Principle
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 (cf. the aforementioned Mulan
; see also Pacific Rim
and its spinoff "Mako Mori Test", discussed in the "Web Originals" section below). There's nothing necessarily wrong with a feminist film flunking the Bechdel Test. 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, giving an final average (such as 7/13 if seven episodes pass in a 13 episode season,) 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.
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):
- The novel-length Chronicles Of Narnia fanfic King Edmunds 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 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.
- Mentioned in the Justice League and Young Justice Fix Fic Fixations: There is a discussion between Diana and Shayera (Hawk Girl) in chapter ten that startet out as a discussion about Wally - then the author realised this and decided to try and have the story pass the test.
But yeah, this fic finally passed the Bechdal Test! That was harder than I thought.
- 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.
- From this post on Tumblr:
So this girl walks up to another girl and says “Hey, have you heard of the Bechdel Test?”
And the other girl says, “Yeah, my boyfriend was telling me about it the other day!”
- 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).
- Mystery Science Theater 3000 once had a host segment lampshading how the show sort of fails this due to The Smurfette Principle. Crow begins a discussion of how women are poorly represented, which promptly derails into a conspiracy rant about how women don't actually exist.
- 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.
- 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.
- In this Shortpacked!, Leslie Bean (who's a homosexual woman, if you couldn't tell) expresses disinterest in a movie because it doesn't have two women talking enough that she can imagine them having a "tragically self-destructive yet amazingly hot lesbian affair." The Alt Text quips that this is called "the Beandel 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.
- Unwinders 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 Techno Babble).
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, it's part of the flood of words that beat down Slick when he searches on feminism. Later, Slick writes a screenplay that, strictly speaking, passes the test.
- 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 .
- In Bad Machinery, Lottie has heard of the Test, though she seems to be a bit unclear on the details. Later, she invokes it to show that there's a problem with the timeline she's in. Or at least with one of her friends.
- 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.
- Sandra and Woo features an Affectionate Parody strip titled ‘A Talk Between Women’, passing, um, with flying colours the ‘something other than men’ part of the test.
- Toki No Tanaka: the author comments on this page point out that it's the first with only male characters, therefore passing the reverse test.
- During the Davina-Tara "Ask Me Anything" session of The Scumthorpe Files, one user asked Tara what her ideal boyfriend would be like. This conversation ensued:
Davina: OH, WONDERFUL. LET'S ALL GO FORTH AND FAIL THE BECHDEL TEST.
Tara: "...I totally don't know what that is. Does talking about cute boys mean you fail it?"
Davina: OF COURSE IT DOES, YOU CRETIN.
Tara: "Then watch me fail it, Davina. Watch me fail it hard."
- While she didn't call it by name, Lauren Faust referenced this trope, claiming that a focus on romantic plots and subplots is what ruins a lot of girl's shows.
- This blog references the Bechdel Test as it relates to Disney animated movies and that one that passes the test is not as rare as you might think. Pixar is much worse in this regard. Many Disney films have two female characters interacting about something other than a man, but fail to pass the test due to one of the parties being an animal.
- 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.
- This blog applies the Bechdel test to every movie featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
- This article applies the Bechdel Test to Star Trek. Unsurprisingly, Star Trek: The Original Series has the lowest passrate (7.5%); somewhat surprisingly, Star Trek: Enterprise, a prequel made 50 years later, has the second-lowest (39%). However, both have The Smurfette Principle, with only one female on the main cast (Nichelle Nichols as Uhura; Grace Park as Hoshi Sato). Star Trek: Voyager has the highest (86.9%), and also the only season to have a 100% passrate (season 5); whether by coincidence or not, it's also the only Trek with a female captain (Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway).