Let’s Talk About the Bechdel Test

Ever heard of the Bechdel test? It’s a test that measures the representation of women in films by asking three simple questions of a work of fiction. Though it isn’t a perfect measurement of representation, it does give a small look into how female characters are often pushed to the side. As time has passed, improvements have been made in film for better representation; yet still some of the biggest stories told in Hollywood level movies can’t always pass this seemingly easy test. So, the real question we need to answer in respects to this test is if it works as a good way to measure quality female representation.

But first, let’s talk about where the Bechdel test comes from

The test is named after a cartoonist called Alison Bechdel who is the author of a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. It first appeared in 1985 when Bechdel published a comic that proposed the rules for the test, and it rose to popularity in the 2000’s. In the comic, two of Bechdel’s characters think about going to a movie and one of them says that she has a set of rules that determine if she is willing to watch a film. The rules are as follows…

  1. The movie must have at least two female characters in it
  2. They both must talk to each other
  3. And they must speak about something other than a man

“Untitled” by Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0  (Image of Alison Bechdel)

The test in the comic was supposed to be a joke, but it eventually developed into a way to determine if a film has valuable female characters with connections that aren’t just male driven.

*As the test started to come into the main stream some amendments were added onto the test including that the two females must have names and that they must speak for more than sixty seconds.*

Seems simple enough, yet when we look at many acclaimed movies they don’t always step up to the bar. But it’s also important to remember that the Bechdel test isn’t by any means a perfect way of finding films with quality female characters.

Pro: The test is definitive and very straight forward with very little grey area. (you either have at least two female characters that talk about something other than men or you don’t)

Con: Though it seems like a low hurdle to pass over, and there are still many stories that pass the test and don’t always have the best messages about women. Not every film that passes the test is free of sexist or gender biased content.

Movies that pass the Bechdel Test

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (): Though this film focuses on Lara Jeans love life and her relationships with different boys, she still interacts with different female characters about things other than her love life.

Image via giphy

Ocean’s 8 (): Since the character’s in this film are focused on preforming the perfect heist they interact with each other the entire movie without mentioning men.

Image via giphy

Hidden Figures (2016): Obviously this film passes since the three major women characters talk with each other avidly about thier space related projects.

Image vie flickr

Movies that fail the Bechdel Test

Avatar (2009): Surprisingly Avatar fails the Bechdel test. Though there are multiple female characters that play important roles, they never end up interacting with each other in full conversations. Zoe Saldana’s character Neytiri holds conversations with her character’s mother, but they only talk about Sam Worthington’s character Jake.

Image via giphy

Fargo (1996): Female actress Frances McDormand won best actress in 1997 with this film, but her character Marge never gets to speak with another named female in the movie.

Avengers (2013): Even though Mavel now has a bunch of films that pass the Bechdel test, the original Avengers movie didn’t. It features strong female characters like Natasha Romanoff, Pepper Potts, and Maria Hill, but these characters never hold conversations together at any point in the movie.

Gravity (2013): Technically this sci-fi film fails the test, Sandra Bullock’s character is surviving in space with costar George Clooney, thus there are no women for her to talk with. (shows some of the flaws in the test)

So… Is the test a good way to measure female representation… yes and no

Overall, the Bechdel test sometimes works to determine if a story has strong female involvement. It doesn’t seem like it should be too difficult for a story to have two named female characters (they don’t even have to be leads) that talk about something other than a man. Yet some films still don’t always measure up. If a film doesn’t pass the test it doesn’t necessarily mean that it automatically has a sexist/gender biased mindset. The Bechdel test can be used to help us determine some aspects of female roles in movies but these films should also be judged in other ways. The Bechdel test isn’t perfect but it’s a step in the right direction for at least starting to call out gender bias’s in Hollywood. Not all movies that fail are bad in the feminist perspective and there are still some movies that pass that aren’t very good.

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