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The Bechdel Test

Written By: - Date published: 6:59 pm, May 23rd, 2010 - 44 comments
Categories: blogs, feminism, Media, Politics, youtube - Tags: , ,

‘The Bechdel test’ requires a movie to pass three questions:

1)  Does it have two or more women in it (who have names)?

2)  Do they talk to one another?

3)  Do they talk to one another about something other than a man?

The two minute video below explains…

Check out this listing of movies that pass and fail the test.

(Via Neatorama, via Sociological Images via Feminist Frequency)

44 comments on “The Bechdel Test”

  1. QoT 1

    I await with bated breath the cries of anguished white boys, “But you CAN’T expect EVERY movie to feature multiple three-dimensional women with dialogue! What about Shakespeare/Victorian mysteries/etc etc?”

    I would point out that actually, there would be no problem with all-male buddy films in a world which also had a plentiful supply of all-women buddy films (in the same genres). But then they’d have to start thinking about things and that hurts.

  2. Carol 2

    Watching Alien Resurrection . It kind of passes the test – except the 2 women who talk to each other about stuff other than men are cyborgs & not totally humanoid beings.

    • Zorr 2.1

      One of them is an android and the other is Ripley – neither is a cyborg. Learn your sci fi terms! ^_^

      Just going through Wiki for some quick and easy definitions:
      Cyborg – cybernetic organism
      Android – synthetic organism
      Ripley – kick ass

      • Lanthanide 2.1.1

        Neither of them are totally humans though.

        • lprent 2.1.1.1

          The whole movie seems to emphasize that if you don’t have while ‘blood’ or a tendency to fry metal when you bleed – then you’re there as a victim..

      • Carol 2.1.2

        Oh, you’re probably right on the Android case. I hadn’t seen this movie in a long time. I was using the term Cyborg as Donna Haraway does. The android just seems human.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyborg_theory

        For her a cyborg can be a mixture of human and animal, or human and machine. Ripley is a mixture of alien & human, so she’s a cyborg in Harraway’s conception of it.

        But anyway, neither are totally human, which was my main point.

        PS: On second thoughts, Ripley’s a creation of human technology that mixed human and alien elements. So she’s kind of a human-alien-machine hybrid.

        • Tigger 2.1.2.1

          The test is ‘women’ – not ‘human women’. Artificial life forms have rights too!!!!

          • Draco T Bastard 2.1.2.1.1

            Actually, wasn’t that the main gist of that particular movie?

            The main critique I’d say about “Ripley” was that she was portrayed more as a female being a male than as a female.

    • Anita 2.2

      I think one could reasonably apply the Bechdel test to a cartoon in which all the characters were animals if the animals had a female/male distinction.

      • Tigger 2.2.1

        Shrek is the one the movies that fails the test according to the video. A little nasty of them to include Milk in the list. Might fail the Bechdel test but it it’s a gay male movie – yes we’re men but we’re men who never see ourselves in media….

        • Anita 2.2.1.1

          I guess whether that bothers you depends whether you think the Bechdel test is a value judgement, or a judgement of fact able to be used to inform value judgements or movie preferences. For me I find it useful in considering whether I will enjoy a movie; there are very few movies which fail they test which I have genuinely enjoyed, the presence of significant characters with whom I feel a connection is important to me.

          I wonder if the queer community has developed a similar test for the presence of real queer characters (I sure haven’t heard of one but it may exist). Similarly it would provide a useful way of summarising whether a movie contains well developed queer characters, something that would be important to some queer moviegoers.

          • Carol 2.2.1.1.1

            Well, Anita, there are so few queer movies, I’d go and watch most ones available.

            But as far as lesbian/bi women characters go, they can probably be slotted in as a subset of the Bechdel test: e.g. Bound, Imagine Me & You, etc, etc. If they spent most of their time talking about men, I’m sure it’d be pretty much a fail. Also it’d be a fail if one of the women dies or goes off with a man.

            Also, plot/dialogue are not the only elements that are used to judge a lesbian/bi woman character/story as a pass or fail. There’s often intense scrutiny on HOW it’s done in comparison with heterosexual characters and romance. So there’s usually quite a bit of comment on sex scenes , whether the actors/characters look like they are into it, whether there’s tongue etc etc.

            There’s probably more time spent on TV than film because it usually includes a larger range of women characters and lesbian stories.

            http://www.afterellen.com/

            Is a key site where all this is monitored. And having decided a year or so ago that “Hollywood just isn’t into us”, they also trawl the world for TV programmes & films that are avaliable online (Germany & Spain are pretty good sources), plus direct to web drama series (a form of screen production that has escalated in the last year or so).

            • Anita 2.2.1.1.1.1

              Carol,

              I totally agree about the limited number of queer movies, what I was thinking more about was mainstream movies which have a token queer character or two. What would be the tests, stated as simply as the Bechdel test, which would allow us to rate mainstream movies with queer characters so that we can separate movies which have only a token queer character from those which have queer characters with real depth? (or any depth at all 🙂 )

              • Carol

                Anita, I’m not sure that it’s possible to cover all the negatives with one or two points, but I’ll take a stab:

                1) Does one or more of the LGBT characters get punished/die (pretty much the same thing in most stories)

                2) Is the main story focused on a heterosexual character and/or relationship.

                Oh, It should be framed in the reverse/positively:

                1) Does the LGBT character live and/or not get punished?

                2) Does the main storyline focus on an LGBT character/s and/or relationship?

              • Anita

                Hm… I think the dieing might cause problems – Four Weddings and a Funeral springs to mind, while the gay characters are not the main characters, they are significant, their relationship is portrayed as archetypally healthy, and the death is not amn implicit punishment IMO.

                I’m also going to struggle with positive phrasing but…

                1) Does one or more LGBT characters have a role within the main narrative arc(s) of the movie?

                2) If the most significant LGBT character is not queer, does the most significant LGBT character have a relationship or sex life which is
                a) included in the movie; and
                b) no less healthy than the main character’s

                3) Do the LGBT characters make it to the end of the movie without experiencing punishment (either implicit or explicit) for their sexual orientation?

  3. Carol 3

    Well, I certainly like Alien Resurrection because of those two female characters. And as Haraway says, we’re all cyborgs really.

    I do think it passes the test. Though, I wonder if there isn’t an element of exceptionalism about these two characters, in the Hollywood scheme because they are human creations and not fully human females – probably both created by men as well.

  4. SHG 4

    Where the Boys Aren’t 6

    1) all-female cast
    2) lots of interaction between the characters
    3) they don’t discuss men at all

  5. wtl 5

    While I don’t dispute the fact that many movies are male-character-centric (it’s pretty obvious I’d say), something tells me that all three criteria are actually closely correlated with a single variable: the proportion of characters in the movie that are women:
    Criteria 1) directly depends on the proportion of characters in the movie that are women.
    Criteria 2) would be more likely be true if there were a greater proportion of characters in the movie that are women, as they will have more chances to interact.
    Criteria 3) would be more likely true since the conversation in most movies revolves around the other characters in the movie, and if those other characters are more likely to be women, than it is more likely to hold.

    But I guess the point of this test is to try to get a point across, as simple arguing for a 50/50 cast is easier to shout down 🙂

    • Carol 5.1

      I haven’t seen the Sex and the City movie, but do the women in that talk about anything but their relationships with men?

      oooh: anti-spam word “roots”

      • QoT 5.1.1

        Exactly! Part of the issues around the Bechdel-Wallace test is the fact that for a film to feature two named speaking women in the first place, it’s generally a chick flick – whereas films with multiple named speaking men can be in any genre.

        Same goes for my fave, Pride & Prejudice – a five-hour miniseries in which if they’re not talking about Darcy, Wickham or Mr Collins in particular they’re still talking about marriage/men in general.

        • Bored 5.1.1.1

          On the Chick Flick front I thought immediately of Thelma and Louise…..at first sight it passes the BW test except it is actually a blokes road movie with a couple of women playing surrogate blokes. The lady presenting in the clip is depressingly correct.

          As a bloke I find the movies obsession with “action”, sex, violence and stereotypes a real turn off. But they sell, and are easy formulaic vehicles. Now if the lady in the clip might get together with her friends and write a real script, something to trump the status quo, that would really help, we guys might even get into it.

        • Ari 5.1.1.2

          I wonder if what Jane Austen wrote would be any different if she had thought about the Bechdel test while writing. (not that it existed back in her time, of course)

          I can think of books that aren’t marketed at women that pass the criteria, but not any films.

          • Carol 5.1.1.2.1

            There is a general perception in the industry, that men watch films a lot and need to be catered for, while women are more into fiction TV.

            I don’t know how much marketing and promotions result in a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy when it comes to box-office & ratings stats.

            But perceptions can change….. on a bit of a tangent:

            I few years back, within the last decade, I used to ask anyone who would listen why only men did the voice -over promos for up-coming TV programmes – you know, those annoying voices that drown out the music while credits are rolling on TV. Most people, including quite a few young men & women (teens, early 20s) would say that people just wouldn’t accept it because male voices were more authoritative.

            Then one day, a few years back, I noticed that it was a woman’s voice doing the voice-over promo. And after that, I noticed that they would be done sometimes by men, and sometimes by women. As far as I’m aware, the sky has not fallen… in fact I haven’t seen anyone comment on it or complain.

            So, the moral is, IMO, the powers that be should just do it, with confidence & in good faith, and people will see all those discrimatory “perceptions” are built on thin air, and of little substance.

          • QoT 5.1.1.2.2

            Well, it’s a bit unfair to Ms Austen, since if she were versed in feminist theory she could have very well written the exact same books, just with a bit more savagery against a society which much more explicitly than ours forced women to centre their lives around men.

            Which could lead me into a whole other rant about the current “common knowledge” about Austen’s works (I think it was Karen Healey who had a masterful [mistressful?] stab at a comic author who used the phrase “swoons like a heroine in a Jane Austen book”) and the fact that her works *have* been largely reduced to shallow Chick Flicks.

            What’s depressing is when you go through modern sci fi which is lauded for having Strong Female Characters and sure, they pass – on the basis of ONE scene or ONE line.

            • NickS 5.1.1.2.2.1

              Which authors? Because I’m running out of good sci-fi (and non-lazy fantasy) to read…

              • lprent

                Just found the sequel to Cyteen by Cherryh in Wellington on the weekend.

              • NickS

                I tried reading that, but too much science in university has left me unable to read some of the older stuff 🙁

                And way too much Alastair Reynold, Sir Terry and tvtropes mean I’m a bit snobby on writing style and structure.

              • Pascal's bookie

                Tried Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovaks series?

              • NickS

                I have actually, probably wont read Altered Carbon again, but I’m on the hunt copies of Broken Angels and Woken Furies since Morgan tends to write quite well . Though presently I’m aiming to collect Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series via trademe.

                Oh yeah, Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter trilogy is pretty good, some annoying science fantasy with genetics, but the characters, plot and world-building make up for it.

                There’s also Ian McDonald’s books Chaga and Kirinya books, though I don’t quite know if Chaga fits the literary version of the Bechdel test, though he does female characters much better than Peter Hamilton. And also, there’s Ian Irvine’s View from the Mirror quartet, still a bit iffy over the later sequels, plus I’ll throw in Charles Stross, Paul McAuley and Peter Watts as authors to read.

  6. joe bloggs 6

    is there a similar test for the portrayal of men in television commercials?

    Seems to me that the male TV commercial archetype is rather harshly portrayed as a hapless fool who can’t find his way around a pot drawer in his own kitchen…

    • Pascal's bookie 6.1

      ” archetype is rather harshly portrayed as a hapless fool who shouldn’t be expected to do any housework that he is clearly incapable of, and should be left to take the kids fishing or play with their toys, while the better half makes more effecicent use of all the groceries she probably also does the shopping for.

      Fixed.

      • joe bloggs 6.1.1

        yup that’s the stereotype alright… so you’ve noticed the unsubtle barrage of put-downs of men on commercial TV as well…

        • Ari 6.1.1.1

          There are certainly better ways to engage the interest of women than to put down men, but try telling that to marketing execs.

          • Anita 6.1.1.1.1

            Tho one has to ask, given the implicit put down of women is at least as offensive as the explicit put down of men, exactly who the ads are aimed at.

  7. Brett 7

    I find it hard to believe that people pay good money to study this shit.

    • Anita 7.1

      I think if you’d actually watched the video or read any of the links you might not have made that statement.

      Tho I must say that I am ever grateful to the number of private individuals who have paid their own good money for Alison Bechdel’s comic strips and books.

      The original, I think, is here.

      • Brett 7.1.1

        I did watch the video.
        Does a certain percentage of movies have to involve woman have deep discussions on “meaningful topics” such as climate change, feminism etc.
        The majority of people, woman included find these types of movies dull beyond belief, which is why you don’t see a lot of that style of movie made.
        I know this really grates feminists but a lot of woman like talking about men, babies,shopping etc.
        Just except it and you will be a lot happier.

        • just saying 7.1.1.1

          Watch it again Brett. It’s got nothing to do with “deep and meaningful” or worthy conversations, just two women (with names) in one movie talking together, even for a few seconds, about anything at all – except a man, just once in the movie. It’s about what this absence in most mainstream movies is telling us, and what it means.
          Think 51 percent of the human population.
          Get it?

        • Anita 7.1.1.2

          If you did watch it and read the links then why did you say the following?

          people pay good money to study this

          • Jewish Kiwi 7.1.1.2.1

            Haha, he isn’t going to answer that, Anita. He just talked out of his arse and then spent his next comment walking back, trying to qualify himself. Nitwit

  8. To my mind, the saddest inclusion in that list is ‘Watchmen’.

    Oh, that film deserves to be there. But what’s sad is the comparison to the comic. That comic had some pretty impressive feminism in it, because even where Sally and Laurie where talking about men, they were also talking about the changing expectations and goals of women in incredibly male worlds, and about the fact that they were, to a certain extent, bound and restricted by their relationships (it doesn’t get more boyish than superhero comics!) It had impressive gender reversal stuff, like where Laurie is the person who teaches Dan the Nite Owl that it’s okay to get turned on by his costume. It had the most impressive examination of the “rape=romance” trope that I had ever seen – as in, I felt like it was in the comic so they could directly engage the systemic problems that produce that narrative trope. All in all, the comic, I felt, if not entirely successful, and not a full pass, deliberately set out to discuss some of the sexism in the superhero world.

    And then the movie comes out, and it’s like all that intelligence evaporated and was replaced with B.S. and fight scenes!! It makes me think of Edward Said’s great comment about how everything that isn’t normative is “politics”. And, what? Too complicated? Oy!

    (anti -spam word: “character”)

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