Monday, 8 September 2014

How Reliable is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is a tool designed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which is often used to gauge the representation of women in a specific film. The basic concept is straight forward enough, and the fact that it is hard to find movies that pass a test made up of three simple questions helps to draw attention to inequalities in how gender is represented. The test itself contains three simple questions:

  1. Are there at least two women?
  2. Do they Speak to each other?
  3. About something other than a man?

It is surprising how rare it is to find a movie that actually passes the test. I will confess that I have proudly boasted in the past that I may have written the first war film to do so, but I am curious, just how reliable is the test ultimately? While it certainly can draw attention to issues that need rectifying I am not entirely sure it is a perfect way to gauge inequalities. Failing the Bechdel test does not automatically mean a film is sexist.

To provide a straight forward case, there are plenty of films that would automatically fail the test on the simple grounds that they have no significant female characters, let alone two who speak to each other about something besides a man. Just because a movie has an all-male cast does not mean it is sexist, in some cases it may be perfectly justifiable. 

The Shawshank Redemption still holds the first spot on the IMDB Top 250 and the only female character of significance is offed in the first few minutes. The main reason there aren't any other women of significance is because the whole thing takes place in a men's prison. The all-male cast in The Thing worked because it allowed Carpenter to subvert his own conventions and thus add further suspense. The main reason you don't see very many women in war films is because most of the big ones are set in periods of history when only men were allowed to enlist.

By default, all the above movies should fail the Bechdel test, and yet all of them have a legit, non-sexist reason for lacking significant female characters. Now this is not always justified. After all, would it really have killed the writers of Backdraft to write just one of the firefighters as a woman? Alternatively, a film that passes the Bechdel test could still be offensive. After all, Pussy Galore may have technically spoken to the other (overly sexualized) women in her squadron about something besides James Bond and that doesn't make Goldfinger any less sexist.

There is a slight problem with the wording here that adds a layer of confusion as well. According to the rules, there must be at least two women who speak to each other about something besides men. Does that just mean there has to be some variety in their conversations or that they cannot talk about men at all? If there are two women who have 10 different conversations over the course of a film and only one is about a man than does that automatically mean the movie has failed the test, or does it pass because of the other nine discussions? 

It gets a bit confusing in that way. Supposing a woman talks about a man while addressing a man? Also, if it is not okay for two women to talk to each other about a man, than why is it okay for two men to talk to each other about a woman? Also, in theory, there are contexts where it logically makes sense for two women to talk about a man. For instance, if the movie features a wedding, and we see the bride talking to her friends before it starts, it stands to reason she might bring up her groom. That would not automatically mean she is not a strong character.

Ultimately, when you get down to it, the Bechdel Test may not be as reliable a tool as one would expect. While it can be a valuable way to show inequalities in specific contexts, a movie passing the test does not automatically mean that it has strong female characters, and failing the test does not automatically mean sexism is at play. After all, some movies would technically fail the test by default, and others might have perfectly logical reasons for even two strong women to talk to each other about a man. I cannot deny that there are areas in Hollywood in which gender representation needs to be improved, I can just say that this particular test may not be the most effective way of finding those areas.


  1. I guess I don't think the Bechdel test is used for singling out strong female characters, just to show that the ones that are there are there on their own, and not just for the men's story. I frequently complain that The Walking Dead fails this quite often, even though they have strong female characters like Carol, Maggie, and Michonne on the show.

    Nice write up!

    1. Interesting, I would have thought The Walking Dead would have passed with flying colors given how many female characters it has, but I suppose they have had their share of discussions about a man.

  2. I have seen some movies where women should have been added but i have seen many as well where there is one token female and the only reason she is there is to show the film as not being sexist or racist. In fact I often wanted the woman to be killed off because she was so annoying. When a film has one woman in the plot why must they make her be so butch but with pouty lips? They are always, often, in a tight t-shirt with some rips put in place to leave the man drooling and then she wears cargo pants. One places soot on her but she still can wear a little gloss and mascara. Do women talk about men..Yes! Is that all we do...NO! We discuss everything from world events to history plus the usual. men do the same. I love a good war film like Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai. I love The Great Escape. Paths of Glory is a great war film where, at the end, a girl sings and that girl stays with you as it does with the rest in the film...When a woman is supposed to be there then great but don't stick her in just because one feels one needs one there...just saying:)

    1. That can indeed be a major pitfall in a lot of literary adaptations. Once in a while you see one that manages to pull it off but often trying to force a Love interest into a story that didn't originally have female characters can be problematic.

  3. Good article, John. I certainly would not use this test to definitively say that a film is sexist or not. However, it's a good place to start the conversation.

  4. You make a good point. The Bechdel test is a good place to start, to get the writer thinking about what characters he selects and what they do. But even a film passing the test can end up sexist. But if it gets writers to put some female firefighters or astronauts or spies into the film, then that is great. I only question when this done in films that are set in time period or environment where men would be predominantly involved the story. Sure historical fiction is still fiction, but sticking a female knight into a story just because you want to ends up looking silly. Now if it is a fantasy film, well then make them all women. We need more Amazons in movies these days. ;)

    1. Oh it would be great if this test could get writers to start putting female firefighters into their movies. Then I wouldn't need to do this crazy protest and write all these articles about the issue and refuse to watch certain movies because they violate my ethics. They seem to be doing better with astronauts, although a lot of science fiction films still tend to be male-dominated.

      Historical fiction can be a tricky one to deal with, since that also depends on how it is written. Shoving a female knight in just for the sake of gender diversity is not cool, but perhaps having a complex female character who has worked hard to get into that position could still work.

      Also, just because a work is set in a patriarchal society doesn't mean you can't still have strong female characters. Just look at Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter (who manages to do a lot of manipulating and scheming over the course of the movie). Even more recently you got game of thrones, where there is a grand total of one character who fully conforms to gender expectations and suffers for it, while most of the other women are extremely powerful and just have to get creative in finding ways to maintain it.