The Bechdel Test: Does The Fiction You Read Or Watch Pass?

True or false: My teenage sons love when I point out gender inequality or lack of diversity in movies to them, especially when I pause the DVD to do so.

False. They don’t love that. They roll their eyes and say, “Ugh, Mom, we get it.”

 

annoyed-teenager-from-microsoft-clip-art

 

But as long as they’re in my home, I will make use of these teachable moments. As a mother of two white males, it’s my job to make sure they recognize what they might otherwise fail to see.

But I’m not here to get all preachy. I’ll save that for my sons. Instead I wanted to tell you about the Bechdel Test. Maybe you already know about it. After all, I’m a laggard. But I didn’t know the term until my social media bud, Audrey Kalman, mentioned it to me in a tweet. (Thanks, Audrey!)

The Test

The Bechdel test is an indicator of gender inequality. No, it is not scientific or precise, and the creators of it, Alison Bechdel and Liz Wallace, do not claim it to be. In fact, it originated in Bechdel’s comic strip, where one of her female characters mentions she’ll only see a movie if it meets the following criteria:*

  • The film has at least two women in it.
  • The two women talk to each other.
  • They talk to each other about something other than a man.

You can click the link above to read more about it or you can visit bechdeltest.com for a list of movies that have weathered the test.

 

Original image from Wikipedia: Louise Moillon, The Fruit Seller, 1631, Louvre

These women pass the Bechdel Test. (Original image from Wikipedia: Louise Moillon, The Fruit Seller, 1631, Louvre)

Pass Or Fail?

This concept got me thinking: does my fiction pass the test? As a woman I surely hope so. But just in case, I did a mental run-through.

  • First book: check. In The Seneca Scourge, Dr. Sydney McKnight talks to other women. Mostly about a lethal flu bug that turns patients’ lungs into goo.
  • Second book: check. My public health nurse talks to other women in her quest to take on the food industry.
  • Third book: che…um…uh-oh, wait a sec. My main character is a male medical student, and the story is told through his point-of-view. Do any of my minor female characters talk to each other about something other than men? Considering I don’t write romance, the chance is pretty high.

A quick brain scan of my first draft tells me yes, my female characters talk to each other, but not in lengthy dialogue. Given everything filters through my protagonist’s point-of-view, he must be present in the scene, and scenes work best when dialogue is limited to two people at a time. But I’m pretty sure I managed to pass the test.

I’ll let you know after I finish the second draft.

Do movies and books you enjoy pass the Bechdel Test? Writers, how about the stories you write?

*Information taken from Wikipedia. Now we need a quick screening test for diversity in fiction. But that’s a whole other blog post.

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Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of The Seneca Scourgea medical thriller. For full bio, click here.   

290 Responses to “The Bechdel Test: Does The Fiction You Read Or Watch Pass?”

  1. reocochran

    The show “Call the Midwife” has nuns and nurses to help deliver babies in a long ago period WWII on TV and I love Thomas Hardy’S movie of his book and how the woman had 3 choices in men. “Far from the Madding Crowd” is a timeless story. Fun post and Greta dialogue 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I haven’t read “Far from the Madding Crowd,” but I’d like to. There’s a movie of it coming out soon. Looks really good. And I’ve heard good things about “Call the Midwife.” I’ll have to check it out sometime. Thanks!

      Like

  2. hilarycustancegreen

    Great to spread the word about the Bechdel test. I have a daughter in Theatre direction, so it came my way a while ago. I remember editing my last novel with it in mind!
    Writing is a trade that can share info whatever the genre, so I’m following (but being a wuss I don’t enjoy thrillers).

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes, it’s a quick, easy test to apply. Of course, not all books can pass it because of the nature of their plot, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind. Thanks!

      Like

  3. Aquileana

    Hi there Carrie I have never heard about the Bechdel Test…. I am thinking that according to the factors you highlighted, an author that would have never failed would be Jane Austen… I´ll keep this post in mind next time I go to the movies or read a book… whichever thing comes first!… Then will check it on the the BTML page for sure… Best wishes. Aquileana.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you, and thank you for reading. It’s a quick screening tool at any rate. Certainly some movies won’t be able to pass it just by their nature (e.g., movies about men lost at sea), but for those movies depicting both genders, writers could go a long way in improving things!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Main Street Musings Blog

    I saw the documentary “Iris” the other day about the life and career of fashion icon Iris Apfel that you might appreciate. She’s not a feminist but she is a progressive thinker and pushes the boundaries.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll look into it. I’m compiling a list of things to watch in the summer since the network shows are on hiatus. Because yes, watching TV is what I should be doing… 😉

      Like

  5. Kourtney Heintz

    Thanks for shining a light on that. It’s so important to create 3-d female characters who don’t just talk about men. But actually bond over their lives. 🙂

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    • Carrie Rubin

      For sure. Of course, that can’t always be done within the confines of a story, but at least we can keep it in mind when we’re drafting our novels.

      Like

      • Kourtney Heintz

        Agreed. I was just reading about how frustrated people were with Girls for showcasing New Yorkers sitting around being undriven. I think that is what the point of the show is. To focus on the uncertainty and the being lost moments. The moments when everyone has it together don’t make for conflict or interesting tv. The same happens with characters in books. If they were talking politics and all the stuff they might discuss in real life, the book might drag.

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  6. Gail Kaufman

    “Where in the OM Am I?” is exemplary. The protagonist is a woman who meets other interesting women throughout the story. The men in her life are mentioned, but they are in the background and don’t play much of a role in her career decisions. I’m always on the hunt for books like that.

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  7. Smaktakula

    It seems that every so often I’m forced to think about the Bechdel Test, at which point I can go back to forgetting it exists.

    As far as the books I read–at least lately–they’re about 50/50. The comics I read, ironically (or it seems ironic to me, given the misogynistic stigma the artform is often saddled with), are at something close to 100% on the Bechdel test.

    I don’t watch much TV except for screamy talk shows (I’ve recently been watching a British talk show, but it’s work-related, actually; you have to love what you do, right?), but they almost pass the Bechdel test. There are often women, and they often talk to one another (often quite emotionally). Alas, more than not, they’re talking about a man.

    I sometimes have an unfortunate tendency to poop all over something that means a great deal to someone else, and I don’t want to do that here, but having said that, I personally don’t have a lot of use for the Bechdel Test. I think it’s an interesting–and yes, to some degree valuable–exercise, but beyond that I don’t think it’s very helpful.

    What I mean is, so what if something doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test? Should it not be read/seen, or rather, read/seen with caution? Sure, something like Porky’s would fail the Bechdel Test, but so would “Of Mice and Men,” and, if memory serves (I reserve the right to be mistaken on this one), also the grossly-overrated “Catcher in the Rye.”

    Conversely, what if something does meet the standards of the Bechdel Test? Should we then watch it and learn from it? I think Britney Spears’ “Crossroads” would fit the bill, although in full disclosure, I haven’t seen the film.

    Lastly, if the Bechdel test is about inclusivity, it doesn’t do much for people of color, gay people, the disabled (although the Seneca Scourge hits all those notes: Casper, Mitch and Mitch, respectively) or the like.

    Again, I hope I’m not coming off like an a-hole (do you see how I modify my behavior when I’m here?), but I wanted to give a contrary (I haven’t read the other comments, but I assume I’m in the vast, vast minority) opinion.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Well, the test was never meant to be the end-all, be-all. It came from a fictional character, after all. And of course it has plenty of holes. Not all books and movies can or should pass it. That would be silly. A movie about men lost at sea or in war trenches can obviously not pass. So it’s not meant to be taken so seriously. But it does raise a good point and gets people thinking. Above all, I think that’s what’s important.

      You’ve been hiding out lately. I assume that means you’re busy with some great projects. That’s a good thing!

      Like

  8. Rhoda Baxter

    I write romance, so getting a book to pass the Bechdel test is hard. However, I did put a joke about the Bechdel test in the book I’ve just submitted. I hope it makes it past edits.
    Incidentally, Harry Potter struggles with it. Plenty of strong female characters. But when they discuss something, it’s usually Harry or Voldemort.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Good point about Harry Potter. Just goes to show even books with strong female characters can fail. Shows the test has some holes. I think it’s great you made a joke about it in your WIP. Too funny. 🙂

      Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. benzeknees

    I’ve never heard of this before & never thought about it either. But when I think about the kinds of movies I tend to prefer – I lean towards strong female leads or supporting characters & they usually have a lot to say that doesn’t include talking about men. Even my rough draft of the book I have been working on for years has a strong female lead character & many other equally strong females & males with whom she interacts.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      It only makes sense books and movies would want strong female characters, doesn’t it? After all, that’s what we see in the real world. Strong women everywhere. 🙂

      Like

  10. Léa

    Great post! What I write should pass but thanks to you, I shall be more mindful. What I have been reading may not fair so well. Last summer was my ‘affair’ with Hemingway and I’ll leave that for the jury. The book I just began, not likely it was written by Frank Norris in the 1890’s and his central character is a very sloth-like man. However, it is still early… 😉
    The two books before that were a fascinating autobiography and Kurt Vonnegut’s last book.
    As for films, I am a foreign film junkie so I shall leave it for you to make your own conclusion. C’est la vie!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      It’s true, historical novels and those written in earlier times probably won’t fare well on this test. But hopefully writers today will put more thought into better roles for women and people of color.

      As for foreign films, the ones I’ve seen do far better at strong female characters than the US ones. Maybe it’s just the movies I’m drawn to, but it seems women get better roles in foreign films.

      Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Jay

    I never really thought of this test in terms of books. It is very hard if the protagonist is male. I guess the reader is tasked with making sure that we read from a variety of sources.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      There will always be exception–like men stranded at sea movies or prison movies, etc. But I guess where writers could include strong female characters, we women sure would appreciate it. 🙂

      Like

  12. Cecilia

    Wow, that is something I hear for the first time, very interesting and fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  13. pegoleg

    Tell your boys to look on the bright side. Instead of stopping movies to point out inequalities, you could be dragging them to museums and pointing out art that describes digestive processes – and doing so loudly.

    Like

  14. Celine Jeanjean

    That’s a clever little test, I can think of so many movies that fail it! I had a little mental scan over my book and *phew* I pass 🙂 Big Hollywood Blockbusters on the whole fail on an epic level (the latest Avengers movie comes to mind at this point — I don’t think two women ever talk to each other)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes, those types of movies have a long way to go. But since I love action movies and thrillers, I see this test failed a lot. It doesn’t make the movies or books less enjoyable, but it does get kind of old…

      Liked by 1 person

  15. michellejoycebond

    Love this–and you’ve got me thinking. My protagonist is always a young woman, so I have higher chance of a quality conversation occurring between two women. Then again, I write romance. 🙂 I’m realizing though that I almost always have a secondary female character with strong traits in my stories–strong enough to stand up to my protagonists. These are often sisters or best friends criticizing each other and the world around them. There are plenty of things to talk about besides men. So…yay!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Sounds like you’d pass the test no problem! And, of course, in romance there will be lots of talk about men. Nothing wrong with that. Where would Sex and the City be without that? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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