The Bechdel Test
The Bechdel Test, Bechdel-Wallace Test, or the Mo Movie Measure, is a sort of litmus test for female presence in movies and TV. 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. Wikipedia says that Ms. Bechdel prefers the name "Bechdel–Wallace test".
In order to pass, the film or show must meet the following criteria:
- It includes at least two women,
- who have at least one conversation,
- about something other than a man or men.
If that sounds to you like a pretty easy standard to meet, 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 Bechdel-positive shows/movies, 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 (such as ones set in a men's prison or on a WWII military submarine or back when only men were on juries), or with no conversations at all, or having only one or two characters. You may even be cutting out a lot of works that have feminist themes. 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 1985 when the test was first formulated, but Hollywood still needs to be prodded to put in someone other than The Chick.
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 or mortal enemies 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's not relationships with men. Neither was the test ever meant to be taken seriously as a benchmark for determining a work's degree of feminism, let along considered more than a joke.
This is because the Bechdel Test is not meant to give a scorecard of a work's overall level of feminism. The test was designed as a joke. It is entirely possible for a Bechdel-positive film not to have 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 clearly Bechdel-positive movie can still be incredibly misogynistic. Conversely, a Bechdel-negative story can still be strongly feminist in other ways, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that.
It's obviously easier for a TV series, especially one with an Ensemble Cast, to follow this rule 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 apply the test to individual episodes or two-hour collections of episodes. It's often surprising how long it takes many TV shows to have a Bechdel-positive episode. And some analyses compare the results of the Bechdel test to those of an inverted test with the roles of men and women swapped.
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.
We don't list every movie's Bechdel Test result because that would be huge. If you're interested, see Bechdel Test Movie List.
- 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 Belisarius Series female characters regularly talk about politics and war to each other which is technically about men (as they form the vast majority of those who take part in such activities in the Middle Ages)but only intermittently about individual men and then often in their position as strategic chess pieces rather then as people. Irene and Antonina have one conversation which is primarily about Empress Theodora who is of course a woman. It does mention men as a by the way as of course her career was in fact affected by men.
- In Honor Harrington everyone except the Graysons which are portrayed as an endearingly but exasperatingly old fashioned Proud Warrior Race of Space Mormons(sort of) and their not so endearing Masadan cousins are indifferent to whether a given role is filled by a man or a woman. At any given time the sex of the speakers will not matter and as it is a technothriller in space, the subjects are likely to be war, politics, or the technology of same.
- 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.
- 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.
- Unwinder's 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.
- A Feminist Frequency video shows a large number of popular Bechdel-negative movies. In a running joke, the commentator yawns, wanders away, comes back with an apple, and eats it, while the movie posters are still blinking steadily along in the background.
- Feminist Frequency discusses the test again here. She proposes that the test be modified so that the scene in question must last at least sixty seconds to pass. She also describes a variant of the test for people of color.
- Name Dropped in Alternate History: The Series : The Creepy Teen Years episode 2x19. It's noted as being the first time the series actually passed the test. The two women are discussing vacation plans.
- Atop the Fourth Wall: Linkara brings up the importance of the third point during his review of Sultry Teenage Super Foxes. Yes, the cast is almost uniformly female but they never talk about anything but men. Unless you count the villains, that is.
- Talked about in Extra Credits in the episode "Diversity".
- In The Nostalgia Chick's review of X-Men: First Class, she pointed out that it was one of the only superhero movies to pass the test. She then told her audience to go look up what the Bechdel Test was.
- Stuff You Like references this when reviewing Underworld here [dead link]. The scene is Selene and Erika (briefly) discussing dresses (before going on to talk about... umm... men).
Subtitles: Did they just pass the Bechdel Test?
- Dumbing of Age named a strip after the trope and uses it to do a lot of Conversational Troping about it.
- Cracked.com's Luke McKinney points out in The 4 Best Moments in the Worst Movies Ever Made that the movie based on the video game Dead or Alive "physically beats the shit out of the Bechdel test" "within the first 10 minutes".
- 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 runs the Bechdel Test on several Disney and Disney/Pixar animated movies. Roughly half pass, though older Pixar films didn't do so hot. Many Disney films have two female characters interacting not about a man, but fails to be a conversation due to one of the parties being an animal.
- named after Mo, the main character of Dykes to Watch Out For, even though it was introduced in a one-off strip before Mo was introduced
- (some make the addendum that the women must be named characters)
- (some make the addendum that the conversation must be at least 60 seconds long)
- The exact interpretation of this can vary; some feel that it's okay to mention a man or men so long as they're not the primary subject of the conversation, while others will demand a conversation where men aren't mentioned at all.