Have you ever noticed how sometimes in films and tv shows, when two women are on screen together, they tend to talk about men? Whether it bothers you or not, you’re definitely not the only one to notice this phenomenon. Back in 1985, there was a comic strip by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel that called out the normalization of this phenomenon in modern cinema. The three-part “test” explained in the comic strip was that one character of the strip would only see a movie if 1) there are two women in the movie who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man. The punchline was that it was so rare for this to happen that hardly any movies passed the test. Because this strip’s message became so popular, the Bechdel Test was named in her honor.
The Original Comic Strip
Below is the comic strip that originally appeared in 1985.
Alison Bechdel wrote the strip based on an idea from her friend Liz Wallace, hence why the test is sometimes referred to as the Bechdel-Wallace Test.
Earlier Criticism of the Phenomenon
Alison Bechdel also credits the work of Virginia Woolf as a predecessor for her contemporary take on the same subject matter of gender representation in popular media. In Woolf’s 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”, she explained that nearly all characterization of women in fiction was in relation to their male counterparts.
To Pass the Test or Not?
Needless to say, this phenomenon still exists today, but is not always seen as a particularly bad thing by all audiences. Many genres of film and tv shows fail the test for varying reasons, and not all of them are simply “bad writing” (though that depends on whom you ask.)
For instance, think of Hallmark Channel movies. My wife loves them, as does an enormous population of women. The romantic comedy movies almost always have at least one female character (a best friend, colleague, family member) whose entire purpose seems to be pointing out to the main character that they are *gasp* actually in love with that jerk who ran her over in his fancy car.
But does that mean these shows really fail the test?
Well, maybe. First, remember that the entire test is a subjective opinion, and not a hard and fast rule that separates good writing from bad. In romantic comedies, it’s an essential part of the plot for the two love interests to get together, so why can’t there be a character whose main function is to point the protagonist toward the inevitable conclusion to their plot arc?
It’s no different than in a superhero film when some beloved character whom the titular superhero respects dearly helps them realize they are strong enough to defeat the bad guy, after all. In both cases, we see the characters being course-corrected on their main plot with the assistance of others. So, when this happens, does it really fail the test?
The answer is maybe. Here’s the important thing to note about the test – it doesn’t say that every single interaction between two named female characters has to not be about men. Thus, there are issues with using this test as a gold standard of gender representation in media.
Problems with the Bechdel Test
The problem with the test is that it was a good fit for the subject of a comic strip in the 1980s, but it isn’t really a catch-all mark of quality for films and shows today. The reason for this is that there are a lot of what if’s and other variables that just simply weren’t defined well in the comic strip that didn’t know it was going to be taken as seriously as it was. For instance:
Does Chicago Fire fail the test when two female paramedics discuss a man in a romantic sense, when several times in the same episode they talk about first-responder topics?
Do we fail the whole work when only one scene is marked as failing the test?
Not only that, what if there’s a movie that technically passes the Bechdel Test, but ends up being extremely sexist and mysoginistic throughout the film? Does the test still serve its purpose?
There are just too many ways for a good film to fail the Bechdel Test, and for a bad film to pass the test. So, in my opinion, it’s good to keep this particular phenomenon in mind when writing, but don’t live or die by it when you’re writing your own stories.