The Bechdel test asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added. Many contemporary works fail this test of gender bias. On average, films that pass the test have been found to have a lower budget than others, but have comparable or better financial performance.
The test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel (// BEK-dəl). In 1985, she had a character in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For voice the idea, which she attributed to a friend, Liz Wallace. The test was originally conceived for evaluating films but has since been applied to other media. It is also known as the Bechdel/Wallace test, the Bechdel rule, Bechdel's law, or the Mo Movie Measure.
Gender portrayal in popular fiction
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. [...] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. [...] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that [...]
In film, a study of gender portrayals in 855 of the most financially successful U.S. films from 1950 to 2006 showed that there were, on average, two male characters for each female character, a ratio that remained stable over time. Female characters were portrayed as being involved in sex twice as often as male characters, and their proportion of scenes with explicit sexual content increased over time. Violence increased over time in male and female characters alike.
According to a 2014 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, in 120 films made worldwide from 2010 to 2013, only 31% of named characters were female, and 23% of the films had a female protagonist or co-protagonist. 7% of directors are women.
The Bechdel test
What is now known as the Bechdel test was introduced in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled "The Rule", an unnamed female character says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:
- It has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
Bechdel credited the idea for the test to a friend and karate training partner, Liz Wallace. She later wrote that she was pretty certain that Wallace was inspired by Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own, reproduced in part above.
Originally meant as "a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper", according to Bechdel, the test moved into mainstream criticism in the 2010s and has been described as "the standard by which feminist critics judge television, movies, books, and other media". By 2013, an Internet newspaper described it as "almost a household phrase, common shorthand to capture whether a film is woman-friendly", and the failure of major Hollywood productions such as Pacific Rim (2013) to pass it was addressed in depth in the media. According to Neda Ulaby, the test still resonates because "it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns."
Pass and fail proportions
The website bechdeltest.com is a user-edited database of some 4,500 films classified by whether or not they pass the test, with the added requirement that the women must be named characters. As of November 2013, it listed 56% of these films as passing all three of the test's requirements, 11% as failing one (the women's conversations are about men), 23% as failing two (the women do not talk to each other), and 10% as failing all three (there are not two named female characters).
According to Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly, if passing the test were mandatory, it would have jeopardized half of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Picture nominees. The news website Vocativ, when subjecting the top-grossing films of 2013 to the Bechdel test, concluded that roughly half of them passed (although some dubiously) and the other half failed.
Writer Charles Stross noted that about half of the films that do pass the test only do so because the women talk about marriage or babies. Works that fail the test include some that are mainly about or aimed at women, or which do feature prominent female characters. The television series Sex and the City highlights its own failure to pass the test by having one of the four female main characters ask: "How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends? It's like seventh grade with bank accounts!"
Vocativ 's authors also found that the films that passed the test earned a total of $4.22 billion in the United States, while those that failed earned $2.66 billion in total, leading them to conclude that a way for Hollywood to make more money might be to "put more women onscreen." A 2014 study by FiveThirtyEight based on data about 1,615 films released from 1990 to 2013 concluded that the median budget of films that passed the test was 35% lower than that of the others. It found that the films that passed the test had about a 37% higher return on investment (ROI) in the United States, and the same ROI internationally, compared to films that did not pass the test.
Explanations that have been offered as to why many films fail the Bechdel test include the relative lack of diversity among scriptwriters and other movie professionals: in 2012, only one in six of the directors, writers, and producers behind the 100 most commercially successful movies in the United States were women. Professionals' assumptions about the audience's preferences may also be relevant: a scriptwriting student at the University of California, Los Angeles wrote in 2008 that she was told by professors that the audience "only wanted white, straight, male leads" and not, as she quoted a male industry professional as saying, "a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about".
Limitations and criticism
The Bechdel test only indicates whether women are present in a work of fiction to a certain degree. A work may pass the test and still contain sexist content, and a work with prominent female characters may fail the test. A work may fail the test for reasons unrelated to gender bias, such as because its setting works against the inclusion of women (e.g., Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, set in a medieval monastery). For these reasons, the Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin criticized the test as prizing "box-ticking and stat-hoarding over analysis and appreciation", and suggested that the underlying problem of the lack of well-drawn female characters in film ought to be a topic of discourse, rather than films failing or passing the Bechdel test. FiveThirtyEight 's writer Walt Hickey noted that the test does not measure whether a film is a model of gender equality, and that passing it does not ensure the quality of writing, significance or depth of female roles—but, he wrote, "it's the best test on gender equity in film we have — and, perhaps more important ..., the only test we have data on".
In an attempt at a quantitative analysis of works as to whether or not they pass the test, at least one researcher, Faith Lawrence, noted that the results depend on how rigorously the test is applied. One of the questions arising from its application is whether a reference to a man at any point within a conversation that also covers other topics invalidates the entire exchange. If not, the question remains how one defines the start and end of a conversation.
Nina Power wrote that the test raises the questions of whether fiction has a duty to represent women (rather than to pursue whatever the creator's own agenda might be) and to be "realistic" in the representation of women. She also wrote that it remained to be determined how often real life passes the Bechdel test, and what the influence of fiction on that might be.
The Bechdel test has inspired others to formulate gender-related criteria for evaluating works of fiction or nonfiction.
In 2013, the American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) media organization GLAAD introduced the "Vito Russo Test", intended to analyze the representation of LGBT characters in films. Inspired by the Bechdel test and named after film historian Vito Russo, it encompasses three criteria:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
- The character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- The character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.
Mako Mori test
The Mako Mori test is named after the female protagonist (and only female character of note) of the 2013 movie Pacific Rim, which fails the Bechdel test. To reflect what they considered the merits of the story in terms of gender, fans proposed the following test as an alternative: "The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story."
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- Although the test is sometimes referred to as the "Mo Movie Measure", the character who articulates it, is not Bechdel's character Mo. The episode in which it appears predates the development of the strip's ongoing cast.
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