The Bechdel test is used to identify gender bias in fiction. A work passes the test if it features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Commentators have noted that a great proportion of contemporary works fail to pass this threshold of representing women.
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.
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 [...]
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.
The test has been described as "the standard by which feminist critics judge television, movies, books and other media", and moved into mainstream criticism in the 2010s. 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."
Several variants of the test have been proposed, e.g., that the two women must be named characters.
Only a small proportion of films pass the Bechdel test, according to writer Charlie Stross and film director Jason Reitman. According to Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly, if passing the test were mandatory, it would have jeopardized half of 2009's Best Picture nominees and would cut the length of the annual Comic-Con from five days to 45 minutes. Stross also 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!"
Explanations that have been offered to explain why relatively few films pass the Bechdel test include the relative lack of diversity among scriptwriters, or their assumptions about the audience's preferences: A scriptwriting student at UCLA 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."
The website bechdeltest.com is a user-edited database of some 3,300 films classified by whether or not they pass the test, with the added requirement that the women must be named characters. As of July 2012, it listed 53% of these films as passing all three of the test's requirements, 11% as failing one (the women's conversations are about men), 25% as failing two (the women don't talk to each other) and 11% as failing all three (there are not two named female characters).
The Bechdel test only indicates whether women are present in a work of fiction to a certain degree. A work can pass the test and still contain sexist content, and a work with prominent female characters can 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).
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) or 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.
- Lawrence, Faith (June 2011). "SPARQLing Conversation: Automating The Bechdel-Wallace Test". Paper presented at the Narrative and Hypertext Workshop, Hypertext 2011. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- Wilson, Sarah (28 June 2012). "Bechdel Rule still applies to portrayal of women in films". The Oklahoma Daily.
- Stross, Charles (28 July 2008). "Bechdel's Law". Charlie's Diary. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- 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.
- "Bechdel-Test: Frauen spielen keine Rolle". Kurier. 8 August 2012. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
- Woolf, Virginia. "A Room of One's Own: Chapter 5" (HTML:eBook/Multiple). In Thomas, Stephen. The University of Adelaide Library. University of Adelaide Press. Retrieved 24 December 2012.
- Bechdel, Alison. "The Rule". Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- "The Rule". DTWOF: The Blog. 16 August 2005. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- Ulaby, Neda (2008-09-02). "The 'Bechdel Rule,' Defining Pop-Culture Character". All Things Considered (National Public Radio). Retrieved 2012-07-26.
- Friend, Tad (11 April 2011). "Funny Like a Guy: Anna Faris and Hollywood's woman problem". The New Yorker (Condé Nast): 55. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
- Steiger, Kay (2011). "No Clean Slate: Unshakeable race and gender politics in The Walking Dead". In Lowder, James. Triumph of The Walking Dead. BenBella Books. p. 104. ISBN 9781936661138.
- Harris, Mark (6 August 2010). "I Am Woman. Hear Me... Please!". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- Power, Nina (2009). One-dimensional woman. Winchester, UK ; Washington, USA: Zero Books. pp. 39 et seq. ISBN 1846942411.
- "Ewig jung im blonden Herzen". Salzburger Nachrichten. Retrieved 26 July 2012. ""Wie unglaublich wenige Filme diesen simplen Test bestehen, ist wirklich bezeichnend." ("It's really telling how incredibly few films pass this simple test.")"
- Kesler, Jenifer (30 June 2008). "Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test". The Hathor Legacy. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- "Statistics". bechdeltest.com. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- Anthropy, Anna (2012). Rise of the videogame zinesters: How freaks, normals, amateurs, artists, dreamers, dropouts, queers, housewives, and people like you are taking back an art form (Seven Stories Press 1st ed. ed.). New York: Seven Stories Press. ISBN 9781609803735.
- Agnello, Anthony John (July 2012). "Something other than a man: 15 games that pass the Bechdel Test". Gameological. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- Zalben, Alex (22 February 2012). "'Witchblade/Red Sonja #1' Passes The Bechdel Test". MTV Geek!. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- Brainard, Curtis (22 March 2013). "‘The Finkbeiner Test’ Seven rules to avoid gratuitous gender profiles of female scientists". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved 31 March 2013.