The Bechdel test (// BEK-dəl) asks whether 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.
Only about half of all films meet these requirements, according to user-edited databases and the media industry press. The test is used as an indicator for the active presence of women in films and other fiction, and to call attention to gender inequality in fiction.
Also known as the Bechdel–Wallace test, the test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, in whose comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For it first appeared in 1985. Bechdel credited the idea to a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf. After the test became more widely discussed in the 2000s, a number of variants and tests inspired by it have been introduced.
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 were women. Another study looking at the 700 top‐grossing films from 2007 to 2014 found that only 30% of the speaking characters were female. In a 2016 analysis of screenplays of 2,005 commercially successful films, Hanah Anderson and Matt Daniels found that in 82% of the films, men had two of the top three speaking roles, while a woman had the most dialogue in only 22% of films.
The Bechdel test
The rules now known as the Bechdel test first appeared in 1985 in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For. In a strip titled "The Rule", two women, who resemble the future characters Mo and Ginger, discuss seeing a film and the black woman explains that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:
- The movie has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
The white woman acknowledges that the idea is pretty strict, but good. Not finding any films that meet their requirements, they go home together.
The test has also been referred to as the "Bechdel–Wallace test" (which Bechdel herself prefers), the "Bechdel rule", "Bechdel's law", or the "Mo Movie Measure". Bechdel credited the idea for the test to a friend and karate training partner, Liz Wallace, whose name appears in the marquee of the strip. She later wrote that she was pretty certain that Wallace was inspired by Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own.
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". In 2013, an Internet newspaper described it as "almost a household phrase, common shorthand to capture whether a film is woman-friendly". The failure of major Hollywood productions such as Pacific Rim (2013) to pass the test was addressed in depth in the media.
According to Neda Ulaby, the test 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." Dean Spade and Craig Willse described the test as a "commentary on how media representations enforce harmful gender norms" by depicting women's relationships to men more than any other relationships, and women's lives as important only insofar as they relate to men.
Several variants of the test have been proposed—for example, that the two women must be named characters, or that there must be at least a total of 60 seconds of conversation. The test has also attracted academic interest from a computational analysis approach.
Use by critics and film bodies
In 2014, the European cinema fund Eurimages incorporated the Bechdel test into its submission mechanism as part of an effort to collect information about gender equality in its projects. It requires "a Bechdel analysis of the script to be supplied by the script readers".
In addition to films, the Bechdel test has been applied to other media such as video games and comics. In theater, British actor Beth Watson launched a "Bechdel Theatre" campaign in 2015 that aims to highlight test-passing plays with tweets.
Pass and fail proportions
The website bechdeltest.com is a user-edited database of some 6,500 films classified by whether or not they pass the test, with the added requirement that the women must be named characters. As of April 2015[update], it listed 58% of these films as passing all three of the test's requirements, 10% as failing one, 22% as failing two, and 10% as failing all three.
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 from 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 gender 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.
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). What counts as a character or as a conversation is not defined, and works with very few of either will often fail the test automatically.
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.
In response to its increasing ubiquity in film criticism, the Bechdel test has been criticized for not taking into account the quality of the works it tests (bad films may pass it, and good ones fail), or as a "nefarious plot to make all movies conform to feminist dogma". According to Andi Zeisler, this criticism indicates the problem that the test's utility "has been elevated way beyond the original intention. Where Bechdel and Wallace expressed it as simply a way to point out the rote, unthinkingly normative plotlines of mainstream film, these days passing it has somehow become synonymous with 'being feminist'. It was never meant to be a measure of feminism, but rather a cultural barometer." Zeisler noted that the false assumption that a work that passes the test is "feminist" might lead to creators "gaming the system" by adding just enough women characters and dialogue to pass the test, while continuing to deny women substantial representation outside of formulaic plots.
Similarly, the Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin disapproved of 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 individual films failing or passing the Bechdel test. FiveThirtyEight's writer Walt Hickey noted that the test does not measure whether any one 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".
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, notably feminist and antiracist critics and fans, to formulate gender-related criteria for evaluating works of fiction, in part because of the Bechdel test's limitations.
The "Mako Mori test", formulated by a Tumblr user and named after the only significant female character of Pacific Rim, asks whether a female character has a narrative arc that is not about supporting a man's story. Comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick proposed a "sexy lamp test": "If you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft."
The "Sphinx test" by the Sphinx theater company of London asks about the interaction of women with other characters, as well as how prominently women characters feature in the action, how proactive rather than reactive they are, and whether they are portrayed stereotypically. It was conceived to "encourage theatremakers to think about how to write more and better roles for women", in reaction to research indicating that only 37% of theater roles were written for women as of 2014.
With respect to characteristics other than gender, a test proposed by TV critic Eric Deggans asks whether a film that is not about race has at least two non-white characters in the main cast. The "Vito Russo test" created by the LGBT organization GLAAD tests for the representation of LGBT characters in films, and asks: Does the film contain a character that is identifiably LGBT, and is not solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect?
The Bechdel test has also inspired gender-related tests for nonfiction. Laurie Voss, CTO of npm, proposed a Bechdel test for software. Source code passes this test if it contains a function written by a woman developer which calls a function written by a different woman developer. Press notice was attracted after the U.S. government agency 18F analyzed their own software according to this metric. The Bechdel test also inspired the Finkbeiner test, a checklist to help journalists avoid gender bias in articles about women in science.
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