The Bechdel Test

In case you didn't already know, the Bechdel test analyzes the gender bias of a film by rating it according to the following criteria:

  1. two women are present
  2. the women have names
  3. they talk about something other than a man.
The test is named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who introduced the test in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For

The rule that the women must have names is interesting since it mandates that the women in question must have some importance to the story, thus imparting a certain clout to criterion 3. To be unnamed takes away the character's individuality in describing the character's relation to something else: "Nately's whore" from Catch-22, or "the housemaid."

The test is a simple yet powerful tool of how feminist a story is because it analyzes the extent to which women are only discussing men, and thus the independence of the women in question from the men in their lives. A character is only the sum of what the viewer sees, and thus if the women fail criterion 3, the women reduce themselves to the men in question.

The test may seem militant or unfair when it is not applied to men in relation to women. In order to get an idea of the importance of the Bechdel test, it must be applied to both sexes. The Male Bechdel Test--used as a control for this experiment--looks at whether or not two or more men, both with names, discuss something other than women. Let's look at some examples:

  1. Inception fails the original test: Dom's wife Mal and the architect Ariadne never speak to each other. Dom and the chemist, Eames and Arthur, and Dom and his father all talk about things other than women, so Inception passes the Male Bechdel Test.
  2. Mulan fails the original test, because four of the female characters, Mulan's mother, grandmother, the matchmaker and the hairdresser, do not have distinct names. It passes the male version: Shang and his father discuss battle with Chi Fu, among other conversations.
  3. Frozen passes the original test because Elsa and Anna discuss mainly Elsa. It passes the male version during Kristoff's confrontation of Oaken and Hans' discussion with the other ambassadors.
  4. The Amazing Spiderman fails the original test: Gwen and Gwen's unnamed mother talk about Peter. It passes the male test during conversations between Peter and Dr. Connors.
  5. My Cousin Vinny fails the original test, as it has one female character, but passes the male test because of the entire rest of the movie.
  6. Avatar fails the original test. Neytiri's mother is named Mo'at, which actually means "matriarch" and is questionable as a name; however the Na'vi seem to use that as her actual name. However, the two Na'vi women talk exclusively about Jake. Grace and Trudy (the Hispanic pilot) never have a direct conversation. It passes the male version of the test.

Overall, the Test fails many more movies than it passes. In order to get a true feel for what the Bechdel Test really measures, we have to see specifics. Do the failing movies tend to also have unnamed male characters as well as unnamed female characters? No. How many more male than female characters are in the production? Usually quite a few more. Are there named male characters who only discuss women? No.

The answers reveal that women are more often reduced to discussing men and/or are trivial characters than the reverse occurring. Thus the test essentially proves its reason for existing: movies tend to reinforce male dominance of society, with female characters providing secondary roles. Media is a reflection of society, and through the test we see that society is still male-dominated.

The number of movies that pass the test is growing, and many of these movies tend to do well: Frozen, Wicked, The Hunger Games series, and that's all I can think of for box-office hits. However, it's apparently true that films that pass the test make more money. What titles can you think of? Is the Bechdel Test an effective way to think about gender and sexism in media?

Many people think it is not effective. Counterarguments include:

  • movies can pass the test but still be misogynistic and shallow, eg The Transformers;
  • some movies have excellent female leads but don't pass because there are no woman-woman conversations, such as Gravity;
  • the test dismisses personality as irrelevant to the advancement of feminism.
These arguments are valid, certainly, in discussing ways to evaluate the role of women in media. But what the Test does is evaluate the overall role of women in relation to what men do in society, not discuss the inclusion of gender-norm breaking characters as helping to further equality. Both angles are effective.

More links about the Test:

Famous films that fail

An interactive quiz on movies and the Bechdel test

A criticism of the Test


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