What is the Bechdel Test?

To pass the Bechdel Test, a film has to fulfil three conditions:

  1. To have two, preferably named, female characters

  2. Who talk together

  3. About something other than a man.

This might sound straightforward, but it’s harder to pass the Bechdel Test than you may think. Some famous films that do not fulfil one or more of these conditions include:

  • The ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy
  • Avatar
  • (500) Days of Summer
  • The Blind Side
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • Ratatouille
  • The Imitation Game
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt II
  • The Legend of Tarzan
  • The Magnificent Seven
  • Kung Fu Panda 3
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Citizen Kane
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  • Jason Bourne…

...and the list could go on.

The Bechdel Test is essentially a measure for gender bias. It could be applied to any form of media, although most often it is used for movies. It came into popular use after Alison Bechdel composed a scene in her 1985 comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” where her characters, while watching a movie, develop the test as a game.

The Bechdel Test does fail in analysing gender bias in many ways, and it is not very nuanced. For example, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was widely applauded for representing women alternatively to the norm in film, and yet the film actually fails the Bechdel Test.

Dykes to Watch Out For - Alison Bechdel

Dykes to Watch Out For - Alison Bechdel

 

The problem really is that Alison Bechdel never meant the conditions to be used as an actual feminist test. It was simply part of a wider joke in her comic, and a way to highlight pervasive and normative plotlines. So we should also treat the Bechdel Test lightly, and remind ourselves that a film failing or passing the test doesn’t necessarily say anything about its feminist credentials.

But honestly, there is something so strangely satisfying and concrete about a film failing the Bechdel Test. It’s just so blatantly sexist. Our biases really shine through when two women can’t talk about anything other than a man. It’s the type of easy-to-prove sexism that is useful to have in your arsenal, so you can provide incontrovertible ‘evidence’ to somebody who flat-out denies your personal experience. And if we treat the Bechdel Test as a humorous take on gender inequality, it can help us be more aware of, laugh at and then hopefully combat gender bias in the media.

 

The rise in popularity of the Bechdel Test has also given way to forms of the test that expose other biases. Writer Nikesh Shukla proposed a version asking whether two main characters are people of colour, and if they talk to each other about something other than their race. The “Vito Russo” test developed by GLAAD asks whether a film features an LGBT character that is not predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, and if that character is also integral to the plot.

If these little ways of conceptualising bias in the media can become mainstream, then they can help raise awareness of deeper, institutionalised issues. How many times do you think a standard news broadcast would pass the Bechdel, or Shukla Test? What does this tell you (or remind you) about the types of people running countries, multinational corporations and international organisations?

Next time you’re watching the TV, or a film, have a think about whether what you’re watching would pass the Bechdel Test or its variants. If it fails, it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film, nor should you feel bad for enjoying it. But note that failure, and later on ask yourself why our media does such a bad job at representing diversity. The more we recognise, the more we understand, and therefore the better equipped we are to smash the kyriarchy* together.
 

 

*In case you don’t know the term “kyriarchy,” I found this explanation of it on the Mount Holyoke website: “Kyriarchy is a term that extends patriarchy to encompass and connect to other structures of oppression and privilege, such as racism, ableism, capitalism, etc. Basically, the term kyriarchy recognizes that there are overlapping, complicated power strata. It takes intersections into account.” It was coined by the radical feminist liberation theologist Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.  

 

Article by Mairi Lubelska