A question about the Bechdel Test

So the Bechdel Test – invented by Alison Bechdel – critiques the dearth of primary female characters with any degree of interiority in teh moviez, and it consists of three criteria:

The show/book/film whatever

1) has two female characters who
2) have a conversation about
3) something other than a man.

Fewer films/shows than you’d think pass this test, including many that I love. Like, Firefly? Almost none (if any?) of the episodes pass the test. Kaylee and Inara are friends, but they almost always are talking about Simon or Inara’s clients. Zoe is terse and spends all her time with Mal and Wash, and River is crazy and spends all her time with Simon.

The cartoon that invented the Bechdel Test says that Alien passes the test because two women talk to each other about an alien. In this example, the alien is a problem the women are trying to solve (I assume? I’ve never seen it). So that made me wonder, can something pass the Bechdel Test if two women are talking about a man, but in a capacity wholly unrelated to any sort of romance-type situation? Like what if Leslie from Parks and Recreation runs for City Council, and her opponent is a dude, and she and Ann Perkins get together to talk about campaign strategy to defeat the opponent? If that was the only conversation she and Ann had in that episode, would it mean that that episode didn’t pass the Bechdel Test? Cause I feel like that example still lives up to the spirit of the Bechdel Test. The opponent in this example functions like the alien in Alien: an obstacle to the (non-romantic) aspirations of the two characters.

Thoughts? And if you think that this imaginary episode of Parks and Rec would qualify, do you think it would still qualify if the opponent in question were someone who used to date Ann?

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43 thoughts on “A question about the Bechdel Test

  1. Hmm. I think it’s different with television; in the natural course of things, you could very well have an episode that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, but overall, the show passes the Bechdel Test on a regular basis. (Let’s say monthly, so once every four episodes.)

    But I think the Bechdel Test is meant to be very stringent to show how male-dominated society is and force us to think about the media we consume; failing it doesn’t mean it’s done something wrong. Perhaps there’s a good reason, perhaps it examines gender in different ways, or perhaps it doesn’t question the status quo.

    In any case, I think your example would fly, because at some point, they’d have to discuss actual plans and not only the dude.

    • It is definitely different with television, but the show I’m thinking of, it seems like it had a majority of episodes that passed the Bechdel test. And I really don’t want that to change. :p

  2. The point of the Bechdel Test isn’t only that women mostly get (hetero) romantic plots, but that stories centre around men as a matter of course, and any role other than Hero’s Love Interest is vastly more likely to be filled by a man. Especially when there are already two women involved – writers who would have no problem writing about two men in a political race suddenly get interested in gender balance when there’s a danger of the women outnumbering the men.

    Your example would probably pass at some point, because they’d talk about polls or strategy or whatever (as Literary Omnivore says), but the test asks why J. Random Political Opponent has to be a man.

    • I know, I get what the test is asking. I have a complicated relationship to the test whereby I am elated if something I love passes, and resentful of the test if something I love doesn’t. It’s not really fair of me.

  3. I think River does have a couple of scenes with Kaylee and one or two with Inara. I wonder what would have happened if the series had continued. Joss Whedon certainly passed the test on Buffy many times. He did on Dollhouse as well, though probably not as often.

    • Yeah, you’re right, she does have a couple of scenes with Kaylee and Inara. But nothing heavy on dialogue, as I recall? Buffy definitely passed regularly, and even when it didn’t pass, it wasn’t doing the opposite thing where the men were having all sorts of man-to-man interesting conversations. It was usually everyone in a big group.

  4. I worry about the Bechdel Test all the time. I worry about how few of the shows I love pass it, and what it says about me that so much of my media consumption consists of male-centric stuff. On a slightly related note, I recently hit a grumpy patch because I became obsessed with VERONICA MARS and even though she talks to female people all the time, she was the only woman in the credits until S3. (Well, except for the journalism teacher who magically disappeared from the show a couple of episodes in.) This bothered me. Is it enough for a show to be about one smart girl? Shouldn’t shows about smart girls feature multiple smart girls in regular roles?

    I worry about the Bechdel Test as a writer, too. There are scads of female characters in my novel, but the narrators are both men. At least one character in each conversation they participate in is male by default. They’re privy to a few of the conversations the women have with each other, but these are rarely as important as the male/female or male/male exchanges. I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to make one of them a woman, and I decided it just didn’t fit the characters I’d created. Which is, perhaps, part of the problem.

    I don’t want to throw this particular plot out, though, so I’ve tried to make it obvious that the women these guys encounter are important folks who do important things that have to do with other important people who are also women. They don’t listen in on many of their conversations, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. And I try hard to write other things–novellas and short stories, mostly–with female protagonists who interact with as many women as men.

    But even there, I worry. For example, if a woman is in love with another woman and defines herself by her relationship, is that as big a problem as if a hetero character defines herself by her relationship with a man? If not, why not? I sometimes don’t feel like I have the tools I need to arrive at a position and argue it logically. Sigh.

    …and that was both long and me-centric. I apologize.

    • ‘I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to make one of them a woman, and I decided it just didn’t fit the characters I’d created. Which is, perhaps, part of the problem.’

      Just wanted to bob in and say this is really interesting. I wonder if you’d feel comfortbale sharing why when you burrowed down into the character you felt a female gender wouldn’t fit (and I totally don’t mean to be confrontational here, just interested in what you discovered among your thoughts).

      I’m not sure if shows where female characters talk about men they’re not romantically involved with do pass The Bechdel test. There’s still that female focus on the men, right? And it’s in our entertainment for a reason – real life women like Leslie who want to run for council positions have to talk about the men, simply because men are so dominant in these kind of areas. That’s part of what The Bechdel Test is for, to point out the real life inequalities reflected in our media and to ask us if this is the kind of world we want to see.

      Like The Lit Ominvore I think the test exists really to make us worry about these things, to make real life inequality and media inequality visible. It’s so easy to be all ‘program has a kickass lady in it’ and have that obscure any other areas of the project that conform to narrative defaults. The ‘program only has one kickass lady in it’ problem is occupying my mind most right now, because it leads to the ‘this program can’t contain sexism, it has a lady with a gun/a career/an interest in it’ defense. Rlly, so the presence of Buffy prevents any possibility of other sexism being put in by writers raised in a sexist society? Like, I’m not sure the point is to see how many pieces of media can pass it if we allow a generous interpretation, but to see how many pieces of media really fully embrace such a simple idea (two named ladies talking about something other than a man) and to show how shockingly bad so much media is at doing something that should be so easy.

      But at the same time just because we’re concerned about these things doesn’t mean we have to be all ‘ugh no value to be found here’ when examining media that fails the test. At least I don’t think the test calls for people to discard any media that fails it. It simply wants you to see what’s happening and continue to call it out while also enjoying what’s there for you to enjoy in the media we currently have, as long as we make the calling out an equal part of our response to that media.

      • I wonder if you’d feel comfortbale sharing why when you burrowed down into the character you felt a female gender wouldn’t fit

        It was mostly because because I’d already completed a couple of drafts, and had been working with the characters in one form or another for many years. They were firm in my mind. They’re brothers, too, and their relationship defines the story. If I made one of them a sister, the whole dynamic would’ve shifted. This wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad thing, but it wouldn’t have been the story I’d become so invested in. I’ve written other things about brothers and sisters, and about sisters and sisters, but this book was very much a brother/brother story for me.

    • Such an interesting point about Veronica Mars…another thing that was made me sad about the show was how she always ended up needing to be saved by a man in the finales. I guess that’s the Nancy Drew/girl sleuth of it all, but it’s an interesting point. It’s a bit like what The Closer was for awhile, too, Brenda and all her men. I enjoyed when they brought in Mary McDonnell into it even though she’s only going to end up as a replacement.

    • Dude, I know! I’m writing a story now with three central characters of whom two are guys. I get so nervous that I’ve been brainwashed by Society into not valuing women’s relationships! Aaaaaa!

      However, I think it’s okay. As some of the other commenters have said, the point isn’t (I don’t think) that non-passing things can’t be good, just that the rarity of films etc that do pass the test says something about our society. And I have several other female characters who will become important later on.

  5. Though I agree that your example lives up to the SPIRIT of the test, I don’t think it counts as a pass. I would still watch it, though, because I LOVE Leslie Knope (and Parks and Rec too, but mostly just because of Leslie), and the show as a whole definitely gets an A anyway.

    • Yup, A+ from me. It has such a great ensemble, and I’m a sucker for a good ensemble cast. I like it that the main relationship on the show remains Leslie and Ann.

  6. I agree that it shouldn’t make a difference as long as they’re not talking about the man in his role as a man (in other words not in his capacity as a boyfriend, hunky dude, lust object, etc.). If they are discussing him in some other way then I think it’s fine. I also thought it was funny that the first thing that came to my mind was science fiction too – Star Trek episodes. Like Star Trek Voyager where there’s a female captain, and I’m sure there are many episodes where she and other female crew members are talking about men in some other capacity. I guess it’s a good reason for me to watch them again to check. :)

    • Ack, I still have never seen one single episode of Star Trek, AND I’ve still never seen the movie. I am so culturally ignorant.

      I’m glad you see things my way! :)

  7. First of all, I so enjoyed reading the comments here. Such a great discussion, and so much to think about. My first instinct would perhaps be to say yes, that it passes the spirit of the test, but as Jodie and Clare said if all the people the two women discussed in a professional capacity were men, that would still say something about the world of the show. Of course, in reality that IS likely to happen in many situations, which says something about OUR world. But I would like to see more exceptions to traditional gender roles getting media representation, even if they are exceptions at this point. Having said that, I enjoy countless shows and movies that wouldn’t pass the test in a million years. I feel weird about it sometimes, but like Jodie said they still have value in many other ways. Being aware of it, thinking about it, and having these discussions is definitely a good start.

    • Well said, Ana! I am inclined to want to defend my example, even though it isn’t a real thing in the show, but I know that you’re right, really.

  8. I think the_antichris has it right: it’s more about how male-centric the media are than about the romantic implications. I am thinking about the last many, many conversations I have had with woman, and very few of them have been about men. They’ve been about news stories, books, silly things that have happened, stuff we have to get done – you know the sort of thing. So why do films and media portray us constantly talking about men? That’s not life!

    And also, I agree with Jodie: failing the Bechdel test doesn’t mean the film/TV show doesn’t have merit or isn’t enjoyable. But the Bechdel test keeps us aware of the false premises on which so much of our society is based.

    • I so agree with Mumsy! I work in a library where we have exactly ONE male employee (not including our janitor, who is technically outsourced); we never sit around talking about men, unless they are characters in TV shows, or books. Of course, not much opportunity for workplace romance, either.

    • I agree! I talk with my friends at work every day about a wide variety of topics! Including feelings! (my real favorite topic of conversation) Oo, but, does it count if I’m talking about pro football, does that count as talking about men, if all the players are men? Ruh-roh!

  9. I have no idea how to answer this question because this is the first time I have ever heard of the Bechdel test, but I wanted to say that you have some great taste in television. I loved Firefly, and wish so much that they hadn’t cancelled it. I am still hoping for a revival.

    • Me too! And now that they are saying they’re going to revive Arrested Development after five years off the air, I have all this fresh hope for Firefly’s return that I know is totally irrational.

  10. This conversation not only made me smile and think, but it did so pre-espresso, so thanks very much for getting my day off to an awesome start. And for making me want to re-watch the entire series of Firefly…well, the episodes that have already aired, not those yet-to-come. Of course.

    • The pre-coffee time is such a dangerous time! So little makes me smile before coffee happens! :p

      Oh God I cannot even quantify the strength of my desire for more Firefly. That needs to happen.

  11. Interesting post, Jenny! I think if we look hard enough, we can find scenes in novels / movies / TV shows which will pass ‘The Bechdel Test’. But the fact that we have to look hard itself says something about the situation. I remember reading a book a few years back called ‘Book Lover’ by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack, where there is a beautiful scene, where the heroine’s boyfriend’s mother, asks the heroine to sit down and combs her hair in an old-fashioned way. While she is doing that, they have a conversation about their lives. I don’t remember that conversation being about the men in their lives or even about romantic love. It is one of the most feminine and beautiful scenes that I have read in a novel.

    • I know, it’s an interesting lens to use when looking at pop culture. I remember being appalled when I first heard of the test and went through all my DVDs to see how many of them would pass. It really was shockingly few of them.

  12. I’ve never heard of this test, but it’s one I’ll bear in mind in future. I have a group of women friends and we meet up regularly – rarely is the talk about men, or not for very long if we do discuss our other halves. Because they sure as hell don’t talk about us much!

    • Hahahaha, yeah, well, I do talk about men sometimes with my girl friends, but not nearly as much as they do in the moviez. We have other things to be talking about!

  13. First off, I am a huge fan of Alison Bechdel. Second, I think your imaginary episode would pass the test. The fact that her opponent is a man is kind of irrelevant. Unless, perhaps the race or strategy for the race was hooked on gender issues.

    Reading you post made me think of a great passage from an essay from Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood. I presume that Atwoods tongue is firmly in cheek:

    “Men’s novels are about men. Women’s novels are about men too but from a different point of view. You can have a men’s novel with no women in it except possibly the landlady or the horse, but you can’t have a women’s novel with no men in it. Sometimes men put women in men’s novels but they leave out some of the parts: the heads, for instance, or the hands. Women’s novels leave out parts of the men as well. Sometimes it’s the stretch between the belly button and the knees, sometimes it’s the sense of humour. It’s hard to have a sense of humour in a cloak, in high wind, on a moor.”

  14. What an interesting conversation. I tend not to “worry” so much about the Bechdel test (like, beating myself to seek out more art that “passes” it, etc.), as to use it as an illuminating tool to remind myself how male-dominated the media is. So, I suppose I’d agree with the other commenters who opine that such a scene wouldn’t pass the test, since it would still be painting female characters whose lives/conversations revolve around a man, in whatever capacity.

    Although I think the original strip that coined this rule is hilarious & makes a good point, in reality I don’t think such a stringent application of the rule (refusing to consume any art that doesn’t pass it) is really the best way to use it. For one thing, it only applies to pretty standard storytelling styles: fiction narratives that involve dialogue. There are plenty of things it can’t evaluate: documentary nature film, for example, or poetry, or essays, or experimental fiction that doesn’t involve dialogue (the two novels I’m reading right now, Beckett’s The Unnamable and Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, involve zero dialogue, and the former doesn’t really involve any “characters” either). For another thing, sticking strictly to the rule would eliminate art that uses the women-talking-about-men trope to actually critique society & womens’ options. Jane Austen, for example: there are (a few) scenes in which her female characters talk about things other than men, but one should also keep in mind that when they DO talk about men, it’s code for economic security. In a modern book, Charlotte Lucas could easily be a cutthroat career woman.

  15. I wonder how that would apply to one of my new favorite shows, The Good Wife. The main character Alicia is a lawyer, so she frequently has conversations with female colleagues about clients who are male — but it’s her job, so I think that passes the test. I assume when they’re talking about men in the Bechdel test, it’s in the capacity as a love/sex interest?

    That being said, it’s given me a LOT to think about. For example, I love Big Bang Theory, but it really seems to have deteriorated into Geeks Who Get Sex. They actually have THREE female characters in the credits, but guess what? Two of the three are or have been love interests to the four main characters. The third female WOULD be a potential love interest if Sheldon wasn’t completely asexual.

    And I love Thomas’ quote from Margaret Atwood. It’s so true.

    • I love The Good Wife! I’m glad you’re enjoying it! It’s one of my favorite shows, too, and I’m always trying to get other people to watch it too. When I am home at Thanksgiving I’m going to convert my sister. THAT WILL HAPPEN. And I think it passes the test too.

    • Dude I totally want to talk about Big Bang theory with you! I tend to think it started off really hinky female character wise (agh stereotypes and just the one lady and so much competition between the ladies over men) even though I loved the early episodes. Now it’s slowly changing. The girls are friends – so encouraging! And smart girls are allowed to not be totally horrible people! It still isn’t even close to passing The Bechdel test, but it shows signs of evolving and it’s always contained these lovely moments of female strength and competance. Kind of a good example of why flawed media contains worth.

      PS I totally think The Good Wife passes. Talking about male clients who are accussed of crimes is totally different than talking about male colleagues all the time. And sometimes Alicia talks about her daughter, or her career, or her aspirations.

      • I was just telling Ana on twitter that the show seemed very questionable when it comes to female characters, but then I have only watched the first season. I’m glad to hear things get better. I do enjoy the show so much, but when I had to tell Ana about it made me stop and question whether I *should* be enjoying it. That is the difficulty about such tests: drawing the line between knowing something is happening in a show and feeling guilty about it. The comments really helped me put things into perspective a bit more.

  16. This debate reminds me of the old adage – ‘men define themselves by what they do, women by whom they love.’ Maybe this is still true of TV drama or in the minds of the people who write it. It would be interesting to compare how many man-to-man conversations (in a given TV series) revolve around work as opposed to their significant other – ie. whether the depiction of men is just as restrictive, albeit in a different way.

    That said, I’ve seen all of ‘The Good Wife’ (my girlfriend likes it) and I’m pretty sure Alicia is regularly summoned into her – female – boss’s office to discuss legal strategies.

  17. I haven’t heard of the Bechdel test, so I don’t really feel qualified to answer your question, but I like the test and now I’m going to start applying it to everything I read. It’s a little sad that so many things don’t pass!

  18. I’m glad you brought up this conundrum because when my roommate and I ran through our DVD’s, we were also undecided about situations/conversations such as the one you mention. I think there are good arguments both ways, and I guess the real value of the Bechdel test is that it makes you think more deeply about the portrayal of men and women.

    I was just thinking about the Bechdel test recently while I was reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, because that book totally passes the test.

  19. Love this discussion! I would assume that if it’s not relationship talk it would count as passing. Talking about winning an election, for example, I would think would count. If he was an ex, well, does that mean they only talk about him as an ex or still as a candidate – I think that would make the difference!

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