An introduction to the Bechdel Test

Dykes to Watch Out For - by Alison Bechdel

The Bechdel Test is simple. Originally devised by Liz Wallace, popularized in comic form in 1985 by Alison Bechdel, it asks three questions about a work of fiction:

  1. Does it have at least two female characters?
  2. Who talk to each other?
  3. About something other than a man?

To pass, the answer to all three questions has to be “yes”. Many people have added various caveats to the test: they have to be two named female characters, the conversation has to take at least 20/30/60 seconds, the conversation can’t be about marriage, romance or babies…

The test isn’t a “test of feminism”. To begin with, whether a work is feminist is a complex matter, requiring so much more than answering three questions. Rather, the purpose of the Bechdel Test is to determine trends, and it best accomplishes this when compared to the Reverse Bechdel Test: Does the work have two male characters, who talk to each other, about something other than a woman?

Most films pass the Reverse Bechdel test – it’s a genuine struggle to find one that doesn’t. But the list of films failing the Bechdel Test is embarrassing. None of the Star Wars films pass, None of the Lord of the Rings films pass. Only a handful of Pixar films pass. None of the Die Hard, Back to the Future, or (if you add the “twenty second” rule) Harry Potter films pass.

Again, passing the test doesn’t make a film inherently pro-women, and failing it doesn’t mean its a travesty of feminism – my favorite film, Misery, fails, whereas The Room passes with flying colours, and Misery has one of the best-written female characters in movie history. (The Room does not.)

If films failed both tests equally, we could agree that there’s no problem. But when half the films ever made fail the Bechdel Test, with barely any failing its counterpart, it’s hard to deny that there’s something wrong.

And so, this column will be looking at comedy films, and asking firstly whether they pass the Bechdel Test, but more importantly: How does this film portray women, if at all? Do they exist solely as lovers or mothers, or do they have opinions and needs of their own? Are they three-dimensional characters, or stereotypes solely there to support men?

Women, it was recently discovered, are people. Let’s find out if comedy films treat them that way.

(Originally posted January 31st, 2014 at Illegitimate Theatre.)

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