The Bechdel Test

What is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test, also known as the Bechdel-Wallace Test, was inspired by Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip “The Rule,” and became a set of criteria to measure if women are represented in a film. Bechdel credited the idea for the test to a friend, Liz Wallace, who was likely inspired by Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own.” For a film to pass the Bechdel Test, it must include at least two female characters speaking to each other about something other than a man. Several variants of the test have been proposed, for example, that the women must be named characters, or that there must be at least a total of 60 seconds of conversation.

Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, The Rule (1985)

Is it Still Relevant?

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. Another study looking at the 700 top‐grossing films from 2007 to 2014 found that only 30% of the speaking characters were female. A 2016 analysis of screenplays of 2,005 commercially successful films, 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.

More recently, a 2018 BBC study found that just under half of the films named Best Picture at the Oscars have passed the test. With the addition of the three most recent winners — The Shape of Water, Green Book, and Parasite — that number comes to exactly half. Progress has hardly been linear: in 2020, three Best Picture nominees (The Irishman, 1917, Ford v Ferrari) failed the test, three were debated, (Marriage Story, Joker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), and only three (Little Women, Jojo Rabbit, Parasite) passed conclusively.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019)

A recent report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that just 33.1% of speaking roles in 2018’s 100 top-grossing films went to women. In 2007, the same figure stood at 29.9%. The same report found that in films directed by women, the percentage of female speaking characters jumped to 47.6%. The study confirms that women on screen are objectified or exist simply to advance a male character’s storyline, and that even when female characters speak, they may not get to speak to each other or discuss anything other than a man, which proves the relevance of the Bechdel Test, even today.

Shortcomings of the Bechdel Test

There are many ways of measuring female representation in film — by number of characters to amount of speaking time — but the Bechdel Test is the most prominent criteria of measuring female representation in film, and many wonder why. It has been speculated that the reason is because it’s demands are simple and subjective, establishing a starting point to a greater goal. However, the most widely accepted explanation is that the Bechdel Test doesn’t quantify the number of women present on the screen, but their emotional depth and the range of their concerns. Its existence helps to identify stereotypical depictions and promote nuanced female characters.

The Bechdel Test isn’t a feminist Litmus test, nor a definitive analysis of whether a film is good or bad; passing or failing the test isn’t necessarily indicative of how well women are represented, and it definitely has its flaws. While it’s simplicity made it popular, it is also its downfall: some films that fail the test still overcome gender stereotypes and portray nuanced female characters, such as Gravity. Conversely, some films pass on technicalities, such as American Hustle, in which Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams conversed with each other about nail polish.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013)

Alternatives to the Bechdel Test

Alternatives to the Bechdel Test have been researched and developed, notably in 2017 by FiveThirtyEight and its campaign to create the next Bechdel Test, asking female filmmakers to devise new ways of calculating gender and racial imbalance. Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe asked that films have a black female character who is in a position of power and in a healthy relationship; actor Rory Uphold asked that the on-set crew be 50 per cent women; and writer Noga Landau asked that the film’s female lead not end up dead, pregnant or causing problems for the male lead.

The Mako Mori Test, inspired by Pacific Rim, asks that films have a female character who has her own narrative arc and does not exist only to support a man’s story. The Racial Bechdel Test assesses whether two characters of colour hold a conversation about something other than a white person, and the similar DuVernay Test, named for Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay and coined by critic Manohla Dargis, measures whether Black characters “have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.” The less serious Furiosa Test is applicable to films that “anger men’s rights activists,” and the even less serious Sexy Lamp Test, invented by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, is applicable if a female character can be removed from the story and replaced by a sexy lamp without repercussions to the plot.

Imperator Furiosa, from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Conclusion

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need tests, but because of the current gender imbalance in the media, we need metrics that draw attention to these injustices and challenge them. The Bechdel Test has been doing exactly that for 35 years. It may not have achieved all it intended to, and it has its flaws, but in becoming more conscious about content consumption, we can ensure that almost all future releases pass it, and hopefully, the alternative tests as well. Showing major studios that there is public demand for representation is the only way to get meaningful female representation on screen — and in doing so, help pave the way for equality on film sets and behind the lens, too.

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