A Look at the Bechdel Test
You may have heard the term—Bechdel test—but what the heck is it?
What is the Bechdel test?
The Bechdel test is best defined by the Bechdel site:
… sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. The test was popularized by Alison Bechdel‘s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called The Rule. For a nice video introduction to the subject please check out The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies on feministfrequency.com.
Okay, But What Does it Really Mean?
Films have shortchanged women for decades. How so? It’s less in the area of leads versus supporting and bit players.
If a female main character is hurt, and the female doctor character treating her has a nametag, and they discuss the main characters injuries, voila! The film passes the Bechdel test. Make that throwaway character male, and the opportunity is lost.
The test is not necessary for cinema, and it is certainly not necessary for prose. However, it’s still a helpful gauge.
Walking the Walk
Consider the following. These are bits of my prose. These are the points where my first three NaNoWriMo novels passed. First off is a sentence from Untrustworthy, and it is the first dialogue spoken. It is in the first chapter, page 1.
“Good morning, Ixalla,” Tathrelle said…
And the second one is from The Obolonk Murders. It is in the first chapter, page 3. Selkhet (who is a female robot) is speaking to the main character, Peri Martin.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” said Selkhet…
Finally, the third is from The Enigman Cave. It is in the first chapter, page 3. The speaker is the main character, Mariana Shapiro.
“Yeah, Astrid? Can you patch me through to Jazzie and Trixie?”
The Point of the Bechdel Test
I don’t pretend to always write stellar prose. Yet all three of these works pass the test. And all they do so within chapter one. Rather than making the reader dig, I lay it all out quickly.
For other writers, though, it may be more difficult. Lewis Carroll takes longer to bring Alice together with someone named. And even then, the name is ‘The Red Queen’. But does that count? Beyond the name question, does it count because Alice is a child and therefore probably would not be talking about men?
And what happens if the piece is about lesbians? If they discuss the objects of their affections, does it count?
The Bar is Set Low
Talk about setting a low bar! The two women don’t need to be strong. They do not need to be intelligent. A film or book can pass the test if two named women discuss crocheting. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
However, my point is, passing the test doesn’t automatically turn anyone smart. Or kick ass. Or anything else. Instead, it just means two named female characters spoke, however briefly. And their subject, however briefly, was not a man.
But hey, it’s something. And it’s necessary. Good lord, is it ever. Because the last thing we need in the indy writing community is people writing about “Girl 4”.
Return to Prose
Let’s go back to my three examples. The speakers in Untrustworthy are married to each other. The ones in The Obolonk Murders and The Enigman Cave are colleagues. While Selkhet is subordinate to Peri, and Astrid is to Mariana, they are still addressed respectfully. Especially relevant, the interactions are professional ones. However, Mariana is more informal than Selkhet.
Do the interactions have to be meaningful? Not really. Ixalla and Tathrelle could be beating each other for all the reader knows. At least, given the one sentence, above. Maybe Peri smashes Selkhet to bits right after the above statement. Maybe Mariana fires Astrid.
So the test doesn’t ‘fix’ any of that. It doesn’t guarantee heroic characters. It just guarantees names and the power of speech. And they, at least one time, don’t talk about a man.
More Issues with the Bechdel Test
The test is imperfect. It’s very hard to pass it when writing historical fiction. Of course female characters in the past could have names. They could speak of something other than men. But the time and place dictate something else.
In the 1880s (for example), men drive most of the action outside the home. That’s not sexism; it’s reality. Still, since Scarlett O’Hara and Prissy discuss Melanie Hamilton Wilkes’s baby, then yes, Gone With the Wind passes. So it’s not impossible. It’s just tougher.
Creating well-realized female characters means naming them. It means having them speak. And it also means giving them more than one subject.
After all, when was the last time you thought a male character should only be discussing relationships? When was the last time you thought he shouldn’t have a name (unless the character is truly minor, seen for a paragraph or two and no more)? And when was the last time you thought it was okay—barring any specific all-distaff settings like sororities or women’s colleges—to not see more than one of them in a piece?
If any of those are a problem for you, then you know what the Bechdel test is really about. And you know your work should easily pass it without having to tie itself in knots.