The Bechdel Test is not — repeat, NOT — the sole test of whether a movie (or any story) is sexist. In fact, by itself, it’s not even A test of whether a story is sexist. It is not a test of whether a story is feminist, or whether the writer or writers are feminist. It is not a test of whether a story has strong female characters, awesome female characters, or admirable female characters.
The Bechdel Test is a test of one metric, and one metric only: Does the story revolve around men, or do women have their own lives? And while it’s sometimes appropriate to apply the test to individual movies or other stories, in general it makes much more sense to apply it to the film industry as a whole, and to show persistent patterns in pop culture.
In case you’re not familiar with it: The Bechdel Test comes from a Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip by Alison Bechdel, later of Fun Home fame. In it, two women are discussing whether to see a movie, and one says she’ll only see a movie if (a) it has two women in it, who (b) talk to each other, (c) about something other than a man. (She says that the last movie she could see was Alien — two women talk about the monster.) Later discussions of the Bechdel Test have refined and clarified it: the usual standard now is that the two women have to be named characters (i.e., if Woman At Bar #1 discusses the overly-warm martini with Woman At Bar #2, it doesn’t count). It’s a ridiculously low bar, and yet large numbers of movies fail to clear it. The Bechdel Test sometimes gets cited as The Test For Whether A Movie Is Sexist — and in a classic straw-feminist tactic, the fact that it fails at this is given as a reason for why it should be dismissed entirely. So I come back to my point:
The Bechdel Test is a test of one metric, and one metric only. It tests whether a given story revolves around men, or whether women are depicted as having have their own lives even to a small degree. And while people sometimes bring it up with individual movies — “Why didn’t The Avengers pass the Bechdel Test?” “Does The Lego Movie pass the test?” — it’s much more a test of common pop culture patterns. When it’s applied to single movies, it’s usually in service of pointing out the pattern. And while sexist patterns of this form are often unconscious, there’s at least one report of this one deliberately being taught in film school.
Sigh. Yes, Trinity is a powerful character. But that’s not what the Bechdel test is testing. It’s testing whether women talk to each other about something other than men. It’s testing whether the story revolves around men.
It’s testing who the world is about.
If men talk with each other a ton about their mission, their jobs, which road to take, which guns to use, which restaurant to go to, which religion is true, which farts are funnier — and women only talk to each other about men — that tells you who the story is about. That tells you who the world is about.
For the record: The question of whether The Matrix passes the Bechdel Test hinges on the interpretation of one scene, and whether this one scene of two women trying to remove a bug from a man’s stomach counts as a conversation about the bug or the man. This should give you an idea of just how low the bar is — and even with that low bar, a whole lot of movies fail. What’s more, many movies that do pass often do so on the basis of just one or two scenes, and debates on Bechdel Test discussion boards often focus on the finer points of whether one particular scene could conceivably make the movie pass the test.
Think about the reverse of this. In the overwhelming majority of movies, if you applies a reverse Bechdel test to men, the answer would be obvious. “Yeah, there’s this scene, and that scene, there’s this conversation and that conversation and the other conversation — in fact, three quarters of the movie is men talking to each other about something other than women.” In the overwhelming majority of movies, the story is about men. Men are the center of attention. Men are who the world is about.
The Bechdel Test is not the sole metric of sexism in pop culture. There are lots of measures of sexism or feminism in pop culture, and this is only one. There’s the Ellen Willis test (if you flip the genders, does the story still make sense?); the Sexy Lamp test (can you replace your female character with a sexy lamp and still have the story work?); the Mako Mori test (there is (a) at least one female character, (b) who gets her own narrative arc, (c) that is not about supporting a man’s story); the Tauriel test (there is (a) a woman, (b) who is good at her job); more. And there are similar tests for representation of TBLG people and people of color. A movie that passes the Bechdel test can be extremely sexist: The Devil Wears Prada, for instance, is very female-centered, and lots of women talk with each other about fashion and careers, but it’s still loaded with sexist double-standards about what kind of professional behavior is acceptable for women and for men. And a movie that fails the test doesn’t necessarily have to be sexist. A movie about one woman lost in space who only talks to robots, for instance, would technically fail the Bechdel Test: an all-male cast in movie about baseball, or life on a World War II submarine, wouldn’t necessarily be sexist.
What is sexist is the fact that all-male or largely-male casts are common — but all-female or largely-female casts are a rarity. What is sexist is the fact that it’s no problem at all to come up with ten movies, a hundred movies, a thousands movies, in which two men talk to each other about something other than women — but it’s more difficult to come up with movies where this is true of women. What is sexist is that the Bechdel Test is such a low bar, and large numbers of movies still don’t clear it. What is sexist is that even among movies that do pass the Test, large numbers of them only do so by a hair. I’d love to see a website that records, not whether there’s one scene where two women talk to each other about something other than men, but whether there’s two scenes.
This is what the Bechdel Test is measuring: Who are the stories about? Who is the world about?