What the Bechdel Test Means — And What It Doesn’t

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.

essential dykes to watch out for book cover

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.

Matrix movie poster
Here’s why I bring this up. Ingrid and I were watching The Matrix the other day (me for the first time since it came out in 1999, her for the first time at all). We started wondering if it passed the Bechdel Test; and rather than watch the whole movie again, we decided to go to one of the many Bechdel Test websites and discussion boards. On this particular discussion board, some people discussed whether the movie was lacking in strong female characters; or they objected to putting The Matrix in the “fail” category, since Trinity is a powerful character and therefore the movie isn’t “anti-female.”

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?

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What the Bechdel Test Means — And What It Doesn’t

10 thoughts on “What the Bechdel Test Means — And What It Doesn’t

  1. 1

    Dang, I can’t think of many movies that would pass now that I think about it. Would the brief dialog between Angel and Teenage Negasonic in Deadpool count? (OK Nega charges into Angel, so I’m not sure if any words are actually exchanged.)

    I’m having a hard time remembering a movie I have seen recently that had two female named characters period, much less having them have a serious conversation. I’m not even sure the new Star Wars movie passes.

  2. 2

    Amen. I keep trying to explain this to people. The Bechdel test really doesn’t say a lot about each individual movie; it’s about the broader overall trends.

  3. 3

    I have a funny, frustrating, and slightly tangential story about misunderstanding the Bechdel test….

    About a year and a half ago, one of my ex-friends on facebook made a post railing against the Bechdel test, and Anita Sarkeesian for some reason. (I guess maybe she mentioned the test somewhere, or was mentioned by someone else who then also mentioned the test? I don’t know.) He argued that the idea that Das Boot was a bad film just because it doesn’t have any women who talk to each other is nonsense (and I agree – I love that film, despite the lack of women (or, at least, I did last time I saw it, which is probably a decade ago now, which is before I would, now, looking back, recognise myself as a feminist)) and that therefore the entire test is nonsense and feminism has become a terrible scourge against sense. (Or words to that effect – I’d be lying if I claimed to remember exactly what was said.) He finished with “come at me, SJWs!” (I do remember that part accurately, I am sure of this) which I took to be an invitation to argue the point with him.

    I explained the origins of the test to him (the Dykes to Watch Out For part, anyway, not so much the possible earlier origin stuff) and that it had precisely fuck all to do with Anita Sarkeesian. (Except insofar as maybe she’s referenced or used it in some way at some time?) I even pointed out that, like you’ve said here, the fact that Das Boot, or any one film, might fail the Bechdel test says less about that one film than the fact that so many of the films coming out of Western film studios fail it says about our film industry and society as a whole; that failing the test doesn’t make a film bad or even sexist; that the test doesn’t have universal applications, and that even Gravity fails the test.

    He then deleted my comment and ranted about how that is what it’s like to try talking to Sarkeesian… which I found funny, because he explicitly invited comment in the post (at least, that’s the impression I took) while she does not. I pointed that out, too, but it also got deleted. He unfriended (defriended?) me a little later, after I corrected him on the difference between victim blaming and criticising an inappropriate shirt in a professional and internationally public setting. He also yelled at me once for being a vegetarian, which is funny because I’m not, wasn’t at the time, and never have been a vegetarian, I just find most arguments levelled against vegetarians to be ridiculous and irrational… aaaanyway, this isn’t actually about him.

    So anyway… yeah… I’m really hoping people actually take the time to learn what the Bechdel test is before ranting about it in the future, but I don’t think I’m going to hold my breath for that. Still, it would be nice. 🙂

  4. 4

    One current show that would pass with flying colors: Orphan Black. Highly recommended, especially if you like weird conspiracy-theory-based fiction.

    Even if you count all of Tatiana Maslany’s characters as one (which is ridiculous; all the clones have distinct personalities), there’s lots of women as protagonists and antagonists throughout the series, including one who combines maternal energy with bomb-making and gunrunning skills.

  5. 5

    Another show that passes with flying colours is “Call The Midwife”. The midwives and nuns all have their own things going, and when they do talk about men, it’s usually directly related to mum or baby, or they’re off to call Doctor Turner, or sometimes just discussing Fred’s latest escapades.

    And, as a bonus, the show deals with ALL the social issues — disability, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, abuse, the works — in a very sensitive and human way. A couple of episodes were even centered around the sexuality of disabled people!

  6. 6

    The whole point of the Bechdel test (apart from making a funny cartoon, which was probably all Bechdel was actually thinking about when she first “proposed” it), is that it is a ridiculously low bar and yet movies regularly–usually–fail it. I’m amused by the anti-SJW types who try, apparently sincerely, to argue that a movie can’t be sexist because it passes the Bechdel test.

    Another way of looking at it is to consider the anti-bechdel test: that is, can you name a movie–any movie–that does not have at least 2 men in it who talk to each other about something other than a woman? I can only think of one that is not a “degenerate solution” (that is, a movie with no dialogue at all or one with only a single narrator like a David Attenborough film.)

  7. 7

    It does make you wonder. I started asking the question after watching movies with my son and now we talk about it every time. It continually blows my mind how rarely a movie passes or how hard we have to work to find the one example. And as Dianne says, the reverse is so ridiculously true as well.

  8. 8

    #3 Athywren
    The associations people make can be striking (re: the vegetarian thing). I am vegetarian and I often find it odd to be a vegetarian and a skeptic because (even though it seems pretty common to be both) some people immediate assume that vegetarian implies I’m into crystals, don’t know how science works, deny vaccines, and otherwise can’t be a rational person.

  9. 9

    Back in their days of women-centric shows like Gossip Girl, The CW used to be the network where everything on the schedule passed with flying colors. Even when they branched out into something different like Nikita there were strong female characters. Now that they are moving toward being the DC Comics network (next year’s schedule has four DC shows plus one Vertigo/DC show) it’s less true; the Berlantiverse still have enough women to pass but the stories are no longer centered on them. Perhaps Berlanti’s first non-DC program, Riverdale (based on Archie Comics), will change that – it all depends on how much screen time Betty and Veronica get and whether they get to do anything other than be boy-crazy.

  10. 10

    I agree that the Bechdel test is not a test of sexism in a particular movie, but it has been a gateway tool for me to start to recognize sexism in media. It’s a quick and easy tool to get me to start asking questions beyond whether I enjoyed the story or not. I watched Sicario recently and IMDb’s list of “first billed” characters has Emily Blunt as the lead and only one other woman whose character’s name is listed as “Silvio’s Wife”. Is the movie sexist because of that? Not necessarily, but it was still beyond the imagination of the casting crew and writers to have a single other female character with a substantial enough role to require a name. And while Blunt’s character is allowed to be tough and vulnerable and strong and flawed, all the other roles in the movie are cast to fit your standard stereotypes, male and female.

    So I like the Bechdel test, because it’s easy to remember, easy to apply and gets a conversation started that might not have been started otherwise.

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