The Bechdel test (pronounced BEK-del) or Bechdel-Wallace test is a test that evaluates movies and other media for a bare-minimum standard of women's presence and characterization/interaction. As such, it can be seen as a measure of how sexist a story is and/or how sexist the creators of the medium are. The test originates from cartoonist Alison Bechdel's strip Dykes to Watch Out For,, specifically from her 1985 strip entitled The Test.
The eponymous test states that a movie is not worth watching unless:
- It has two female characters in it,
- that talk together about something,
- other than a man.
These criteria may seem easy to fulfill, but films that fail this benchmark are not only common, but systematically encouraged in film schools and through targeted-demographic marketing.
Bechdel did not invent the test herself, which fact she has always admitted. Rather, it came up during a conversation with a friend, Liz Wallace, while she was looking for ideas for her comic strip. As such, Bechdel thinks the test should be called the Bechdel-Wallace test.
- Media that includes no female characters at all is obviously not inclusive of women, and media that includes only one token female character demands she embody all possibilities for women while her male cohorts are allowed to be flawed and diverse.
- Women, and female characters, are often made to compete or are otherwise segregated in writing such that there is no possibility for bonding or fellowship between them .
- Women who do not talk or only exist to deliver a particular message to a man might as well be sexy lamps rather than people.
- Finally, men, male approval, and the male gaze are often the motivating goal of a female character, otherwise they are presented as an artifact in a man's story. So two female characters that only exist as rhetorical devices to talk about a male character, will thus serve that male character's arc rather than their own.
As completely basic as the Bechdel test's terms are, a disproportionate amount of films do not pass the baseline set out by this test.
Because the Bechdel Test was coined in a specific context; it may not be suitable to analyze all media. Specifically, it does not take into account if a medium is being produced by a woman, and is thus a woman's voice in of itself. It does not factor in the presence of nonbinary or genderqueer characters. And in addition it might not be perfectly applicable to interactive, non-visual, or other forms of media different from film.
For example, if an interactive novel or video game allows you to pick the main character's gender, that media might pass and not pass the Bechdel test at the very same time. Alternatively, media that passes the Bechdel test might have other misogynist elements that otherwise contravene the spirit, but not the letter, of the test. For example. if the female characters in question are then reduced to tools in a man's story arc, killed off for shock value, or otherwise punished.
The test itself is also not intersectional. In other words, it does not distinguish if only white women are talking to each other, or if women of all races, genders, sexualities, shapes and bodies, etc., are represented in a respectful and appropriate way, both as characters and in terms casting.
Finally, the test is meant to critique the inclusion of women and the roles they play in the media in general, rather than the quality otherwise of a specific work. A work can be otherwise excellent, but fail the test because of Hollywood's systematic bias. In addition, some works fail because the inclusion of female characters in that time in place would be implausible (such as The Shawshank Redemption, set in a men's prison in the 1930s-60s). Of course, that Hollywood refuses to make similar works where the inclusion of men would be implausible is yet another reflection of the merits of the test as a method of critiquing the industry.
- Alison Bechdel, creator of the test.
- Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel's home page
- Bechdel's Twitter page
- Alison Bechdel Would Like You to Call It the “Bechdel-Wallace Test,” ThankYouVeryMuch, by Teresa Jusino
- Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel
- Why Film Schools Teach Writers Not to Pass the Bechdel Test, by Jennifer Kesler.
- Hers: The Smurfette Principle, by Katha Pollitt
- Mean Girls: Cattiness in Media Pits Women Against Each Other, by Megan Kearns, with additional citations of works by Vanessa Carmichael, Cheryl Dellasega, and Susan J. Douglas.
- We're Losing All our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome, by Tasha Robinson.
- Silk's analysis of 1500 films for passing the Bechdel Test, presented on Upworthy.