The Bechdel Test and Feminism in Media

Rebecca May Ristow A&E Editor

            Most commonly applied to movies and TV shows, The Bechdel Test was named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Bechdel, most well known for her comic strips and graphic novels, founded the test as a way to roughly estimate the presence of women in a piece of media. The standard requirement to ‘pass’ the test is that two women must talk at some point in the film about something other than a man. Sometimes, people add on the rule that the women must be named characters. These rules originated almost by accident, showing up in one of Bechdel’s comic strips. Two women are depicted going to the movies together and one of them explains that she only watches films that pass those rules. Finding nothing in the theater that does, the two women go home. Originally, the strip was intended to explore the idea that women, especially queer women, are often alienated in media. The ending of the comic references this in its final joke, when the woman remarks that the last film she was able to watch was Alien.

Although this test seems like an easy expectation to meet, very few films do. Why do so few films have named women speaking to each other? When they do speak, why are they so often speaking about men? One reason is that women in media are often used as outlets for romance. So when women are talking, it tends to revolve around their male counterparts. Some say another reason so few films meet this qualification is simply because of the lack of women featured. For example, our local movie theatre, The Mansfield Movieplex, is running eight movies. Of these eight movies, six feature leading men. The two that have female leads, Licorice Pizza and Marry Me, are classified as romances and feature an equal male counterpart. Of all the Marvel films ever made, roughly only eight of them pass. There is debate over this based on trivial things, but these debates should not take away from the notion that failing the Bechdel Test is more common than many think, despite its achievable rules.

Mark Harris, in an article for Entertainment Weekly, writes that if passing the Bechdel Test were required by films, half of the ten movies nominated for best picture in 2009 would have been eliminated out of the gate. Some critics of The Bechdel Test remark that if half of films do pass, then there isn’t an issue since women represent half of the population. However, if the rule were reversed to be about men, and not women, the ratio is much different. For example, going back to the 2009 Academy Awards, only one nominated film would fail this ‘reversed’ Bechdel Test. Half of films passing, and half failing, does not mean that half of produced films represent women and half represent men. It means that only half of these films feature women in any capacity. The fact that so few films meet the requirements of the Bechdel Test speaks volumes about how the media represents women.

There are limits to The Bechdel Test. Films that don’t pass are not inherently sexist. They may have few characters, or be set in a place or time that women were not present in. For example, a film about a men’s basketball team may have no women in it, or a film in space may only have a handful of characters. Another limit of the test is that, even if a film does pass, there’s no guarantee that the film has good representation. Two women can have a conversation about something other than a man, thereby passing the test, only for the rest of the film to contain sexist content. This is why The Bechdel Test can not be the sole expectation for women in films. Films should be created with deliberate feminism or representation in mind, while using The Bechdel Test as a tool, not a rule.

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