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The Bechdel Test, Bechdel-Wallace Test, or the Mo Movie Measure, is a sort of litmus test for female presence in movies and TV. The test is named for Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, who made it known to the world with this strip.
In order to pass, the film or show must meet the following criteria:
- It includes at least two women,
- who have at least one conversation,
- about something other than a man or men.
If that sounds to you like a pretty easy standard to meet, try applying the test to the media you consume for a while. There's a good chance you'll be surprised: mainstream media that passes is far less common than you might think.
Now, by limiting yourself to shows/movies that pass the test, you'd be cutting out a lot of otherwise-worthy entertainment; indeed, a fair number of top-notch works have legitimate reasons for including no women (e.g. ones set in a men's prison or on a WWII military submarine or back when only men were on juries), or with no conversations at all, or having only one or two characters. You may even be cutting out a lot of works that have feminist themes. But that's the point: the majority of fiction created today, for whatever reason, seems to think women aren't worth portraying except in relation to men. Things have changed since the test was first formulated (the strip in which it was originally suggested was written in 1985), but Hollywood still needs to be prodded to put in someone other than The Chick.
The test is often misunderstood. The requirements are just what they say they are -- it doesn't make any difference if, for instance, the male characters the women talk about are their fathers, sons, brothers, platonic friends or mortal enemies rather than romantic partners. Conversely, if a work seems to pass, it doesn't matter if male characters are present when the female characters talk, nor does it matter if the women only talk about stereotypically girly topics like shoe shopping -- or even relationships, as long as it's not relationships with men.
This is because the Bechdel Test is not meant to give a scorecard of a work's overall level of feminism. It is entirely possible for a film to pass without having overt feminist themes -- in fact, the original example of a movie that passes is Alien, which, while it has feminist subtexts, is mostly just a sci-fi/action/horror flick. A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. Conversely, it's also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. What's a problem is that it becomes a pattern -- when so many movies fail the test, while very few show male characters whose lives seem to revolve around women, that says uncomfortable things about the way Hollywood handles gender.
It's obviously easier for a TV series, especially one with an Ensemble Cast, to follow this rule than a film, because there's far more time for the conversation to occur in. To compensate for this, Bechdel-inspired analyses of television often look episode-by-episode, or compare the series' compliance with Bechdel's Rule with its compliance with a "reverse Bechdel rule" with the roles of men and women swapped (even without such compensation, it's often surprising to notice how long it takes many TV shows to pass). Another tactic would be the probability that a typical two-hour collection of episodes would pass.
Compare The Smurfette Principle -- works that follow The Smurfette Principle include a female character strictly for demographic appeal but make no real attempt to treat her as an interesting character in her own right, outside of her relationships with the male characters. See also Never a Self-Made Woman, which shows that even a well rounded female character with her own goals is most often only relevant to the story by her relationship to a man. Finally, see Token Romance and Romantic Plot Tumor for the effects of Hollywood's belief that both male and female audiences are generally uninterested in female characters except in the context of romance with a male character.
We're not going to list passes and failures here, because that would just be a giant list, but you can go check the list of movies at http://bechdeltest.com/.
- The Doctor Who fandom book Chicks Dig Time Lords includes an essay about companion Nyssa of Traken. The author points out that many of Nyssa's episodes pass the Bechdel test, and includes a brief explanation of what the test is.
- Questionable Content references the reverse Bechdel test in the title of this strip.
- Discussed starting in this Dumbing of Age strip. Also played with -- as pointed out in the last panel, most lesbian porn will automatically pass the Bechdel Test. It further elaborates on the flaws of the test not necessarily indicating feminism, and later one male character implies that his own life would not pass the reverse Bechdel Test.
- Skin Horse namechecks it here, when even the lesbian cast member decides it's fine to discuss local Memetic Sex God Tip.
- Leftover Soup: "Bechdel Test passed, bitches."
- In Magick Chicks, when Cerise and Callista go to a date, Callista complains that the movie they've seen didn't pass the test.
- Unwinder's Tall Comics references the test on page 100 with the Rastov Test (which, instead of dealing with feminism, is a dig at overly-elaborate Space Operas and Techno Babble).
Unwinder: You may know a bit about [Warren Rastov] actually. Ever heard of the Rastov test?
Barbecue Sauce: Is that like where a book or movie is only good if it has less than four warring factions, and they have to say at least one sentence that isn't full of made-up space jargon?
Unwinder: That's the one. It was actually a pretty direct response to his father's work. They had some issues.
- A Feminist Frequency video shows a large number of popular movies that fail the test. In a running joke, the commentator yawns, wanders away, comes back with an apple, and eats it, while the movie posters are still blinking steadily along in the background.
- Feminist Frequency discusses the test again here. She proposes that the test be modified so that the scene in question must last at least sixty seconds to pass. She also describes a variant of the test for people of color.
- Name Dropped in AH Dot Com The Creepy Teen Years episode 2x19. It's noted as being the first time the series actually passed the test. The two women are discussing vacation plans.
- Linkara brings up the importance of the third point during his review of Sultry Teenage Super Foxes. Yes, the cast is almost uniformly female but they never talk about anything but men. Unless you count the villains, that is.
- Talked about in Extra Credits in the episode "Diversity".
- In The Nostalgia Chick's review of X-Men: First Class, she pointed out that it was one of the only superhero movies to pass the test. She then told her audience to go look up what the Bechdel Test was.
- Stuff You Like references this when reviewing Underworld here. The scene is Selene and Erika (briefly) discussing dresses (before going on to talk about... umm... men).
Subtitles: Did they just pass the Bechdel Test?
- Dumbing of Age named a strip after the trope and uses it to do a lot of Conversational Troping about it.
- While she didn't call it by name, Lauren Faust referenced this trope, claiming that a focus on romantic plots and subplots is what ruins a lot of girl's shows.
- This blog references the Bechdel Test as it relates to Disney animated movies and that one that passes the test is not as rare as you might think. Pixar is much worse in this regard. Many Disney films have two female characters interacting not about a man, but fails to be a conversation due to one of the parties being an animal.
- ↑ named after Mo, the main character of DTWOF, even though it was introduced in a one-off strip before Mo was introduced
- ↑ (some make the addendum that the women must be named characters)
- ↑ The exact interpretation of this can vary; some feel that it's okay to mention a man or men so long as they're not the primary subject of the conversation, while others will demand a conversation where men aren't mentioned at all.