We need to revise the Bechdel Test


Katy Waldman

"The Heat" passes the Bechdel Test.

"The Heat" passes the Bechdel Test. Photo: supplied

The Bechdel Test, the brainchild of cartoonist Alison Bechdel, bubbled out of a 1985 comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. It was Bechdel’s modest proposal for assessing how well a given film represented its female characters, and it went like so: Do you, movie, feature two or more named women? Do they talk to each other? About something besides a guy? If so, then congratulations! You have passed the Bechdel Test.

The tongue-in-cheek standard caught fire, first on the Internet and then offline. It paved the way for countless blog posts,visualizations, and spin-off projects (See: the Deggans Rule, the Smurfette Principle, the Russo Test). It was applied to Oscar nominations and pop music. In November 2013, Swedish theaters even announced that they would beginfactoring compliance with Bechdel’s three-pronged standard into their film ratings. Yet Bechdel herself expressed ambivalence about the yardstick’s viral spread. “I just can’t seem to rise to the occasion of talking about this fundamental principle over and over again, as if it’s somehow new, or open to debate,” she wrote last fall, noting that calls for subtler artistic portrayals of women dated back at least to Virginia Woolf in 1926. Not that her hesitation mattered—the BT had taken on a life of its own.

And it has started to work. Last week, Versha Sharma and Hanna Sender at Vocativ looked at the 50 films that raked in the most box-office gold in 2013 and discovered that the biggest blockbusters cleared Bechdel’s bar. Of the 50 highest grossing movies of the year, 17 clearly aced the test, seven inched across the threshold—the women discussed things that weren’t men, but barely—and the rest failed. (Gravity wasn’t counted, because only two characters got substantial screen time.) But even though just 36 percent of the coronated 50 films passed “with flying colors,” the Bechdel-positive pictures earned way more than the Bechdel-negative ones: a total of $4.22 billion versus $2.66 billion.

This is happy news, mostly. It demonstrates that audiences have an appetite for well-drawn, multidimensional female characters, and it sends an important message to the film industry. As Sharma and Sender write, “Dear Hollywood: We know how you can make more money in 2014. Put more women onscreen.” But the exercise is also—let’s be honest—a bit of a letdown. In 2014, we are still whooping with delight when movie studios depict a woman sharing a snippet of non-dude-focused conversation with another woman? This is not exactly a high bar. And the test (which, again, Bechdel never intended to be the only word on the matter) seems potentially misleading. Women can come off as human onscreen without passing (if, say, “Charlotte” talks to “Ellen” about a man named Kierkegaard), or they can inhabit films that pass the test and still treat them like sexy mannequins (Charlotte: “I love your pink heels!” Ellen: “They match my underwear!”). Is it time to update the standard?


I reached out to some female critics and writers to get a sense of what their revised BT might look like. What should we ask of movies in terms of depicting women creatively, responsibly, compellingly? One theme I heard repeatedly was that the current BT remains a useful diagnostic tool. “I do think that it's such a low bar for good reason,” writer Michelle Dean emailed to me. “If movies can't even meet that low standard, that says something. And most movies don't meet the Bechdel test now, so I'm not sure the thing is ripe for a revision.” Yet, as film critic Karina Longworth argues, the criteria are “too easy to satisfy in a superficial way. Just because a film includes a scrap of conversation between two women about something other than a man does not necessarily mean that the film has any meaningful interest in women.” For my colleague Amanda Hess, the problem lies in trying to derive best practices from what was, originally, “a hilarious and eye-opening point about the lack of fully-realized female characters on film,” not an earnest solution. “The point of the Bechdel test has been lost in [the test’s] obsessive application,” which now “comes across as arbitrary.” 

So what’s a better measure? “I'd like to see more abstract discussion among women in film, about books, politics, philosophy, anything but the nurturing side of female existence,” said Dean. “If there's a single thing I'd like to see more films do, it would be to take female desire (sexual, sure, but also *every other kind*) seriously,” added Longworth. Hess made a pitch for more visible Platonic male-female relationships: “As important as it is for films to feature women talking among themselves, I think it's just as crucial to feature men and women talking to each other for reasons unrelated to eventually hooking up,” she wrote. (Also, women should talk to themselves more onscreen: “Sandra [Bullock, in Gravity] … talks to herself a lot. That should count!”)

Writer Roxane Gay went full-on fantasy league in a six-part wish list for a revised test, reproduced below.

1. A woman's story is being told. She is not relegated to the role of sidekick, romantic interest, or bit player.
2. Her world is populated with intelligent women who also have stories worth telling, even if their stories aren't the focus of the movie.
3. If she must engage in a romantic storyline, she doesn't have to compromise her sanity or common sense for love.
4. At least half the time, this woman needs to be a woman of color and/or a transgender woman and/or a queer woman because all these women exist! Though she is different, her story should not focus solely on this difference because she is a sum of her parts. She is not the token. She has friends who look like her so they need to show up once in a while.
5. She cannot live in an inexplicably perfect apartment in an expensive city with no visible means of affording said inexplicably perfect apartment.
6. She doesn't have to live up to an unrealistic feminist standard. She can and should be human. She just needs to be intelligent and witty and interesting in the way women, the world over are, if we ever got a chance to really know them on the silver screen.

Sounds like a great movie. And a very high bar. As for me, like the other women I talked to, I don’t think there can really be one rule to determine whether a movie passes muster. The aim, I think, should be variety. Female characters should not all look the same, act the same, have the same needs, desires, tics, jobs, strengths, vulnerabilities, and preoccupations. Just show us thinking about, talking about, engaging in many different types of things—as we are wont to do—and your movie should make gazillions.

See Alison Bechdel speak about the Bechdel Test at Daily Life's All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House on March 30.