What is the Bechdel Test?
Representation in the media is important because it can shape our identity and how we view of the world. If you read our guide to Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze” or Liesbet van Zoonen’s thoughts on the unrealistic portrayal of women in the media, you will already be aware that mainstream films offered a narrow representation of women and were full of stereotypes defined by their relationship to the male protagonist. The Bechdel Test attempts to quantify this gender bias and draw attention to the lack of diversity in cinema.
The Bechdel Test uses three simple rules to measure the quality of representation of women in film and other media forms:
- The story has to have at least two (named) women in it
- who talk to each other
- about something besides a man
Sadly, too many films fail to satisfy this basic test. Most classical Hollywood narratives followed the male protagonist on his adventures while women were reduced to supporting roles with a limited impact on the plot. Although the representation of women is increasingly diverse, the Bechdel Test remains an important tool to measure change in the media.
History and Development
The Bechdel Test first appeared in a comic strip called “D- to Watch Out For”. Created by Alison Bechdel, these multi-panelled cartoons offered quick glimpses into the lives of her lesbian characters. In an episode called “The Rule”, which was published in 1985, the story followed two women who were considering watching a film in the cinema. However, one character outlines the “three basic requirements” that need to be met before she would pay for a ticket.
You can still view the complete strip on Alison Bechdel’s blog.
Some of the panels feature imaginary film posters. Depicting violent-sounding titles, such as “The Barbarian” and “The Mercenary”, and images of incredibly muscular men holding weapons, the comic strip pokes fun at the typical action heroes from that decade, epitomised by Sylvester Stallone who was the eponymous hero of the Rocky and Rambo franchises alluded to in the cartoon. Once the characters realise there is nothing worth watching, they go home to make popcorn instead.
If you look at the cinema marquee in the first panel, you will notice the dedication to Liz Wallace. Bechdel credited Wallace for originally coming up with the rules and the cartoonist preferred to use the title Bechdel-Wallace Test to acknowledge her friend’s contribution.
The test became popular with feminist film students who wanted to highlight the film industry’s gender inequality, but it has recently entered mainstream criticism and is now required reading on many media studies courses. You should visit bechdeltest.com to see which current releases pass or fail the test. If want to get a good sense of the how the three criteria can be applied, read through some of the comments and discussions on the different films.
At the time of writing, there were over 8000 films in the database. 58% of the films analysed completely passed the test, but around 10% did not satisfy a single aspect.
Many critics promote the feminist credentials of “Alien” (1979) because Ripley is not the helpless victim or damsel in distress; she is a female protagonist who uses her skills to defeat the vile monster and survive the vicious attack. Interestingly, Ripley was a man in the original script, but Sigourney Weaver was cast in the lead role and became the iconic female action hero. If you are unfamiliar with this classic film, watch the trailer to get a sense of the narrative:
In Bechdel’s comic, the character jokes the last film she was able to watch was “Alien”. Does that mean she hadn’t seen a film in the cinema in six years? “Alien” only manages to pass the test because Ripley and Lambert, the two women on the spaceship, have a few brief conversations together about the monster.
RIPLEY: We can’t go into hypersleep with that thing running loose. We’d be sitting ducks in the freezers. We have to kill it first.
LAMBERT: We can’t kill it. If we do, it will spill its body acids right through the hull.Alien (1979)
While the film might pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, the cartoonist was making the point most mainstream films did not even meet the incredibly low standard set by this sci-fi horror tale.
The epic “Dune” (2021) contains one scene with dialogue between two named female characters, but they only talk about the male protagonist, Paul Atreides. Therefore, the film satisfies two parts of the Bechdel-Wallace Test and is marked as a fail. By contrast, most of the scenes in “Black Widow” (2021) involve the two female leads who obviously talk “about something besides a man”. It passes the test.
Other Media Forms
The Bechdel-Wallace test can also be used to analyse the representation of women in computer games, especially RPGs, and other narrative-based media. For example, the Lara Croft and Natla talk about magical artifacts in “Tomb Raider: Anniversary”.