The Bechdel test, and why passing it isn’t as crucial as you may believe

The very first time I learned about the Bechdel test was way back in 1998, when I was deeply entrenched in the Labyrinth fanfic community. I was chatting via IM with a beta reader, who told me, with a sigh, that my latest fic did not pass said test. She explained patiently that because my story

  • Didn’t have at least two female characters
  • who had names
  • and interacted with each other
  • and who did so without the exchange having anything to do with a male character

it was not feminist and I should start over.

I was perplexed. At the time, I was seventeen, I’d never heard of feminism outside of debates about Hilary Clinton’s scandalous involvement in her husband’s presidency or Connie Chung co-anchoring the CBS news. How could a fanfiction be feminist or not feminist? I had a long way to go.

That was the first time I looked up “Bechdel test” to see what it really was. What I learned shocked me. One woman, writing a comic strip, used a character’s preference in films to point out the egregious oversight of female characters with three-dimensional real-world concerns in pop culture. It was a pithy, but entirely accurate, punch line about how Hollywood represents women on screen. And that was all.

I don’t mean to minimize the contribution of Alison Bechdel to feminism. Because this comic strip, “The Rule” really is a watershed moment in feminism and pop culture. It points out something that is right in front of our faces all of the time, but we usually can’t see it because our cultural conditioning makes us literally blind to it. But the Bechdel test, as it came to be known, somehow became the ultimate test of whether or not fiction was fit for feminist consumption, and there is no gray area. If it doesn’t pass, it’s “not feminist.” If it does, it’s “feminist.”

I got thinking about this last night as I was flipping through my DVDs and I came across The Silence of The Lambs. Now, I’m never going to accuse Thomas Harris of being a feminist visionary. If your only experience of his work is the television show Hannibal, just realize that most of the female characters on that show were dudes in the books. But Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling was one of my very first feminist role models. I remember watching that movie on VHS as a freshman in high school and thinking, “My god, this is a scary movie and the woman isn’t dying? And nobody is rescuing her?” And guess what? It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, despite being one of the very few movies you’re ever going to find that has a female protagonist who isn’t “trying to have it all.” Clarice is just a female protagonist doing her job, without romance or some looming reproductive clock.

Just don’t read Hannibal, because what in the actual fuck, Harris?

Along with The Silence of The LambsLabyrinth ultimately fails the test, as well. Although the entire narrative is about a young girl putting aside her dreams of being a damsel in distress in order to be the hero of her own story, it doesn’t pass the test I see my peers using to determine whether or not a piece of media is “feminist.”

Anyway, this got me thinking about what books and movies do pass the Bechdel test and yet are still packed with horrible, anti-female stereotypes and messages.  Like Sex and The City. One episode that stands out strongly in my mind is the one in which fashion-obsessed Carrie may lose her apartment because she’s spent all of her money on designer shoes, and her financial troubles cause a rift between herself and her friend Charlotte, who has alimony and a tony penthouse from the rich man she married. If we’re playing by the rules of “if it passes the Bechdel test, it’s feminist,” then there you have it.

You know what else passes the Bechdel test? Every. Single. 50 Shades of Grey book. All of them.

It’s not that the Bechdel test isn’t a useful shorthand for addressing gender inequality in media; it absolutely is. But what the Bechdel test does not do, no matter how one tries to justify it, is determine whether a piece of media is “feminist” or not. Yet that’s how it’s being used, over and over. This is a symptom of a feminist dialogue that routinely projects a very narrow view of what feminism “is,” a dialogue that is leaving all but the whitest, straightest, cisgender women out of the conversation. There is no room for argument or discussion, either something is feminist or it isn’t.

Alison Bechdel made an amazing point, that the role of women in fiction is to be focused on male characters. And that’s absolutely true.  But that’s all that comic is, an observation. It’s not a diagnostic tool for how to write your book or screenplay or how we should consume novels and television. If your work doesn’t include female characters talking about something other than dudes, examine why that is. If the answer is, “Because her love interest is the most important thing in her life!” then congratulations, jamming a conversation between her and her mother about how amazing her new car is just ain’t gonna fix the problem. And if the answer is “it legitimately doesn’t fit into the story I’m telling,” and your work doesn’t otherwise contain harmful anti-woman messages, your feminist card doesn’t get revoked.

And keep in mind, the comic strip itself is tongue-in-cheek. The movie the main character cites as playing along by her rule is Alien, and then only because two female characters talk about a monster. The entire point of the comic is that even when the woman gets what she wants, a movie where two female characters talk about something other than a man, it’s still not a representation of real women. It’s totally macho and made to fulfill male fantasy.

If you like a piece of media, and it passes the Bechdel test, there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out. And there’s nothing wrong with pointing out how a piece of fiction could have passed the Bechdel test with some tweaking. But we have to stop using Bechdel’s observation as a benchmark for what constitutes “feminist” fiction. Fiction, like feminism, is not “one size fits all experiences,” and it’s impossible to judge a nuanced medium through a black-and-white test and achieve anything resembling accuracy.

126 Comments on “The Bechdel test, and why passing it isn’t as crucial as you may believe”

  1. Mary Sue says:

    More recently, Pacific Rim does not pass the Bechdel Test, but Sharknado does.

    • Noadi says:

      I was about to say something about Pacific Rim too. Mako is just such a great character, I love that she isn’t the stereotype of an action movie heroine and that her relationship with Raliegh is as his partner piloting the Jager not as a love interest. If the world is ending who has time to fall in love?

    • Lindsay says:

      Or Gravity. I thought Gravity was an incredible movie focused on a realistic female character. But it would have still failed the test.

    • Dear Miss. You are clearly well-intentioned. SO!!!… based on the intention of the Bechdel Test which you acknowledge has very well served its purpose, how can you modify it to continue to act as an identifier given the limitations and considerations you have named.

      How can we keep it and make it more refined and better for our times?

      P.S. I’m a friend of Alison’s from college.

      • Talisguy says:

        One proposed alternative is the Mako Mori test: a work of fiction passes the test if
        1) It has at least one female character
        2) who has a storyline/character arc
        3) which is not dependent on a man or men.

  2. The Bechdel test isn’t meant to be a feminist benchmark, or a test for feminism, but merely a test for object/subject relationships among characters. If two women in a movie talk to each other about something other than a man, they are not mere accessories, but rather actual characters. That’s subjectivity. Building subjectivity among female characters is an essential aspect of feminism in media, but it is not the only aspect of feminism in media. It’s part of why Sex and the City routinely passes the test; those women are subjective characters, even if they’re not exactly feminist ideals.

    A recent development in this conversation is the Sexy Lamp test, noted by Kelly Sue DeConnick. If you can replace a female character with a sexy lamp in any given piece of media, she’s not a character, she’s an object. Same idea. It’s not FEMINISM, it’s just a reasonable watermark for building decent characters of both sexes.

    So, despite 50 Shades‘s cardboard characters, it passes the test. This proves that the test is not perfect. It’s cool! Bechdel didn’t mean to set forth a feminist rule for all time, she was just making an observation.

    Also, Silence of the Lambs does indeed pass the Bechdel test. Clarice talks to her African-American buddy, played by Kasi Lemmons, about a) FBI regulations, while they’re jogging; b) the case and Frederica Bimmel, in the laundromat. (You could argue [somewhat pettily] that they’re talking about two men, Lecter and Buffalo Bill, but it’s really the case they’re talking about.) Toward the end, Clarice also talks to Frederica’s friend, the one with the tiny short bangs, about Frederica and her movements.

    • To put it another way: the Bechdel Test is shorthand for the question “Do these female characters have realistic lives? Or is it true that their every concern has to do with the male characters?” It’s a little like that thing Virginia Woolf said about how male writers, for centuries, wrote about women characters based on what they had observed. Yet the part of women’s lives where they are interacting with men is an extremely small sample size of their actual day-to-day.

      • What Katherine said. :-)

        Also, speaking as a Feminist with a capital F, it’s 2013. If your story ( not just Jenny’s story–anyone’s story) does not pass the meager bar that is the Bechdel test, that says a whole lot about you as a content creator and about the value you have, or lack, for over 50% of the world’s population.

      • Jenny Trout says:

        I don’t know, Bianca. As a content creator, I disagree the implication that if someone’s content doesn’t pass Bechdel, it’s proof they don’t value women. I mean, if someone were to write a book or a screenplay about say, two medieval monks getting freaky in a monastery, and they shoe-horned in female characters for the sole purpose of token inclusion without any real substance, that would seem almost more offensive to me. Like they were thinking, “Better give a bone to the feminists,” or assuming that women are unable to connect emotionally to a story unless their interests are catered to– something the entertainment industry already fervently believes about their target demographic of “anyone who identifies as male.”

        And I swear to all that is holy, I have not been reading or writing “The Name of The Rose” fanfiction. Although if someone wanted to write a m/m medieval monk book, I wouldn’t NOT shove money into their pants.

      • Bianca, as someone else pointed out, what if the man the women are talking about is a dying father because the story is about him getting sick and dying? In a novel like that, having discussions about their most recent shopping adventures would feel shoe-horned in and not add to or move the story. This is a far different situation than a book with women sitting around all day talking about the hot guys they want to bag and then, perhaps, a a scene about losing weight to get “sexier,” without a man being brought up. Why would the second book be feminist while the one about some sisters focusing on their dying dad be considered a show of not valuing women?

        It’s really not as easy as “there’s no excuse not to pass this meager test.” It doesn’t consider the type of story or conversations. The content of the conversations is more important than whether there are any that have nothing to do with men.

      • I’m so excited that people responded to my comment! Hooray!

        To quote Amanda below:

        “Whenever I hear somebody argue, “It wouldn’t make sense for women to be there!” I can’t help wondering… why do we keep making movies and books that are purposefully set in these locations?”

        That is my point, along with the ability to “substitute a bunch of other groups for “women” and ask these questions”. As someone who consumes a boatload of mainstream media and some not-so-mainstream media–in TV, film, book, video, and game format–there are sooo many stories based on what men want, what men are thinking, and how men are going to solve a problem.

        I completely understand if you want to set a story in a monastery or in a mine shaft or in the locker room of a Major League Baseball team. There is no need to “shoehorn” in a female character to prove your project is feminist.

        On the other hand, I have recently watched and thoroughly enjoyed a dramatic film series (Alien) and a comedic TV series (Brooklyn Nine Nine) both set in overwhelmingly male environments (space military and law enforcement respectively) with female characters. Not only do they both pass the Bechdel test without being obvious about it, Brooklyn Nine-Nine also has had two black men talking to each other and two Latina women talking to each other, and not about a man.

        I’m not trying to say, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I’m saying, “Hooray for discussion! Let’s talk about feelings and our writing processes and the change we would like to see in the world.”


      • So in my sci-fi manuscript, the only really notable scene I can recall with female characters talking to each other is a starship’s female first officer and another female officer planning a rescue mission to save their male crewmates’ asses

        So I guess as a content creator I don’t value women

      • Jenny Trout says:

        I don’t know if Alien is a good example of something that passes the test. The original comic strip the Bechdel test is taken from seems to be deriding Alien over the fact that although the women weren’t talking about men, they weren’t talking about real concerns for women, either.

        I agree totally on the “why are we putting stories where women (or other marginalized groups) aren’t.” I actually just had a head-meets-wall moment a few weeks ago in which a friend defending RDJ’s performance in Tropic Thunder, saying, “But that was the joke, that he was a white man pretending to be a black man!” When I pointed out that since the bulk of the movie took place with a white actor in blackface, maybe they could have given the role to a black actor instead, and it would have been an even more effective commentary. To the person I was talking about the movie with, this was like, the most ridiculous suggestion he’d ever heard. It couldn’t even enter his mind that without altering the story at all, the status quo could have been subverted.

      • Lindsay says:

        @ Jenny: I don’t think that is necessarily fair. While it’s great to have some movies about real women stories and issues, I don’t think there is anything wrong with some escapism stories (like Alien) that center around female characters. One of the things I really loved about Aliens is that while it is this action-packed sci-fi thriller, the story centers around Ripley, who realizes she has lost everyone she loves, establishing this deep connection with a little girl who has also lost everyone she loves. I think this is a story a lot of women can connect to with a lot of sentiment and growing bonds between the characters, and doesn’t try to fit a female character into a traditionally masculine box.

        I personally have no problem with female characters being able to kick-ass so long as they are portrayed as having a deeper character growth story outside of that. Alien was a little more flat in terms of character growth, but then all the characters were fairly flat because the movie is more a psychological thriller than about character growth.

      • V says:

        Wait, Jenny, I’m not following your argument about Tropic Thunder. The point of that character is to satirize the very fact that white actors A: steal roles from black actors and B: are completely clueless about their own forays into cultural appropriation/buffoonery. There was also a black character in the movie who was there for the bulk of the film and acted explicitly as a counterpoint to Robert Downey Jr.’s character. How would you change the movie to have that role filled by a black actor yet not change the story at all? I’m pretty strongly anti-status quo and I still can’t think of a way to work that without significantly changing that piece of the movie.

      • Jenny Trout says:

        V, they could have cast a black actor in the role of a white actor taking a role meant for a black actor. This would have made their point about white actors taking black roles without actually having a white actor take what could have been a black role. It might have even made the point stronger.

      • Renee J says:

        I get it now. A black actor plays a white actor playing a black actor.

      • V says:

        Oh, okay, I’m following you now and I agree — that actually would have been pretty clever.

    • Jenny Trout says:

      Exactly, it isn’t meant to be a benchmark. That’s my position on it. I thought I made it clear that I didn’t feel it was Bechdel trying to make it one, but that modern feminists have done. If not, mea culpa.

      In The Silence of The Lambs, I thought both their conversations about the FBI regulations included them talking about Jack Crawford. You know what this means? It means I have to sit down and watch it again. DARN! LOL.

      • Kylie Chezem says:

        Hmmm… now I want to see for myself, oh darn, I guess I’ll have to watch it too. ;)

      • trixtah says:

        To be honest, it did seem that your view was that what Bechdel’s intent was, not that the beta reader mentioned in the early para (and others) had added that gloss to it. It didn’t get any clearer for me throughout the rest of your piece. Although the points you make to show it *shouldn’t* be some final word on what Feminism Is are certainly fair enough.

      • KathleenCat says:

        One thing I’ve learned over time is no matter how clear a writer tries to be with intent- whether in a story, a poem, or an internet comment- the meaning will be unclear to someone.

    • sona says:

      50shades doesn’t pass the Bechdel test because there are NO characters AT ALL. Maybe we should discuss what a “character” is. Let’s make a definition of a “character” at first.

      • Amber says:

        In 50 Shades, you could replace every character, even the men, with a sexy lamp and still have the same book. xD

      • sona says:

        For Amber: That actually sounds intriguing. They could blink at each other in that way:-D

      • KathleenCat says:

        Sona- if they are lamps, would they blink in that way, or flicker in that way? Hmmm.

      • Talisguy says:

        The Bechdel Test is supposed to be very, very bare-bones. It’s supposed to be incredibly easy to pass to make a point about how many films, books, whatever DON’T pass it, even though the bar is set extremely low. So even if the female characters are complete ciphers and not characters in the strictest sense, it still passes. Even if they’re talking about staying in the kitchen, why feminism is bad and spouting internalized misogyny (and they’re not deliberately written that way because the time or place justifies is, to make a point, or because they’re intentionally written to be in the wrong or sexist – the writer him/herself is just being misogynistic), it still passes. Even if the conversation is literally five seconds long and they never interact again, it still passes. The vanilla version of the test doesn’t even require the characters to have names for a work to pass. Two random female extras who never get names and are never seen again popping up for five seconds to discuss why feminism is awful is enough to pass the simplest version of the test. The bar is that low on purpose because many, many films STILL don’t pass, even with the standards that lax. So 50 Shades and Twilight still pass the Bechdel Test.

  3. Kate says:

    Yeah, I’ve had this conversation with a lot of male writers who think that putting one strong female character in their work is feminist. I think the deal with the Bechdel Test is that it looks generally at how important women are within the world of a story. My husband’s tv show has three strong series regulars (a cop, a special agent fighter-type thing, and a computer hacker bad guy) who are female, but because the two leads are male, the ladies are almost always talking about a man. His show is super feminist, but there is some troubling stuff in there about where the women fit into the world because while maybe one episode a season passes the Bechdel test, every episode so far has passed the reverse–2 men with names talking to each other about something other than a woman.

    And that’s the test for me–if the reverse Bechdel is passed, then so should the Bechdel be.

    • Jenny Trout says:

      I think it’s meant more as a critique of pop culture and fictional media, rather than something that can be applied to individual works. Even then, the comic strip is saying what you’re saying, that if the story is created in the male gaze, even living up to “the rule” leaves women without representation.

  4. Renee J says:

    If two men had a conversation about a man, I think it should count if two women have the same conversation.

    In Silence Of the Lambs, talking about the killers is not the same as talking about a boyfriend.

    If you had two characters in a story that talked about their father because the story is about dad getting sick and dying, it should be the same as if the story was about their mother getting sick and dying. Sometimes it doesn’t fit to have characters talk about something unrelated to the plot.

    • Slam dunk with your comment.

      If you want to get picky, my novel, Sacred Blood, doesn’t pass. In one scene two female characters are discussing strategy for a battle and getting the male leader. Two named females having an interaction that…involves a male. One of the female characters is about to open a major can of whoop-ass and save everyone. Yet it doesn’t pass the Bechdel. The test doesn’t consider the relationships between the characters and whether or not here’s romantic interest.

      Because of this, I personally ignore the test and take the story overall. Are there women in the book who have something to do other than shop and moon over a hot man? Do they have careers and lives and hopes and goals that don’t involve marriage or hopping in the sack? Even if there is a lot of talk about a platonic male friend, a father, or a son?

      My big problem is how the rigidity of this test, and its lack of variants, has been used by many to declare books to be feminist, and therefore good for women to read (Twilight actually passes), or not feminist, and therefore unworthy of the paper it’s written on.

      The test has a great idea, but misses the mark.

      • Wendy says:

        This. It makes sense that even when you have two named female characters talking about someone else, 50% of the time they’ll be talking about a man anyway. (That assumes an ideal world where character roles are divided randomly between male and female, of course.) If they’re talking about more than one person – say, the corrupt city council or the hosts of their party or the other students in their class – the chances of at least one subject of their conversation being male rises proportionally. It seems silly to insist that female characters must ONLY talk about other women for the work to pass the test.

        I do think the Bechdel test has an advantage over the Mako Mori test, though, in that it examines relationships. The Mako Mori test makes sense from a “do women get character development?” angle, which is important, but having one Smurfette does not a feminist work make.

      • Irrevenant says:

        The test doesn’t miss the mark, it’s just aiming at a different mark than you seem to think it is. That was the main point of this article – that the Bechdel Test was never intended to be a comprehensive test for feminism.

        The article also explained the inspiration for the Bechdel Test – the observation that generally “the role of women in fiction is to be focused on male characters”.

        And I’m sorry, but by that litmus test your novel doesn’t pass, and nor should it. In real life the majority of female conversations are about something other than men. Whether the men are love interests or enemies, if the women are *so* entirely focussed on them that there’s no room in an entire novel for a single conversation between them about something other topic? That’s a well-deserved fail of the Bechdel Test.

        Does that automatically mean your novel isn’t Feminist? Of course it doesn’t!

        Consider the rough analogy: “Are there non-white characters, do they talk to each other and if they do, do they focus on something other than white characters?”. It’s obviously possible to write horribly racist(/sexist) stories that pass, and to write egalitarian stories that don’t. But it’s still worth asking the question because if you answer “no” to it then you’ve identified that your story features a specific, common omission regarding equal representation, and it’s worth reviewing your story with that in mind.

        Even if you end up concluding that the Bechdel Test is a poor fit for a particular story, it identifies a common enough flaw that it’s worth checking.

  5. Lieju says:

    Bechel test is a starting point for discussion, that’s it.

    If you have a movie with few characters and very little dialogue, it doesn’t say much, but if your movie has a lot of characters who talk a lot and it doesn’t pass, it suggests a problem.

    • Jenny Trout says:

      Or as someone on twitter put it, it’s not meant to be applied to single works, it’s a comment on all of them as a whole.

      • Neurite says:

        Amen to that. The test simply isn’t very meaningful when applied to individual works. A novel set in a men’s prison, say, is unlikely to pass no matter what.

        If an individual movie fails the test, that doesn’t mean much. If 85% of our movies fail the test, then that tells us something about our society.

      • Irrevenant says:

        I disagree. The test originally appeared in a webcomic in the context of “This is how character X decides what movies she will watch”. Which is a little fanatical, I grant, but clearly the implication from the context is that you can use the test to judge individual films.

        And you *can* for the most part. People offer up examples that break the test like “What if the female main character is the last person on earth?”. These are clearly edge cases for which the Bechdel Test is a poor fit.

        But saying that there are cases for which the Test is a poor fit does *not* mean that you can’t apply the test to individual films as a general rule. The vast majority of films are set in situations to which the Test most certainly *does* apply.

        Consider it roughly analogous to “Does this film have any non-white characters?”. There are definitely situations where you would expect that to be the case by virtue of the setting. But if the film *isn’t* in a setting like that and still has no non-white characters then it’s pretty reasonable to note that omission.

  6. If we’re to have such a simple test, I think it needs to be altered. *IF* a book has at least two named females characters, do they have any interactions that do not involve their DESIRE for a man? “Oh this guy is so dreamy” just isn’t the same as “How do we take this mofo down?” While the Bechdel is meant to be a starting point, it ends up missing the mark. I don’t know about you, but I’m possibly more tired of books that make us seem like we love shopping more than anything. Shopping and men.

    I have several feminists on my Facebook friends list who are the very sort to hold this test up as a sort of gospel. Funny you mention Silence of the Lambs because there was a debate just last week on a friend’s wall on if that movie passes because Hannibal is considered by some to be a trans*person (and a cross-dresser by some), and so if he is gendered a she, does this mean there are two women discussing something other than men? And a couple of the debaters claimed that Silence is NOT, in any way, shape, or form, a feminist film without at least two vaginas, and that there’s no reason there couldn’t have been two women as prisoners at the same time.

    • Jenny Trout says:

      Wait, at what point did Hannibal ever identify as transgender? Were they confusing Hannibal with Buffalo Bill? Because I honestly cannot imagine Thomas Harris imagining his magnum opus character as anyone other than a cis male. 90% of the characters in those books are cis males.

      • I’ve never seen the movie or read the book, so I don’t know if they were confusing characters. When they said Hannibal was a trans*person, a character whose name I know (I have no idea who Buffalo Bill is), my attention was caught. I thought it was interesting to read debate on how the gender binary could affect this test, and whether anything outside the binary should even count.

    • Sophie says:

      It’s been pointed out already, but Starling has a female best friend. Also a female US Senator is a character in the film.

      I think Jenny’s right, the commenters must have been thinking about Buffalo Bill. The book & film have him as someone who mistakenly believes himself to be a transwoman. Harris is perfectly comfortable saying ‘he’s not that, but I can’t really tell you what he is, either’ in much the same way as he does about Hannibal in Red Dragon. He’s more concerned with humanity and sociopathy than he is with gender, I think.

      • Sophie says:

        (when I say about Hannibal, I don’t mean in relation to sexuality or gender, I mean Harris tells us that Hannibal looks like human but has the mind of a ‘monster’. There’s no indication of any kind that Hannibal is not a straight cis white man, but Harris wants us to think about what makes or doesn’t make him a human, rather than what makes/doesn’t make him a man) Sorry to be convoluted.

    • Lindsay says:

      Haha, Silence of the Lambs isn’t feminist, but Kiss the Girls is because Casanova liked his dungeon full of ladies, whereas Buffalo Bill was a one-prisoner-at-a-time kind of guy. I am loving this logic.

  7. The-Great-Dragon says:

    This is my absolute favourite post, hands down.

    I often struggle with my writing because I keep coming back to the Bechdel Test. I’d like to think my stories have strong female characters, but I’m also incredibly drawn to writing male characters, which means I don’t usually pass the Bechdel Test. And I keep wondering, if I don’t pass, does that make my stories unfeminist or bad? Am I perpetuating bad media?

    Recently, I finally came to the conclusion that maybe passing the Bechdel Test isn’t the important part. This post really helped me understand a lot of reasons why and helped me look at things with a clearer perspective.

    • Wendy says:

      I write romance, so naturally a lot of the dialogue in my book revolves around relationships which involve at least one man. I caught myself debating whether one particular conversation “counted” – the heroine is talking to her best friend who had just aborted an elopement after discovering her fiance was actually a grade-A jackass. Is “Are you doing okay now that you’re not running off with that guy?” good enough, or is the tangential mention of the fiance (and the fact that the situation they’re talking about is directly because of a guy in the first place) enough to make the book fail?

      Then I decided I’d rather just focus on making my heroine kick ass and I wouldn’t care whether my book had an arbitrary conversation in it.

  8. Ensis says:

    *Hi-fives self as my magnum opus-in progress passed the test years before I even knew what the test was.

  9. Sophie says:

    Re female characters, you may all have read this already but I think it’s a very good article & deserves mentioning in case anyone did Its about why going on about ‘strong’ female characters completely misses the point.

  10. mfeyeview says:

    The thing is, like…as a writer I get why a person shouldn’t shoehorn in female characters solely in order to meet some arbitrary goalpost of “feminist.” Not only does that make for some shitty writing, but that also makes for some pretty phony feminism anyway. But, how do I put this…

    Okay, writing is all about economy of conversation (unless you’re Tarantino). You have characters, they find out about a conflict, the characters discuss the conflict, they face the conflict, they discuss what happened when they faced the conflict, and the story ends. The conflict can be mafia kingpins or terminal cancer or corrupt clergymen or a love interest or a dragon or someone they’re running against for office or a rival spy, whatever. So anyway, my point is, historically and even today, just about most of these roles connected with the conflict (at least when we picture them) will all be male. Criminals, spies, doctors, vampires…Even on feminist shows like “Buffy” she’s trading barbs with male vampires instead of female, 19 times out of 20, and there isn’t even a practical reason for that.

    So anyway, naturally, even if you have the two named women who are talking about something, what they talk about will be related to the central conflict. And the central conflict, usually, will involve a man, because that’s how the real world (as set up in our current cultural imagination) tends to be set up.

    Which is why a whole lot of things don’t tend to pass the Bechdal test. and this is not me defending the works that don’t pass, considering that most works tend not to pass criteria one. This is me saying that the world blows.

    **sorry if this sounds lecture-y, not meant to be at all but I know inflection gets miscommunicated sometimes. It’s just that when I write I’m explaining things to myself.

    • mfeyeview says:

      But anyway, while I think that “Twilight” is, more often than not, kind of an opus of misogyny, I’m actually not opposed to defending it as having a kind of a feminism, to the extent that it reminds the reader consistently that women exist, and that what she wants for herself actually matters, and that this front-and-centeredness of her desires doesn’t let up for all 10,000,000 pages.

      I know that there are far better books and movies that do this same thing, but virtually zero in the last decade or so that have been this wildly popular in America. (Hunger Games of course. Titanic? that’s kind of it. After that you have to go to “cult” popularity.).

      • Jenny Trout says:

        Bella has sexuality, as well. She expresses a desire to have sex, to have sex before marriage, and a belief that if they do have premarital sex, it’s not going to change the way they feel about each other. I thought that was pretty neat about Twilight.

      • V says:

        It’s sad that Twilight is actually much more feminist than 50 Shades in that regard, since Ana’s sexuality is so wholly owned by Christian.

      • KathleenCat says:

        I’ve thought of that and one thought was, maybe, even though you have supernatural forces at work, it just seems more badass to have Buffy kicking male ass all the time (and I know I’m having trouble wording this right) because all our lives we’ve been told men are stronger and that’s that? That even if they are vampires, having her defeat men looks more feminist?
        The other thought was, hey, this is written by a guy, so it’s pretty damn good, really, that it’s as feminist as it is, or indeed, that it is feminist at all. (Which still doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better.)

    • laina1312 says:

      Buffy actually passes the Bechdel test for every episode up until at least Season 3. (I just read a blog series that was talking about feminism in Buffy.)

      • laina1312 says:

        Erm, every episode except one, I mean. Never Kill a Boy on the First Day doesn’t pass. The average is about 6 times an episode for the first 2 seasons.

      • mfeyeview says:

        That is freaking awesome! I love that show but I never knew it was that cool.

        I get frustrated by it for a few different reasons, one of which is the lack of female villains. (not just Big Bads, but week-to-week villains). There’s really no reason, in a show where supernatural strength is real, that villains can’t frequently be female, but there you go. And the thing I really hate is that deep down inside I have my own imbedded sexism because half the time I roll my eyes at the female villains that do appear anyway, because my brain just won’t accept them. I haven’t really processed why that is (well, in a way that doesn’t make me feel bad about myself, natch).

        Very cool news about the Bechdel test. I love “Veronica Mars”, but when all my friends were hailing it as the new Buffy I kind of had to sideeye them. She had, like, no female friends beyond a girl who was fridged before the show even started and another girl she barely hung with until the last season.

        It makes me kind of curious about the merits of Exceptional Woman ™ feminism vs. Bechdal test ™ feminism and the fallacies of clinging to feminist creator cred because of one or the other. But that’s a whole different thing. In conclusion, Buffy rocks.

  11. Bethany Hatheway says:

    I don’t know if this “Because her love interest is the most important thing in her life!” was supposed to be a statement against feminism. For me, this is the most important thing in my life. (Though I seldom refer to him as my love interest.) It isn’t like it’s the only thing that’s important, but my family and friends would come in below him, and I would give up my career (as in quit because I have to move) for him. I still believe in equal rights and stuff, I don’t let men treat me as inferior, I just think that my life partner is justified as being the most important thing in my life.

    As for the things I write, they seldom pass the test. Just the way the plot is set up, the girl is isolated from other females or there aren’t any females (like gay romance with no girls because of the setting).

    • Christina says:

      Ok, fair enough you admit all these things about yourself… but surely you’re not claiming to be a feminist are you? My career is important to me and my husband moved so I could have my dream job and he was able to find his dream job as well. I don’t think either of us would be willing to move to a city where the other had to suffer at work. I don’t understand why women think this is ok.

      The way you live your life is definitely your business. But, the fact that you chimed in about a feminism test leads me to believe you consider yourself a feminist. I just don’t agree. My husband is the most important person in my life as well but I wouldn’t just be lead around by him. I’m his partner, not his dog.

      • Bethany Hatheway says:

        I would move jobs if he got a higher paying job in another location. I would just get another job, I can work basically anywhere (I work in corrections, there are jobs everywhere). Did I say he was leading me around?
        Even if I had to suffer at work, that wouldn’t make me not a feminist. A feminist can value personal relationships above everything else. This relationship happens to be with a man. If I moved to live with my sick grandmother and took a huge pay cut AND had to work somewhere I hated, would that make me not a feminist?

      • Lindsay says:

        I think this is a pretty unfair judgment to make without knowing her better. One of the most feminist people I know is a stay at home mom, where the most important things in the world to her are her kids and her husband. I think one of the great things about feminism is recognizing that each woman can pursue whatever it is in life that makes her happy, whether that is being a CEO of a company, the fashion editor of a magazine, or being a stay-at-home mom.

        Choosing to give up one thing that you kind of like (like your career) for something you love (like your husband) doesn’t make you their dog. Sorry, sometimes a spouse needs to move somewhere or gets a really good opportunity to move somewhere and you choose to move with them without have an equal expectation of having a dream career. It’s not an anti-feminism thing. My fiance has many times said that if I get a great job offer in another state after graduation, he will happily pick up and move with me. I don’t think of him as my dog. We both simply recognize that the type of work he does he can probably find wherever we move, whereas I am in a position where I need to take the best opportunity that comes my way where ever that ends up being.

      • Christina says:

        It’s one thing to consider a move when one comes up by weighing the pros and cons of the situation but to give a blanket statement about “I would be willing to do it… period” sounds pretty doormat-y to me.

      • Jenny Trout says:

        Policing the feminism of others based on their lived experience compared to your own isn’t a great policy, because what you’re saying is that your lived experience is the baseline for feminism, and everybody must be this tall to ride. Another woman could just as easily come in and say, “The way you live is definitely your business, but the fact that you chimed in about a feminism test leads me to believe you consider yourself a feminist. I just don’t agree. I think marriage is a tool of the patriarchy, so I just live with my boyfriend.” The next woman comes in and says, “I just don’t agree that you’re a feminist, because I refuse to live with any man.” And so on and so forth, until no one is a feminist, because they don’t fit the qualifications.

        The baseline for feminism is the belief that all women, no matter their age, race, religion, sexuality, etc., have basic human rights that must be respected. Bethany’s comment in no way disputed this.

      • Sophie says:

        The whole point of feminism is to give all women the choice on how they want to live their lives. Nothing Bethany said was anti-feminist, all she said was her partner is the most important thing in her life. Not the only important thing, but the most. That is her personal choice, and it’s just a valid a choice as another women’s career being the most important thing in her life. Not everyone values their career as highly as you do, that doesn’t make them less feminist. It just makes their priorities different. And the line about being his dog was fucking insulting and you owe her an apology for that.

      • laina1312 says:

        …as long as she’s making her own choices, how is it not feminist? She has to right to make whatever choices she wants to make, as long as she’s freely making those choices. If a woman is forced to do something, I seriously do not consider that feminist,

      • Marg says:

        Some people are not into “choice” feminism. There isn’t only one kind of feminism. I think it’s kind of rude that people are acting like they’re schooling Christina on feminism as though feminists are some monolithic group. They’re not.

      • Jenny Trout says:

        Marg, there is a world of difference between explaining why you reject “choice” feminism and comparing another woman to a DOG.

      • Lindsay says:

        Marg: You are saying that there isn’t only one kind of feminism but defending someone who said “this person isn’t a feminist because they don’t fit my perception of feminism.” If Christina said “Bethany, you are not my kind of feminist because my kind of feminism calls for putting your career choices first,” that would be one thing, but she said Bethany couldn’t be a feminist AT ALL because she would put her husband first. That in itself goes against your assertion that we should be accepting of different types of feminism.

      • KathleenCat says:

        Christina, I am not in a romantic relationship, but as an artist for whom any typical day job is just a way to eat and not enjoyable to me, I would definitely move elsewhere for a hypothetical partner to have their dream career making good money.

        See, once I get the online sales thing figured out, I can sell art from literally anywhere. What I can’t do is guarantee anyone will buy. So, the stable high paying job of a significant other would be a good reason for me to move- if I had such a person.

        Now, I am also a person of fluid sexuality, so there is as much chance that other would be a woman as a man- or somewhere outside the binary, even.

        If I moved for the job of a female or non-binary partner, would I be feminist enough for you?

      • tottwriter says:

        Would you still make that point if Bethany’s partner was a woman? Or if her husband had sacrificed his career for her? The wording of your post seems to suggest that it’s only okay if the sacrifice is made to the benefit of the woman (such as your husband moving to help you fnd your dream job), and then invalidates the prospect of this arrangement being equally valid both ways.

        Some people are career-minded and put that first. Others are more relationship-minded. To my mind, what does it matter, so long as the lifestyle of one is not held up as the sole way that every other person must live? If you are a career-minded person, fair enough, but just because Bethany is a straight female and is relationship-minded, that does not preclude her from being a feminist.

    • Christina says:

      Yeah, God forbid people actually have strong opinions on something?!? Like it or not, my opinion remains. I don’t think the way this person worded their post suggests that they’re in any way a feminist.

      • Jemmy says:

        So Christina, you’d leave your husband rather than move with him? You don’t sound very committed to your relationship to me. Zero to do with feminism, I just find it interesting that someone would rather leave their partner than move.

      • Neurite says:

        Uhm. If she said that her partner is the most important thing in her life, and that’s how it should be for all other women, then I would grant you your point. But that’s not what she said. She merely expressed her personal choice, and how she feels, and actually strongly implied that she understood and had no problem with other women making different choices.

        And in my humble opinion, feminism is about giving women choices, not taking them away from them. It’s not “no woman may ever be a stay-at-home mom, being a stay-at-home mom is anti-feminist!”, it’s “not all women have to be stay-at-home moms!” It’s “women should have the option to have a professional career!”, not “all women must have a professional career!” It’s not “no woman may ever wear makeup again!”, it’s “women do not have to wear makeup if they don’t want to!” And, yes, it’s “women do not have to consider their partner the most important thing in their life!”, not “no woman may ever do so!”

        Indeed, denying a woman the right to make her own personal choice about how she wants to structure her life strikes me as not very feminist at all. (And yet I don’t wholesale decide that I can just declare you not to be a feminist! Because I don’t know you! Funny how that works.)

        As Lindsay says above, you are making a judgment here without knowing jack about this person. For all you know, she could have personally organized a protest at her local Walmart about their discriminatory practices against their female employees. She could be donating some serious money to a charity working to educate girls in Afghanistan. She could have just yesterday personally chewed out a teacher at her kid’s school for saying “girls aren’t good at math” in class. Or, y’know, not. You don’t know anything about her, but you feel entitled to declare that she couldn’t possibly a feminist because she’s made a personal choice for herself that you wouldn’t make.

        Sure, you have the right to have strong opinions! Just as we have the right to strongly disagree with those opinions.

      • Sophie says:

        So the part where she said she believed in equal rights and that she didn’t let men treat her as their inferior didn’t sound feminist to you? Attitudes like yours are why so many women don’t identify as feminists, they think being feminist means hating men and only having a career. And it’s infuriating! Being a feminist means believing that women are equal to men, that women can do any job they want even if it’s in a traditionally male field and that any life a women chooses to live is valid because that’s her choice.

      • The-Great-Dragon says:

        I honestly think it’s kind of ironic, given the context of this post (being that there’s no base test to decide whether something’s feminist or not and it really depends on the circumstances) that you’re judging her comment based on some personal, mental test you have for feminism.

        Maybe, in your view, there was nothing in her post to suggest she was a feminist, but there certainly wasn’t anything in there to suggest she wasn’t a feminist. There certainly was a lot in there to suggest she was a person with ideas and her own life and priorities.

        And I just don’t think being feminist means coming out of the gate screaming, at the top of your lungs in every single interaction you have, that you’re a feminist absolutely and this is why. And I think the fact that she kept her comment completely personal, without making it a reflection on her beliefs about all women and how they should conduct themselves in relationships, and she was commenting on a specific part of the Bechdel Test and how it pertains to her particular situation, makes her post relevant and certainly not unfeminist.

        Additionally, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having strong opinions on something. But when that ‘something’ is another person’s life and you’re forming those opinions based off one post about their relationship and then you go about lobbing accusations at them? That’s a little unfair.

      • elledconyers says:

        Which makes my mom . . . a unicorn. She got married out of college, moved away from her friends and family for Dad’s job, started having kids, spent 95% of her energy taking care of her kids, house, and husband, and was frequently barefoot when in the kitchen. But she was a feminist. So was Dad. Which makes him a unicorn, too.

        Dude- I think I just discovered I’m a unicorn!

  12. Christina says:

    Fringe seems to be a show with a decent female lead. You guys should check it out.

    • Jenny Trout says:

      I’ve been wanting to watch that, it’s been on my list for a while now! I’ll check it out.

      • Ashley says:

        Ohgod, Fringe. It is an endless roller coaster of weirdness, delight, and utter heartbreak. Definitely watch it. And then blog about it, because I’d love to know what you think! :D

      • Sophie says:

        Fringe is awesome. Five seasons just wasn’t enough! Lots of great Bechdel passing interaction too ;-)

      • Jordiebelle says:

        I’ve had people raving to me about Fringe but have struggled to get past the first series. The lead female characters acting is so incredibly wooden that I found it really distracting (apparently she gets better as the series continues) but worse, the “weird science” premise of so many of the early episodes was so incredibly at odds with how things actually work that I kept stopping the show and literally shouting at the the TV “but it doesn’t WORK like that!”. I appreciate most of the audience for any work don’t have specialist skills/knowledge in science (or history, or management, or psychology, or bilingualism erc etc, depending on which show you’re watching) but I found it incredibly distracting and it took strong urging from others who’d watched and loved it to keep going.
        So, I guess, YMMV??

      • KathleenCat says:

        The few episodes I saw of Fringe scared me so bad I didn’t want to watch any more. Maybe I’ll reconsider. For feminism.

    • Mel Edwards says:

      Continuum is also sort of the ‘new’ Fringe and well worth a watch. The protagonist is a woman, one of the two antagonists is a woman. There are women talking to each other about things other than men. There are several named female characters and they have had their back stories and characters developed as the series progresses. The show premise reminds me a lot of the first half of the third season of Fringe.

      Another show worth watching is Scott and Bailey – written by female actors hoping to have decent female characters to play. One particular thing that always makes me smile is that the default pronoun for someone in charge is ‘her’. In one scene two female detectives are talking to their bosses (also women) and one says ‘we’ll need to tell the assistant commissioner about this, she’ll want to know’ and I realised how I’d never, ever, heard that sentence before in any English cop show and how great it was to listen to.

  13. Lindsay says:

    Labyrinth was my first “favorite movie” growing up. David Bowie made me feel funny things that I just didn’t quite understand as an 8 year old.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I think the Bechdel Test gets misused in pretty much the same way the BMI test gets misused. An individual’s BMI isn’t a good way to determine their health and the Bechdel Test isn’t a good way to judge a story’s feminist credentials but both are an effective way to analyse trends over a wider range eg. a city’s population or a list of the top grossing films of a particular year.

    It’s not necessary for every good story to pass it, it’s just sad that such a huge quantity don’t.

    • Betsy Cole says:

      Yes! I was looking for someone else to make this comment, complete with BMI analogy. :D

      The issue isn’t that your specific story doesn’t pass, and a pass or fail doesn’t guarantee feminism or lack of feminism. However, almost every single movie or story ever created passes the reverse test for men. The fact that this dichotomy exists makes a deep statement about how far our society still has to go.

      Alys Cohen, above, was suggesting “If we’re to have such a simple test, I think it needs to be altered. *IF* a book has at least two named females characters, do they have any interactions that do not involve their DESIRE for a man?” But I think this misses the point. The issue remains that even if they’re talking about a man because he’s an annoying neighbor or their boss or their father or their son, the women’s conversation is still centered around male concerns in some way. Do we ever have two named women talking in a way that totally leaves all male issues to the side entirely?

      • KathleenCat says:

        Part of me wants to say, OK, but if you could change that male neighbor or boss to a woman and the conversation would stay substantially the same, is the conversation really about male concerns?

        Then another part wonders, if that is the case, will we have people say that two women talking about a lesbian love interest doesn’t count?

        And I say, then, I’ll just go with saying, “I don’t know.”

  15. Amanda says:

    I definitely agree that the Bechdel Test says a whole lot more when you apply it across the board, either at media as a whole or against genres. It also maybe says more about what types of stories people choose to tell when so many stories are constructed with an internal logic that makes multiple interactive women unlikely. Whenever I hear somebody argue, “It wouldn’t make sense for women to be there!” I can’t help wondering… why do we keep making movies and books that are purposefully set in these locations? Are there no other interesting stories? (You can also substitute a bunch of other groups for “women” and ask these questions). I’m not against stories just about men, but there’s plenty of them about– I’m not going to run out anytime soon.

    I think it’s glaring in the urban fantasy genre. In many books there can be only ONE strong female lead, and she is surrounded by adoring men, and all the other women are jealous losers. Her being the lead and having a character arc doesn’t make her a feminist icon if she spends all her time insisting that other women are weak and gunning for her man/men.

    • V says:

      Amanda, agreed, and I think this is something that some of the commenters here are not addressing. Like, it’s fine in the context of your story if it’s about a guy getting sick and dying and two female characters are talking about the guy (to use an example cited a few times above). On the other hand… is there a reason that the character who is sick needs to be a man, or is that just what we’ve become habituated to?

      • Jenny Trout says:

        I think that’s where we cross the line into “does a creator have a responsibility to shape their ideal world, or show the world as it truly exists.” And I think content creators do keep that in mind, to varying degrees. But they’re only really able to uphold their personal values, and those values come from lived experience. If I’ve grown up to age fourteen and I’m suddenly blown away by a female detective in this serial killer movie, that’s because I never realized that females in those types of roles were missing until I saw it. Which is why “The Rule” was so amazing, because the first time you read it, you go, “Oh, come on, surely… no… no… wait, have I ever seen a movie that passes this test?”
        The Bechdel test is really only helpful on a larger scale, and as a measure for if things are getting better or worse. When it’s used to give pass/fail grades, it’s not as helpful, and that’s the way people are just loving to fling it around right now. One rotten apple might spoil the whole bunch, but one nice apple in a pile of otherwise rotten ones isn’t a representative sampling of fruit. Or something. I’m kinda baked.
        So yeah, I think some of it is habitual, and some of it has to do with the gatekeepers of our media. I hate that term, but I think there’s truth in it, which is why people push so hard for “promote what you love/ignore what you hate” in book buying, film going, etc. Because if you get that thing out there, in front of enough people, some of them are going to go, “Oh. I never realized I was missing this.”
        But I’m a miserable person and I love to make fun of stuff, so I don’t know how well that’s working out for me.

  16. Cattusumbra says:

    Someone proposed the Mako Mori test.

    “The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story. I think this is about as indicative of “feminism” (that is, minimally indicative, a pretty low bar) as the Bechdel test. It is a pretty basic test for the representation of women, as is the Bechdel test. It does not make a movie automatically feminist.”

    Interesting idea. At any rate, something that surprised me a while back was that Thor passed the Bechdel test.

  17. Maggs says:

    It kills me that both Silence of the Lambs and Smilla’s Sense of Snow were written by men. I love those women. I don’t begrudge the authors, but I wish I came across such female protagonists written by women. It bothers me a little bit that in order for a woman to be strong and focused, she also has to isolate herself. Maybe the female authors would make them more social and warm. Thank goodness for Hermione.

    After I read this article (, I decided that I, too, would only read books written by women for a year. I’ve had a really hard time finding books I can fall into that are written by women authors. (I’m limited to what I can check out electronically from my library.) I fell off the wagon and read Flowers for Algernon and it put me into an apoplectic feminist rage. I don’t know what to do with myself.

    “Just don’t read Hannibal, because what in the actual fuck, Harris?” I read Hannibal twice. The second time because I thought that I had not understood the words the first time. I now pretend it doesn’t exist.

    I’m open to author/book recommendations. Please. (I searched in my library’s database for the authors in the HuffPost piece, but none of them had books in the electronic database.)

    • If you like thrillers, try Tana French. She’s the best author I’ve discovered in years. Or Chelsea Cain – her series of “Heart” books (starting with Heartsick is more or less about a female Hannibal Lecter. If you’re more literary, try Edna O’Brien – her book The Light of Evening is so incredible it almost made me give up writing in despair that I’d never write anything so good. Moms and daughters. Rich, rich stuff.

      • Maggs says:

        I love Tana French! I’ve read all of her books. Faithful Place is the best. Broken Harbor is the worst. I will put Edna O’Brien on my list. Thank you!

    • Neurite says:

      It can get a bit cutesy at times, but I found Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” to be worth a read. It’s especially interesting to see what didn’t make it into the movie. (To wit: a) the fact that Idgie and Ruth aren’t “just friends” is quite a bit more explicit in the book, and b) the movie apparently dealt with the problem that there was wayyy too much story to fit into a movie by going “I know! We’ll just cut out the stories of all the black characters!”)

      “Pigs In Heaven” by Barbara Kingsolver was also quite interesting and thought-provoking. I kinda wish I had known it was a sequel, though – I haven’t read “The Bean Trees” yet and figure I might have been less confused by “Pigs In Heaven” at first if I had.

      It may not be the most highbrow, but I also enjoyed/was thoroughly spooked by Ruth Rendell’s “The Crocodile Bird”.

      If you don’t mind reading teen/young adult stuff, I adored Tamora Pierce’s “Song of the Lioness” books as a kid, and have recently started reading up on her later series and find that I still enjoy them as an adult.

      And of course there’s always one of my very favorite books, “To Kill A Mockingbird”… but I figure most of the commenters here are US Americans who already read it in high school.

      • keelyellenmarie says:

        Seconding Tamora Pierce and Barbara Kingsolver, though my favorite book by the latter is The Poisonwood Bible.

      • Maggs says:

        I didn’t think “Friend Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” was cutsie at all. That book was rough and so was the movie. I love both.

        I read a synopsis of The Bean Trees. That sounds right up my alley. Sounded like there was a touch of Louise Erdrich in there.

        Highbrow, shmighbrow – finding pleasure in any kind of book is a miracle. We’re all entitled to a some escapism. YA books have been hit and miss for me. I’ll give Pierce a go.

        Thank you, Neurite.

      • tottwriter says:

        I can also thoroughly recommend Tamora Pierce – I have a whole shelf of her books. If Song of the Lioness comes off as a bit raw for you (it was her first series published) try some of the latter books, where her writing style has come more into its own.

        I tend to read a lot of YA, and some successes I can think of include Mary Hofman’s “Stravaganza” series, anything by Diana Wynee-Jones, Sylvia Waugh’s “The Mennyms” series, and Joan Aiken’s books.

        For crime, there’s Elizabeth Haynes’ books, starting with “Into the Darkest Corner”.

      • tottwriter says:

        (Ack, double posting, but my laptop’s sticky keys has made me typo two names in that reply! It’s Mary Hoffman and Diana Wynne-Jones!

    • Jordiebelle says:

      Hmmm, squinting at my bookshelf from across the room as I breastfeed in the middle of the night: Claire Corbett, Octavia E Butler, Susanna Clarke, Lois McMaster Bujold, Hillary Mantel, Paullina Symons (or is it Symonds?), Lionel Shriver, Ursula LeGuin… My tastes obviously skew heavily to science fiction but there’s some other stuff in there too. Interesting thinking about this list, almost all the named authors do stuff with/about gender, mothering, ability, identity, in ways I haven’t seen done by male authors.
      I didn’t include JK Rowling because I assumed you would know her already!

      • Maggs says:

        I have not heard of any of those authors. New found treasures, I’m sure. Thank you for squinting!

      • Lindsay says:

        For sci-fi books I just started reading The Retrieval Artist series by Kristine Rusch. I was actually thinking about Bechdel while I was reading it yesterday and it passes with flying colors. The main character of the series is still male, but there are so many central female characters, and a score of female minor characters as well.

    • elledconyers says:

      Anne Bishop does fun things with male vs female in the Black Jewels Trilogy. Jacquline (sp?) Cary, Anne McCaffery, Mercedes Lackey, The Outlander series (Sorry, forgot her name.)

  18. I was just thinking about the Bechdel Test yesterday whilst marathoning MST3K. A very sexist and very rascist 1940s movie called ‘Jungle Goddess’. It passed the test in the very first scene with the female lead. But during the escape scene, she immediately twisted her ankle, despite having lived in the jungle for 6 years. Thus, the male was able to ‘save’ her again.

    And do you know what else passes the test? Most lesbian porn. I wouldn’t call those very feminist.

    • Neurite says:

      Oh I dunno. My stacks of “On Our Backs” magazines are pretty darn feminist IMHO. But granted, most mainstream “girl-on-girl” porn – yeah, I can see how most of that’s far from feminist.

  19. Sarah says:

    My average day does not pass the Bechdel test.

  20. Lindsay says:

    I really wish there were a few more mainstream tests than just Bechdel. One thing I have noticed in a lot of the comments is the idea of the standard being applied to books/movies out there over all, and should not be focused on any individual work. I found it really intriguing that someone compared it to the BMI test.

    I think the problem with this concept of a broader lens is that it can lead to a sense of diffusion of responsibility. If everyone is convinced that the test just won’t work with the story that they have set up, then of course still 90% of the stories are going to fail, because everyone feels like they don’t want to shoehorn in random characters to make their personal vision of the story work.

    On the other hand, I completely agree that shoehorning is terrible and people shouldn’t change their story just for a single-standard test. Which is why I think there should be more tests out there. Ie, if the Bechdel test fails, maybe a test for character development among females, etc.

    One interesting trend I have noticed these days is that TV shows are way more successful at passing this test than movies. There are a lot of shows out there these days (or at least the ones I end up following, I guess), that have an interesting and diverse set of female characters. Once Upon a Time, American Horror Story, either of the Avatar series, and for anyone who has kids out there, My Little Pony has some of the most diverse female characters I’ve seen. Whereas movies are still in more of a rut (though I think I mentioned before Gravity is amazing and everyone should see it). Interestingly, I believe I the percent of women who watch TV is way higher than men and vice versa.

  21. Martina says:

    This is probably going to make it painfully obvious that I don’t follow the media and public discourse as much as I should, but… seriously? People are using the Bechdel test to determine whether a piece of fiction is “feminist”? I thought it was obvious that it too lacking in nuance for that. I mean, like you say, it makes a great point, but that’s where it stops.

    …I don’t know what to say to this. “Thanks for the reminder that I need to get out of my little bubble more often”, I guess.

  22. Ann says:

    While I get your point, I don’t think it’s necessarily *totally* spot-on. (Will comment more later. Basically, wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a culture where we could pick and choose amongst which female-friendly works passed the Bechdel test?) And I love it. This whole post just makes me happy. I don’t know a single person in my real life who has ever heard of the Bechdel test. All of my friends are educated liberals, nontheless, and I still get looks of confusion if I bring it up. I LOVE that so many people here have not only heard of it, but have strong feelings about it.

    Thanks, guys. Carry on.

    • Jordiebelle says:

      Yes! I brought it up with my book group just last week to general gazes of incomprehension, but everyone got very enthusiastic about the idea as we discussed it.
      I don’t know about the rest of you but I feel like reading Jenny’s blog is making me a stronger/more self aware feminist. :-)

  23. Amber says:

    There we go. When I first heard about the Bechdel test (on TV Tropes, ha) I knew something about it struck a wrongness chord with me but I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like it.

    I haven’t passed the test myself since high school. It doesn’t help I work in a male dominated industry.

  24. Holly says:

    While BMI is a shitty and outdated tool in a whole bunch of ways, one common complaint is that it was intended to measure populations, but people keep trying to apply it to individuals.

    This is how I look at the Bechdel test. Some awesome things fail it. Some terrible things pass it. It’s not a good tool for measuring individual movies, shows or books. It doesn’t tell you much about the particular piece in question when used that way. However, it is a VERY interesting tool when used to look at media as a whole, or sub-populations of it, such as particular genres. Then you start to realize that while good, feminist movies can have very few female characters, or shitty movies can have lots of them, deep and nuanced portrayals of women are lacking media-wide.

  25. Jenny, this is another completely off topic comment, but I just wanted to say I’d read a few chapters of The Boss online, then bought both books for my Kindle and I’ve not slept much for reading through them in less than 24 hours. The main reason I’m writing, though, is to thank you for introducing me to Sigur Ros. Unbe-fucking-lievable! (Feist, too, but not on the same level as SR). Oh, and the books were good, too…some real laugh out loud moments, especially when Sophie first meets Emma. I humbly bow at your feet, woman.

  26. KathleenCat says:

    Notice also in that cartoon, the way the men on the movie posters are holding their weapons. So, it’s also a commentary on the symbolism of weapons.

  27. Peter Tupper says:

    To take an extreme case, the anime series Queen’s Blade passes the Bechdel test. It’s about women fighting in a tournament to become the ruler of a fantasy nation, and it’s mostly about the women’s missions, goals, and relationships. The few male characters are pretty peripheral.

    It’s also pretty much wall-to-wall T&A, catfighting, implied lesbian incest, battle damage represented by ripped clothing, etc.

    Queen’s Blade also passes the less well-known Woman Wearing a Live Snake as a Thong test.

  28. […] I would not be writing about this topic that Jenny Trout so wonderfully covered a little over a week ago if it weren’t for Sweden’s plan to emphasize the movies that […]

  29. Shadow Knight says:

    IMO there’s nothing wrong with the Bechdel test itself, but with the idea that feminism is an easily definable trait with a box that you can check off and call it a day. This reductionistic idea is not only ludicrous, but plays into the hand of people who want to discredit feminism. To reduce everything to a litmus test (Including the very question of “Is this feminist or not?”) is a pit trap many people fall into.

  30. […] news lately. Apparently Sweden is adding it to their ratings system and also I’ve read posts here and there and I just want to emphasize that it is the view of this blogger that the Bechdel test is […]

  31. Kitten says:

    Shoehorning people in to try to claim that their work is “totally not ___” is what led to the “token black guy” thing, didn’t it? Where pieces of media threw in a character of some color just to have them there for five minutes?

    As others have said, I think the test is a very simple way of exploring a much more open and complex topic: whether or not female characters are truly characters or accessories to the men. This can be applied in a range of different ways to different characters, including whether someone is the “token” or not, etc.

  32. […] The Bechdel Test: It's not that easy for films to pass Criteria: 1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it 2. Who talk to each other 3. About something besides a man The Bechdel Test is, to me, something worth considering when judging movies. However, I agree with this author below that fiction is not a one-size-fits-all experience, and there are nuances that such a test can't allow for: The Bechdel Test, and Why Passing It Isn't As Crucial As You May Believe […]

  33. Hanna Zanina says:

    “Because her love interest is the most important thing in her life” – here’s the problem! It’s a lie for almost any woman (except for, maybe, a few days of her life, okay). But it’s a lie men want women to believe – that they’re the most important thing.

  34. Eve says:

    You dumbass, (sorry), the Bechdel test is NOT supposed to signify whether the movie/book/whatever is “feminist” or not. It’s just a signifier of the inability of men to portray women in a realistic manner and not as an literary/plot tool. HELLO

Oh mah glob, leave a comment if you feel like. Or talk about how awesome Adventure Time is. I love that show.

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