The Bechdel(-Wallace) Test "Pretty strict, but a good idea."

Defying the stereotype that “women’s movie ideas aren’t commercial enough for Hollywood,” Wonder Woman, with a female lead (Gal Gadot) and a female director (Patti Jenkins), may be this summer’s great hit movie, grossing nearly $800 million worldwide as of August 8th. There’s even talk about a massive Oscars campaign, the likes of which no comic book movie has ever seen. Wonder Woman’s success is shocking on a variety of levels, not least when you compare its reception to last year’s Ghostbusters remake, or this summer’s revelation that Jodie Whittaker has been cast as the first woman to play the Doctor on Doctor Who.

How do we go about questioning the media we consume, particularly representations of non-white, non-male characters? There’s a laundry list of rubrics and theories, and for now, I’m going to look at the OG rule. You might have heard of it: the Bechdel Test.

Gender representation in the media is a hot-button subject – ask Anita Sarkeesian, the games reporter at the centre of ‘Gamergate’, or the actress and comedian Leslie Jones, who was hounded with racist abuse on Twitter by Milo Yiannopoulos and his trolls. Even with these negative moments, the results of equal and diverse representation in the media are overwhelmingly positive. Actor and comedian Whoopi Goldberg reports being inspired to be an actor, when as a little girl she saw Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. Whoopi said she ran screaming through her house to tell her mother, “There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!”

It’s an incredible thing to see yourself reflected in your heroes, and to resonate with the stories that are worth telling. For every snide review that described Hermione Granger as a bossy nightmare, there were many children reading the Harry Potter books, learning that girls can be driven, bookish and uncompromising. For each whine into the abyss that is The Internet Comments Section that ‘the BBC have gone and done it now with this PC bollocks, ruining everything, I’m done’, there are little girls who feel that they can be the Doctor now, not just a Companion.

How do we go about questioning the media we consume, particularly representations of non-white, non-male characters? There’s a laundry list of rubrics and theories, and for now, I’m going to look at the OG rule. You might have heard of it: the Bechdel Test.

What is the Bechdel Test, and why should you care?  Back in 1985, when those acid-washed mom jeans you love so much were ‘in’ for the first time, American lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel was writing her amazing and seminal work Dykes to Watch Out For. (Do yourself a favour and look it up.) One of her strips, inspired by a discussion with her friend, Liz Wallace, and the writings of Virginia Woolf, debuted the earliest version of the Bechdel Test: ‘The Rule’.

© Alison Bechdel, Dykes to Watch Out For


One: “Well,… I dunno.  I have this rule, see. I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it. Who, two, talk to each other, about, three, something besides a man.”

Two: “Pretty strict, but a good idea.”  

The requirements of ‘the Rule’ seem shockingly low, but even now, 32 years later, only half of all films meet them. And they are not the sole rubric by which to declare a work feminist: it is possible for a work to pass the Bechdel test and remain problematically sexist or devoid of real representation. American Pie 2 features two women talking about clothes and so technically passes, and The Karate Kid (1984) has a brief exchange between Daniel-san’s mother and girlfriend about starting a car, which is enough for a pass. Similarly, there are other works with prominent female characters with great agency and independent arcs that still fail. Mako Mori, the main female character in Pacific Rim, is the trope-namer for another Rule, but Pacific Rim itself still fails the Bechdel test due to ‘Smurfette Syndrome’. On the other end of the scale, in a narrative entirely built around female characters, Sex and the City lampshades its own Bechdel Rule failures on numerous occasions. Miranda boggles in season two, “How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?”

Over time, what was once known as ‘the Rule’ gained traction through academic critiques, and in the 2010s has moved into mainstream media discussion as a benchmark now referred to as ‘The Bechdel Test’ (although Alison Bechdel herself has stated that she prefers the test to be titled ‘The Bechdel-Wallace Test’). There are variations requiring that the women be named characters, or stipulations about the length of the conversation, but overall, The Bechdel Test has remained fairly simple and has come to be a bit of a shorthand as to whether or not a film is ‘woman-friendly’. (If you’re asking why you should care if a film is ‘woman-friendly’, congratulations on your white penis.)

In an interview, Alison Bechdel once noted that, “The secret subversive goal of my work is to show that women, not just lesbians, are regular human beings.” We need to see ourselves in the stories we tell. We need to be heroes and villains and epic and small and all the things that it’s unremarkable for male characters to be. Because Harry Potter, Batman, Achilles, Stephen Dedalus, Tom Sawyer are only a fraction of the story to be told.


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