How Useful is the Bechdel Test in Writing?

For those who may not be familiar with it, the Bechdel Test is a gauge of whether a work of fiction features independent female characters. The requirements are that there must be two women who have at least one conversation together in which they don’t talk about a man. The idea is that women should be able to have meaningful conversations with each other (and not just with male characters) discussing something besides “guys.”

It’s a logical standard for real life, as women should have female friends and should talk about more than just their relationships with their boyfriends, husbands, brothers, sons, etc. But what exactly does this look like in fiction?

Well, here are some books that would pass the test:

Little Women

Anne of Green Gables

Middlemarch

Northanger Abbey

And here are some books that would fail:

The Lord of the Rings (and the movies would equally fail)

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Throne of Glass (women do talk, but as near as I can recall, they talk about stuff that is related to men–the contest, politics, etc.)

Divergent (I remember the girls talking, but the conversations quickly included men, either in topic or in the dialogue itself)

But the funny thing is, what makes the first group of books pass are conversations about books, fashions, jewelry, and birthday gifts. It’s not because the women are more strong, powerful, and independent than those in the second group (in fact, I think Eowyn, Lucy, Celaena, and Tris would be far more resilient than Anne, Amy, Dorothea, or Catherine). It’s because the pacing allows for somewhat trivial conversations, for discussions about things that aren’t central to the plot. And when you have enough time, you will hit topics that don’t involve men, just as men will eventually talk about something that doesn’t involve a woman (even if women are running things in the country, I’m sure they’d move on to something else eventually).

So what could two women talk about? What can any two characters talk about, male or female?

  • Fashion
  • Relationships (and to pass the Bechdel test, it’d have to be about mothers, sisters, and daughters)
  • Politics (but men would have to not be in power, trying to get into power, or causing any trouble anywhere, even as the villains…at which point, would you have a very believable story? Because even if women are running things, there’d surely be a man, somewhere, who’s trying to do something, as a friend and ally or a troublemaker)
  • Religion and Philosophy (but again, unless this is literary fiction or a story with a slower pace, how is this going to pertain to the plot?)
  • The Weather (but this is a clichéd no-no, in general, as who wants to read about that for pages on end?)
  • Finances (but again, like politics, chances are men are involved in some way, even in a world run by women)

So basically, the Bechdel tests asks authors to either slow down the plot to include real life conversations about periphery things, or it requires women and the world of the story to be exclusive to where there are no men doing anything important, significant, or interesting. And while I’m all for strong female characters who are interesting, capable, and multi-faceted, I don’t think changing things to where men are left on the fringe and everything about women is the answer.

I think we should strive, not for “Female-focused Fiction” but for balanced work that yes, does have at least two named women in the book, and does have those women involved in conversations that are vital to the book–where they aren’t just sounding boards for the men but provide valuable insight and contributions of their own.

But then, I think we should leave our female characters free to interact with men and women both, to carve out their path in life without having to drag in very specific topics into conversation just to show their independence. Because honestly, isn’t “I can’t talk about men or it’ll show that I’m not independent” just another cage to put our female characters in? Shouldn’t they be free to talk about whatever they want as the plot and their character arc allows?

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by hotblack, Creative Commons

12 thoughts on “How Useful is the Bechdel Test in Writing?

  1. I suspect that over 95% of the reading public (including myself) has never heard of the Bechdel test before and would find it extremely unhelpful in choosing a book to read.

    Perhaps a “Modest Proposal” would help. Shouldn’t there be some sort of Bechdel corollary which states that books where the male characters talk to or about women are anti-male and not masculine enough?

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    1. That’s a good point. If men were judged by the same standards, though, they would pass just because so often, the antagonist is male, the persons in the government are male, and there are so many “male” religions, at least in how people talk about them. Which is why I think they came up with the Bechdel test, but I think a new version that isn’t based on gender in either direction would be helpful, Joel. Maybe someday, you could come up with one for your blog? 🙂

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  2. Like Joel above, I have not heard of the Bechdel-Wallace test (as Bechdel prefers to call it) either. But I do find it intriguing as I write my first novel about a young American unconventional horsewoman in the early 1900s. I realize I have the protagonist interacting with her host in Calcutta, an Indian woman, friend, and mentor on many topics. They vary from Christianity, Quakerism, and Hinduism; to social mores expressed in erotic art; from the ascendency of women through education to the psychological foundations of the agency of women to chart their own adventures. Glad to know my novel passes with flying colors. Thanks for introducing me to the concept, Andrea!

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      1. Hello!
        Re the Bechdel test in writing.
        This test is an interesting suggestion, but is it useful in influencing book quality or popularity? Has a study been done indicating whether to be Bpos or Bneg influences a book’s critical acclaim and\or commercial success?
        I wrote a book recently and it has substantive episodes dependent on woman to woman interaction as well as man to man and woman to man interactions. I did not plan that; it was just a part of the natural progression of the story. This seems to be true of quite a few recent books I have read – even bestsellers.

        Regards! John Coffey
        Author of Sylvia Myer MD

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      2. A good point! And I like how to worded it–Bechdel-positive or Bechdel-negative. I think it does need to be a natural part of the story rather than something added per any kind of checklist, but personally, I think the test is flawed as a means of measuring independence in female character, since it doesn’t take plot or genre requirements into consideration.

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  3. Great article, one, for me that exemplifies the good that has come out of TBT. You probably know this already, but TBT started out as simply as a cartoon intended to be humorous and make a point, not as a completely thought out philosophical position. The punch line was that the last film the character saw that passed the test was Aliens, but it gave people pause to realize just how few films pass. So it’s a good starting point, but as you’ve pointed out, not necessarily the be-all, end-all of a feminist approach to books or movies or whatever. Anyway, I really liked your article. Thanks.

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