What do women talk about when they’re alone? (Or how the Bechdel Test terrifies me)

The Bechdel test, which is probably familiar to quite a lot of you, especially those who actively fight against sexism in media, is a simple test that is terrifying in its results. It can be used to evaluate all fiction, but is most readily used to analyse films as that was the original joke in the comic strip it originated in. The test is as follows:

Does your film have:

  • More than one woman?
  • If so do these women talk to each other?
  • And do they talk about anything other than the male characters in the film?

It originally appeared in the comic included below.

Dykes to Watch out For, Alison Bechdel, 1985


If your answer to any of the above is no, congratulations! Your film has officially failed the Bechdel test and, theoretically, is at least a little sexist. Now, to people who are reading about this test for the first time, look over your favourite films and try to figure out whether they pass this test, because there’s a pretty good chance they don’t. I’ll give you some of my favourites which don’t.

  • All of the original Star Wars trilogy
  • The Whole Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • Almost every Marvel film
  • The Godfather
  • Schindler’s List
  • One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • E.T.
  • Jaws
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This rule points out a very real, and very important, problem in the film industry. Women simply don’t have enough representation as major characters in stories, and when they are included are included for the purposes of either moving the plot forward or as an object of desire for ‘more important characters’. This simply isn’t healthy for society, especially a society so saturated with entertainment of this nature. Over 50% of the population is women, and these are fully realised, 3-D people with ambitions, likes, dislikes, fears and dreams, and too few films show this.

Out of the list above, the fact that none of my favourite trilogies have any real female interaction, and that some don’t even have female characters with depth (I’m looking at you Mary Jane, Pepper Pots, that girl in Thor and pretty much all the marvel girls) scares me. What scares me the most is that I don’t understand why. I don’t understand why superheroes, who are all about looking as average, nerdy or weak as you can be, or alternatively as strong, suave and impressive as you can, but having hidden powers inside, relegates women to almost purely romantic roles. These are films where it would be really easy to have an equitable number of female characters, as the fact that many of the characters are male has absolutely no connection to the plot.

For example, let’s take The Avengers as our starting point. Let’s see about changing the gender of some of the characters. You can’t change Thor, because he’s a mythological figure. You know, apart from the fact that he’s supposed to have red hair. Okay. How about Captain America? Admittedly his character comes from a time when women weren’t really allowed in the military, so let’s leave him alone too. However, there is no problem with switching Iron Man’s gender,there’s no reason he can’t be a genius, playgirl, philanthropist with a kickass robot suit. It’s the same deal with the Hulk and Hawkeye since neither of their powers (being a bad scientist and archery) are inherently male qualities. Finally let’s decide to keep Hulk male because he’s losing his shirt a whole lot, and we want kids to watch this film. We now have 3 male superheroes and 3 female superheroes. Now, after changing the genders, don’t change any lines in the film. Is it the same film? You’re damn right it is. Well no, it’s more representative, and finally passes the Bechdel Test, but the plot hasn’t taken any hits, no changes have had to be made, and the story is just as believable.

However, this isn’t to say that the Bechdel Test is completely fair, accurate, or that it definitely should be passed. In fact, it shouldn’t be a priority for any filmmaker. It should simply be the natural conclusion of having female characters in a story that should have female characters. Furthermore, films that don’t pass it should not be blindly judged for this. For example, one of my favourite films of all time, and one that is guaranteed to make me tear up, is Shawshank Redemption, a brilliant example of how a film can be timelessly great to watch for anyone. Completely fails the Bechdel test though. There’s one female character in it, and she has about one line directed at a male character. This doesn’t make this particular film sexist though. There is absolutely no reason to include two female characters talking in a film entirely focused on the male prison system. Gravity also fails the Bechdel Test, though the main character is female, and this is because the film is about isolation in space, not because it doesn’t respect its female character.

In fact, in my opinion the most important part of the Bechdel Test is the third question: ‘Do they talk about anything other than the male characters?’. This is so important, because if this happens in a film, it displays such a lazy approach to writing female characters, and one of the most offensive ways to write female characters, as plot devices with no real depth or personality. If two female characters only talk about the male characters in a film, it means the only reason for that scene is to move the plot forwards while showing how interested the female characters are in the male characters. It also falls into the common trap of writing women in a plot first manner. This means to include a female character to affect the plot, and write their personality as an almost secondary consideration, so that the main feature of the female character is that they’re female, not anything else about their personality. So many screenwriters write female characters from the perspective of the main character, as ancillary features in that character’s adventure, which means they can only ever be shallow  creations, with no real depth, because they aren’t fully realised characters. They rely on the main character to give them their meaning, their purpose, and the describe their personality, which is just bad writing. Any writer should aim to create characters with more than one dimension, and by making the most important part of a female character their relationship with a male character it becomes very hard to do this.

To sum this up, I feel that female characters tend to be written with the idea that male viewers will be watching, so what will impress those viewers is the most important consideration, which leads to weak characters. I think the Bechdel Test shows this because I think, more than anything, writers feel that men want women to talk about them while they’re away, rather than actually thinking it’s what that character would talk about.

I guess what I’m trying to say, albeit in a long and convoluted way, is that I want to see an attitudinal shift in movies, where including women isn’t necessary to make a film, but if you do include a female character, you do it right. It should not be done so a film merely has a ‘token woman’, so that there is something for male viewers to fantasise about, but so that a film has a good cast of diverse characters for people to relate to. If two females characters are left alone in a room to talk, they should have enough depth to their characters that there should be something for them to talk to relevant to the plot other than who they fancy, and why they do. Even in Rom-Coms. Especially in Rom-Coms.

To anyone making films out there, I leave you with a question. Does your film pass the Bechdel Test? If not, ask yourself whether it should, it shouldn’t take long to have an answer.

I wrote this while listening to: World Music by Goat

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