What is the Bechdel Test?

by JoHarrington

Three questions are asked of each movie. They are so simple that it would be harder to fail than pass. They examine the role of females in that film. Nearly half fail.

Scroll to the end of any movie review that I've completed on Wizzley, and you will find the Bechdel Test assessment.

It began as a personal interest. I'd recently read about it and I wanted to see for myself. Was the Feminist outlook on Hollywood really as dire as they say?

The further I've gone, the more I've confirmed that it is. Even movies which appear on the surface to be filled with strong, female characters barely scrape a pass. Many more fail outright.

The Three Questions of the Bechdel Test

This should be so easy to pass. Three little questions that take some neglect to fail.

In order to pass the Bechdel Test, a movie has to meet these criteria:

  1. It has two or more named females;
  2. Those female characters have to have a discussion with each other...
  3. .... about something other than a male.

It doesn't even dictate the content of those discussions, other than it can't be about men nor boys.  It could be about housework or doing their nails, as long as it's a conversation in which males do not feature.

This latter is one of the prevailing criticisms of the Bechdel Test, as a measure of Feminist principles.  It targets female representation, rather than promoting a message of strong femininity.  Yet that should not deny its usefulness within those limitations.

The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies

In 2009, Anita Sarkeesian explained The Rule and ran through a few movies which don't pass muster.

Books about Women in Movies | Feminist Views on Hollywood

Buy these studies to delve into the issue in more depth. Discover the subtle messages that are being conveyed to males and females in theaters.
Feminism and Pop Culture: Seal StudiesFrom Reverence to Rape: The Treatment...Feminism at the Movies: Understanding...

Women in the Americas Now Accept Taxation Without Representation

At least they do in the theaters, if we count the admission ticket as being 'taxation'.

Every year, the Motion Picture Association of America release their figures.  In amongst all of the box office financial statistics comes the demographic information.

In 2011, the most recent figures to hand, it was 50/50 as to whether tickets were sold to men or women.  But more females actually watched a movie at the theater.  51% of the theater audiences, in the USA and Canada, were female. 

It was a trend which had begun the previous year, when the ladies just nudged ahead. Before that, the 50/50 composition had held true for a few years.  Yet the prevailing ethos is still that more males watch movies than females.  It's just not a logic borne out in fact.

This means that over half of Hollywood's profits is being provided by female customers, who don't worry about the under-representation highlighted by the Bechdel Test.

Yet is that a fair comment?  After all, not every film has been subjected to the questions. Yet some of the biggest, most modern ones most definitely have; and they've failed.

How Many Movies Fail the Bechdel Test?

Currently nearly half of the films subjected to these questions failed outright. Many more just scraped through.

As more people become aware of the Bechdel Test, many unofficial lists are kept.  Most are just like my reviews here on Wizzley.  They don't make it onto a database anywhere.

But there is one site which aims to collect all of the data in one place.  The Bechdel Test Movie List invites members of the public to judge each movie that they watch, then submit their conclusions onto a central list.

Currently 53% of those examined passed the Bechdel Test.  That means that, in this day and age of supposed gender equality, when 51% of theater-goers are women, 47% of all movies leave them under-represented.

However, the statistics are constantly changing, as more films are tested and added there.  To avoid subjectivity in dubious cases (for example, does a conversation about God count as being about a male or not?), each film is open to peer review.  Where the comments indicate contention, then a 'pass, but dubious' classification has been introduced.

What Are Your Views on the Bechdel Test?

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It's not useful because...
Ember on 09/27/2012


... lol

Ember on 09/27/2012

While it provides interesting commentary, it doesn't phase Hollywood or movie goers. It exists, but is recognized by very few as a bench mark of quality in a movie, of any sort. Passing or failing this test isn't a driving force for opinions on whether a movie is worth seeing.

It's useful because...
Kate on 09/28/2012

Desire the limitations you mention here it opens peoples eyes to how we are still subjected to chronic sexism in the mass media.

Ember on 09/27/2012

It provides an interesting commentary on society and women. How far have we really come? What does this movie teach young girls, however subtly, about their limitations in society and life. Or their dependence on men even if they are a strong and take on leadership.

The History of the Bechdel Test

Bechdel Test, Mo Movie Measure, Bechdel/Wallace Test or The Rule? It's been known by all of those names, as well as the Dykes to Watch Out For Rule.

Alison Bechdel wasn't setting out to change Feminist theater-going habits.  But she did it anyway.

She was actually creating content for her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF), which ran from 1983-2008.  It was serialized in The Funny Times, as well as many gay and lesbian periodicals, such as The Lesbian Connection.

DTWOF, at times, could read like a bit of a soap opera, but it also delivered a sharp commentary upon real world happenings.  Its characters attended contemporary Gay Pride marches and other events, or discussed current politics.  Their particular interest was in anything that affected lesbians, though it could sometimes branch out too.

It was within this context that a Feminist character, in 1985, declined a trip to the theater. She claimed that she only watched films where two women discussed something other than men.

This was the embryonic Bechdel Test launched into the public sphere. Alison Bechdel had obviously - and unwittingly - touched the prevailing zeitgeist. But she had no idea, at the time, of the popularity and longevity of that comic strip and its rules.

Catch Up with the Dykes to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel's long-running saga of a lesbian community in a US city is definitely worth the read.
More Dykes to Watch Out forThe Essential Dykes to Watch Out ForInvasion of the Dykes to Watch Out For

By 2005, Alison Bechdel was under no illusions about the power of that movie test. It had started to take on a life of its own, reproduced under a variety of names.

One of the most pervasive was the Mo Movie Measure.  Mo was one of the earliest and most popular protagonists in DTWOF.  With readers reaching back into shady memories, it seemed to them that it was Mo who came up with The Rule. 

It wasn't.  The character who said it was actually unnamed. Mo hadn't even entered the series yet.  Nevertheless, the misattribution stood and the Mo Movie Measure is the name by which many commentators refer to it.

Alison Bechdel had a confession to make. She hadn't conceived of The Rule.  She'd just included it in her comic strip.

Her friend, and karate training partner, Liz Wallace had been the one to come up with the criteria. Bechdel gave a nod to her by adding a sign above the marquee in the background. The Wallace Marquee, it read, a private joke between friends.  Neither of them knew it would become so big! 

Some writers immediately altered their references, so that The Rule (as it had been known in the comic strip) was renamed the Bechdel/Wallace Rule.  Some changed it entirely to The Wallace Rule.

Meanwhile, there was one more element to be added in.  Ampersand, writing in Alas! A Blog, publicized the test, but misremembered the first part.  She thought that the two woman had to be named, though the original had merely said that there were two female characters.

In apologizing for the Chinese Whispers type error, she also let slip that she was the person who'd mistakenly attributed The Rule to Mo in the first place!

It didn't matter in the long run.  The most popular version of The Rule now reads as Ampersand reported it, with The Bechdel Test becoming its most commonly used moniker.

The Oscars and The Bechdel Test

In 2012, Anita Sarkeesian checked back to see how movies nominated for the 2011 Oscars fared with The Rule.

Some Movies Which Passed the Bechdel Test

I've not gone for any of the contentious ones here. They're only listed if they passed with flying colors.
Snow White and the Huntsman (Extended...Kung Fu Panda 2Resident Evil: Retribution
The HelpThe SmurfsParanormal Activity 3
Updated: 09/29/2012, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/13/2013

Thank you very much.

You've got me thinking now about where I first heard about it. I really can't remember. If I had to guess, then I'd say it was about 20 years ago at Uni. My best friend got her degree in Women's Studies.

cmoneyspinner on 05/13/2013

This is so cool! Never heard of this test. Where do you find all of this cool stuff to write about? I shared this via Google+.

JoHarrington on 09/29/2012

True story.

Win! Thank you very much. I hope I'll do it justice.

Ember on 09/29/2012

Then again your two main characters do belong to an oppressed minority group...

Nope, all yours! Go for it :)

JoHarrington on 09/29/2012

I hope my novels pass, but there's a couple that I'm dubious about because of where they're set. Oh dear...

That is a brilliant idea for an article. Are you going to write it? Because if not, I'm so nicking it!

Ember on 09/28/2012

Neat! I thought of this and came to ask it, and then it had already been asked xD

I wonder how your novels stack up :o

Do books in general do better than movies? Wow, I would love to see a side-by-side comparison of books turned to movies, if the book has passed the Bechdel test and see if the movie then still passes it...if that makes sense.

JoHarrington on 09/28/2012

Yes, it can. I've seen it applied that way too. In fact, Good Reads has a whole shelf devoted to books that pass the Bechdel Test: http://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/b...

Sam on 09/28/2012

Actually, the same test could be used for judging books also, couldn't it?

JoHarrington on 09/27/2012

Never say never. :) And I look forward to your forthcoming movie review of Benny and Joon, complete with Bechdel Test assessment. :p

Ember on 09/27/2012

One of my all time favorite movies is Benny and Joon (because 1. Johnny Depp and 2. Literally one of the most awwwwwwkward yet adorable romantic comedies in existence.) I don't think that it passes, going off of memory, but I'll have to watch and find out!

I'm probably never going to have another romantic comedy that I'll say i liked too much, or say was an amazing movie, though, so it's funny that one has made it into my top five favorite movies xD

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