The Bechdel Test

Today, March the 8th, is the International Women’s Day. A day that significe the fight for equal rights for women all over the world. A fight that is still happening and is still needed in this day and age.

Even in the film and television world, women still have a long road ahead. Whether it is in front of the camera or behind. (I’m still disappointed that Greta Gerwig wasn’t nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, but that is another conversation 😉 ).

Let us zoom in on the female characters in films. This brings us to the Bechdel Test

What is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel test is an informal test that looks at the role (and quality of that role) women have in a film, and in fiction in general. 

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel came up with a test in one of her cartoons. It was based on a conversation she had with her friend Liz Wallace (hence this test is sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace Test) when talking about the essay “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf. (A very interesting essay btw, that discusses the position of female writers in the man-dominated world of literary writing).

In the Cartoon, one of the characters is saying that she only wants to see films if it has the following conditions:

  1. There have to be at least two women (with a name!),
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. but not about a (relationship with a) man.

Looks easy, right? At least one scene, in a whole work of fiction where two women are talking but not about a man. It must be the easiest test to pass, not?

Sadly, a lot of films don’t reach this low-bar. 

But does this mean that every film that doesn’t pass this test, is a sexist film? No. It is a lot more nuanced. 

For example, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope doesn’t pass the test. (No two female characters talk to each other) But one cannot claim that Leia is not a strong character. On the contrary. Both back in the day when it hit theatres as now, Leia is considered a strong role model.

The same with the more recent film Gravity (2013). Oscar Winner Sandra Bullock’s character is the lead of the film; it is about her survival in space and her journey home. But it does not pass the Bechdel test.

And even if a film does pass this test, it doesn’t mean it isn’t sexist: Sin City is highly misogynistic and most female characters are in service of the male personas, but it does pass the test. 

Still a man’s world

The Bechdel Test doesn’t say anything about the quality of a work of fiction, nor does it say if it contains feminist content. To be fair, I believe that it isn’t the main goal either.

What the Bechdel test does highlight is gender inequality. It should make us think about the role women play in films, about the depth of character they have in stories, how they contribute (or don’t contribute) to the plot. 

But the film world is still a world of men. Most films are made by men (and yes, there are a lot of female directors, but they aren’t given the same chances or don’t get the same budget as their male counterparts). Most films are also dominated with more male characters than female characters. One only has to look at the nomination list of the 2020 Oscars: 1917; Once upon a Time… In Hollywood; Ford v Ferrari; Joker; The Irishman, all these films are male-character dominated.

It is 2020. The film world can and should do better. Make it more equal. Representation matters. This is why the Bechdel Test is still relevant, why it is still needed. In this day and age, every new film should at least pass this low-bar test. 

© Picture: Pixabay


Nathalie a.k.a. Sevenorora is a Fine Art Photography student and a "Cinema & Visual Culture Dork", living in Lier, Belgium.

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