Edited by Jai Kalra
In 1985, Alison Bechdel didn’t know she was about to create a wildly popular litmus test of sorts. She wrote a strip about two characters talking about a method of defining a movie as feminist or sexist in her comic ‘Dykes to Watch Out For.’ This little gag soon came to be known as the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel test has three conditions: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.
This test blew up. In 2013, Sweden used the Bechdel Test as an actual system of rating for the movies screened in the country, so citizens could decide whether they wanted to watch a feminist movie or not. The standard is used in industry revenue analysis (showing that passing films outperform failing ones), in annual Oscar wrap-ups, and it’s one of many checkbox criteria on screenplay database The Black List. In Doctor Who, it’s been analysed that more episodes written by Russell T. Davies pass the test than the episodes written by Steven Moffat.
What makes this test so popular is the sheer amount of content that fails this test. It showcases beloved blockbusters in a different light, an exclusive light that seems to ignore the value of women as subjects, not objects. The original Star Wars trilogy, Run Lola Run, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II and Pacific Rim are all movies that fail this test.
Despite being a household term at this point, whenever the Bechdel Test is brought up it immediately receives responses of the likes of ,’But it’s too simplistic,’ ‘But it’s too unrealistic,’ ‘But it contradicts the idea of equality and hence, fails feminism itself.’ This thus reduces the test to a baseless argument. However, this doesn’t mean that these arguments against the Bechdel Test are invalid, for it is well known by now that it is not an accurate measure of feminism in movies. It discounts platonic relationships and confirms stereotypes. It is a quantitative analysis being wrongly used as a qualitative analysis, leading to a multitude of discrepancies.
To make up for the shortcomings of the Bechdel Test, other tests have been conceptualized to test diversity in the media industry, namely the Mako Mori test where there is 1) one female character 2) who gets her own narrative arc 3) that is not about supporting a man’s story. The satirical Sexy Lamp test has the following conditions: If your female character could be replaced by a sexy lamp without the plot falling apart, it fails. Naturally, many movies fail it. The Ellen Willis test, designed to call out gender roles, requires the story (or pop song) to make sense if the genders were flipped. The DuVernay Test and the Russo Test exist to call out media that use people of racial minorities and LGBT people in order to ‘paint urban authenticity’.
The Bechdel test may be an incorrect tool to analyse media for equality since it can be passed despite having sexist content (American Pie and Baby Got Back pass the test!), but that is not where it’s true purpose lies. It is the beginning of a larger, in-depth conversation about female representation in mainstream media. It is because in spite of the bar being set so low, causing so many prominent to movies fail the test that gets everyone talking about the test. It brings up why the questions asked in the Bechdel Test are asked in the first place: to combat the casting of women in roles only meant to support the male lead; the “real character”. All these tests, in fact, are not recommended to be used to critically analyse the next movie you decide to watch. They also do not look to solve the problem of gender inequality by categorising movies as feminist based on loose conditions. They aim to question why women are largely cast into minor roles that are limited to just the love interest. They aim to encourage the writing in of women whose characters who exist to present abstract ideas, talk about themselves and question the plot. They aim to open up meaningful discussion about representation and the challenges ahead of the media industry; to inspire creators and create a more aware society.