If you’ve spent any time in feminist circles, you may have heard of the Bechdel Test. It’s a simple set of criteria whose application reveals the lack of attention given to women in movies and TV shows. However, there are problems with it – especially when it’s used as a reason to like or dislike drama.
The Bechdel Test originated in a 1985 episode of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip called “The Rule.” In the strip, one character tells another that she only watches a movies if:
a.) It has two women in it;
b.) Who talk to each other
c.) About something besides a man
The character adds that the last movie she was able to see was Alien, where “the two women in it talk to each other about the monster.”
As a comment about how much women and their concerns are ignored in popular culture, The Bechdel Test is apt. The three criteria set a very low standard, which makes the fact that so many movies and TV shows can’t meet them a pithy comment on modern drama.
However, as the comment about Alien might be meant to suggest, a movie can pass the Bechdel Test and still not be much concerned with women’s daily lives – let alone qualify as feminist.
The reverse might also be true. A romantic comedy like When Harry Met Sally or The Princess Bride would probably fail the Bechdel Test (I haven’t checked). Yet considering that such movies are all about relationships between the sexes, it seems overly strict to insist that any conversations between two women in them shouldn’t be about a man. What else do people in love talk about except those who attract them? Similarly, unless the setting is modern, can you reasonably expect a war movie to have two women in it?
In practice, too, the Bechdel Test’s third criterion – the subject of the women’s conversation – is not always so easy to apply.
For example, in the half dozen episodes of The Good Wife that I have watched so far, the lead character and the investigator at the law firm she works at regularly talk about their cases, which would seem at first to means that the series passes the test.
Yet in several of those talks, the investigator refers to the sex scandal that sent the lead character’s husband to jail in the first three minutes of the pilot episode. Are those references enough to make the series or a particular episode fail? Moreover, if you argue that overall tendency is what matters, then everything in the series is framed by the title, which implies that every second of every show is about the lead character’s relationship with her husband.
Still another limitation of the Bechdel Test is that it mostly ignores context. A frequent modification of the Test is that the women characters should be named, but that is only one small part of the problem. What is the bias in the actual words? Is the conversation filmed for the male gaze? Even more importantly, is the conversation central to the main plot? The ways that the women’s conversation can be trivialized are almost endless. Yet the Bechdel Test takes nothing into account except checking off three highly generalized points.
I understand and sympathize with the point the Bechdel Test tries to make. But even by its own concerns, it is lacking. Besides, in the end, the idea of checking off criteria to make a judgment on a piece of art leaves me cold – and, the more I think of what is happening, the more appalled I become. The Bechdel Test simply doesn’t deserve the attention it’s been given by feminists. But, to be fair, perhaps it was never meant to.