Friday, July 18, 2014

The Bechdel Test — Do Your Favorites Pass?

Yesterday's post by Hilary Davidson on HBO's crime drama True Detective reminded me of the Bechdel Test.

What's the Bechdel Test? 

Simple — does a story have two women, who are named, who talk to each other, about something other than a man? 
Think about it. 

Alison Bechdel came up with the test in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985. In it, one woman explains her "rule" about watching movies to another:

The Bechdel Test may have given a name to a phenomenon, but it's hardly the first time women's marginal status in fiction has been noted. In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s essay about the challenges women writers face, she notes that women characters  are “almost without exception [...] shown in their relation to men. [...] And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.” 

Most of the discussion of the Bechdel Test focuses on films and television shows. But we're readers here. How about novels?Off the top of my head, I can think of many big-name thriller/mystery authors whose books fail the Bechdel Test: Dan Brown, Stephen King, Scott Turow. (And yes, many of them have been made into movies.) But there are so many more. Any Ian Fleming novel. Any novel where a "beautiful woman" (nameless) apprears on the back cover description.

Why do so many works of art/entertainment fail the Bechdel Test?
Well, often, it's because there is only one woman. ONE. (My take on Star Wars: "Seriously? Is there only one woman in the entire UNIVERSE?")


And then, when there are more than one female character, the work fails because the female characters never talk to each other.       (I'm taking my son to see the Broadway musical Les Misérables this summer. Think about it — the men sing about human dignity and basic rights and war and revenge and forgiveness and fallen comerades. Oh, and the plot. And the women sing about — the men.)

Once you start looking at the world through the lens of the Bechdel Test, it's hard to stop. The kiddo loves a certain snowboarding video game. There is one woman. One. Even in the snow, she's scantily dressed. And her only line is about liking attention from boys. You'd better believe he and I had a long talk about that!)

The Bechdel Test helps us measure how marginal women characters still are. Applying this test to works of art isn't an end in itself  — but it is a way to see the entertainment we consume in a new way and start asking questions. Important ones. 

Because, although some disagree, I do think it's important. Stories are important. Fiction reflects our world and how we see it and how we're seen. Reading stories affects how we tell our own stories, about ourselves. I don't know about you, but I'm not happy with a walk-on part as "the girlfriend," "the wife," and "the mother."  If women don’t have a place of importance in our imaginations, then how can we have have a place of importance in the world?

And so, Reds and lovely readers, I ask you — when choosing books (or movies or television shows or plays), do you care if they pass the Bechdel test?


Jungle Red Writers said...

Sorry for the late post. We were/are at the ER with Miss Edna last night. She has been admitted, but over 12 hours later, we're still waiting for a bed to open up.

I may or may not be around to comment today. All good thoughts appreciated.

Joan Emerson said...

Our thoughts and prayers are with Miss Edna and your family . . . .

As for the question, no, I don't usually pick a movie or television show to watch based on the Bechdel test, but while I'm watching I'm likely to notice.
And what is it with this propensity to have just one [albeit brave] woman in the universe, anyway????

Susan D said...

Even without the Bechdel test, I guess my reading and movie watching has always been essentially geared that way anyhow. e.g., Trixie Belden.

I believe Jane Austen more than passes the test. Apparently there are NO scenes in JA where men are alone (i.e, with no women present).

Karen in Ohio said...

Susan, I'm so sorry about Miss Edna, and am sending prayers for a good outcome for her today.

Yes, yes, yes! As the mother of three strong women, it makes me sick to see what kind of movies are out there. Misogynistic, male-centric, and either violent or downright rude. Music and literature has much of the same, too.

Maybe this is why I've started reading books mostly written by women, and listening to music largely written/sung/performed by women. I've gotten overloaded with the overwhelmingly male-oriented arts available.

I've read, but don't know how true this is, that Hollywood is largely run by males between the ages of 25 and 40, and that's why most of the TV and movie productions are slanted the way they are. Hmm.

Mary Sutton said...

Here's hoping Miss Edna is okay.

I don't specifically look for the Bechdel test when picking TV shows, books, or movies. I do notice while reading/watching. I do get turned off when I think, "Don't they ever talk about anything else?" Except, however, if that's part of one of the character's personalities. I recently wrote a story where every time the female character and her mother were on stage, they discussed the daughter's relationship status. But that was part of the point. The mother is concerned: you're getting older, you should get married, your sister is married, I had three kids, what's wrong with you, blah, blah, blah.

But if EVERY female character has the same conversation? Yeah.

This is not to say women can NEVER discuss men when together. I think that's just as unrealistic. Guys together talk about lots of things - including women. Women together talk about lots of things - including guys. You have to keep it real.

I'm now thinking of my novel in progress. I think it passes the test (although I also don't think the two named females are on stage with each other often, but when they are, they aren't talking about guys except as murder victims/suspects).

I think most of my reading/watching passes too. But I like British crime shows and superhero flicks. Does that make a difference?

As the mother of a teenager, yes, I'm sensitive. But she's developing a great radar of her own and rejects a lot of media that objectifies women. That makes me happy.

Kristopher said...

As a huge fan of Alison's work, I am of course familiar with The Bechdel Test.

I do not typically choose my watching and reading habits with that in mind, but I am likely to notice it and possibly not watch or read something by those folks again.

Since a large percentage of my reading (I'd guess at 80%, but don't really know for sure) is by female authors, this is less of a problem.

It is an interesting phenomenon to me, since I think that similar tests could be used for people of color (why is there typically only one?) and LGBTQ folks (why is the gay guy always sassy and the lesbian butch?) and the list could go on and on.

I just think that if everyone tried to reflect the "real" world, everything would be a whole lot better. Yes, today you can call me Pollyanna.

Kristopher said...

And Susan - I wrote this on Facebook, but please let Miss Edna know that we are all thinking about her and sending positive thoughts and vibes her way. (Your's too).

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Susan, sending big hugs to you and your family!

Now on to the Bechdel Test--this is a place where cozy mysteries shine! Women taking strong action and using each other for support while putting the bad guys away...

Mark Baker said...

Hope everything is okay!

I had never heard of this test until yesterday, and I don't choose my material based on it.

However, with all the female authors I read and female centric books I read, most of what I read passes that test. Heck, at times the men in these books are so marginalized you almost need a reverse Bechdel Test for them.

Carole said...

Love anfd thoughts with Miss Edna!

A big thanks for the wonderful posts this week, Susan. Great topics.

I'm having a binge of Camilla Lackberg's novels - great reads, and with a lot of day to day details from a female perspective. I think they pass the test.

Cindy Shea said...

I was just explaining the Bechdel test to my critique group about a month ago. They had never heard about it nor had realized how so many stories evolve around men. My personal opinion is that women have (or should have) a broad range of friendships and relationships and that this should be reflected in fiction as well. All my female characters have friends they confide in. Thanks for posting this! Hope everything turns out okay.

Diane Vallere said...

I haven't heard of the Bechdel test, but it is an interesting gauge of so much of our pop culture entertainment. Maybe that's why female readership of mysteries is so high? Because there's lots to talk about other than men: clues, suspects, motives...

Mark Baker said...

I’m sorry, but I’ve been thinking more about this “test” as I was driving into work, and it is really bugging me. I get the point. Really, I do. However, there are some pretty major flaws with it.

Let’s say I’m writing a story. I have 10 main characters, five men and five women. Each of these characters is strong in their own right, and the outcome of the story depends on all 10 of them to an equal degree.

However, I am writing this story first person from one of the men’s point of view. As a result, I never have a scene where the women are alone. Therefore I’ve failed this test? Keep in mind that all my characters have interacted, either in small or large groups, so the women are in scenes at the same time, but they never have any scenes with just women because my viewpoint character is a man and he has to be in every scene by definition.

Let’s look at a real example – Castle. Currently, there are 8 characters on the show, 5 women and 3 men. I will grant you that of what I consider the four main characters, only Beckett is a female. She rarely has scenes with another female character without Castle around, but when she does, the entire point of the scene is to show her side of her relationship with Castle, therefore that is what she is talking about. She has scenes with the other female characters to discuss the case, but Castle is usually there. In fact, I would argue she does more to solve the case any more than Castle does. So this show fails the test?

As I said, I definitely get what this test is all about – the James Bonds of the world or, from the sounds of things, True Detective. And actually, I’ve complained about stories that fall into that pattern (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past anyone?). However, it allows no flexibility for great stories that feature strong women yet don’t quite fit into these rules. It doesn’t make those stories sexist, it just makes it different. Yet forcing a story to fit into this mold to keep from being labeled as sexist is just as sexist.

Ramona said...

I'm familiar with the Bechdel Test and have tested my own stories against it. {Insert little hair-rise emoticon here.] Since I've become aware, I watch myself.

I find myself applying it to mysteries. Don't the characters ever talk about anything other than the murder/crime?

The weird thing is, is this a true reflection of what women discuss? Because IRL, I'd think we need a test on how often women discuss their kids, not men. The Bechdel Test also makes me think about how we define ourselves. I'm reading through applications for artist grants. I can't tell you how many bios begin with "I'm married with 2 children" and my response is, who cares? Tell me about your art and what you want to achieve with this fellowship.

Sorry, guess this hit a nerve. I wish the best to Miss Edna. Waiting 12+ hours for a bed can't be good for anyone.

Mary Sutton said...

Mark, I feel your pain - and hear your point. I write a series with a male protagonist (although it's 3rd person) and I alternate with a female POV (the major secondary character).

I think your point, and Ramona's, shows that while the Bechdel test is useful, it's not absolute. The question for me is, do my characters act like real people? Do they discuss clues and victims - and relationships, kids, pets, weekend plans, etc.?

If the answer is "yes," then hurray for the writer - because characters should be real. And if you have a character who only discusses one topic, perhaps there is a valid reason why and you can explore that - and view it as opportunity for growth, either for that character or for those around him/her.

This is why I'm leery of tests for a single thing. As a reader (and a writer) I'm concerned with one thing: Do the characters live and breathe, or are they flat? Living and breathing characters discuss so many things, that taking out something because it fails some test is, well, silly.

As I said, to expect two women to never discuss guys (or their kids) is as unrealistic as having them only discuss those topics. The goal is to make well-rounded female characters, not take something away from them (at least to me).

Anonymous said...

Holding good thoughts for your Miss Edna and your family. Wonder how you explain this to the kiddo.

Thinking about the Bechdel Test. I googled Bechdel test and it used Swedish cinema as an example.

First, I love your Maggie Hope. She's so spunky. She has several friends like Chuck and Sarah who are different tyoes of women. Female friendships are also paramount in many novels.

I think Jane Austen passes the test, but then her novels were fiction, not mystery fiction?

Nancy Drew had two female friends and they had mysteries to solve. In Agatha Christie novels, Miss Marple had a friend, Dolly. In Rhys Bowen's Molly series, she had two good female friends, who support her endeavours. In her Lady Georgie novels, Lady Georgie had Lady Belinda who thought about men but they also talked about other things, In Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, her best friend was Priscilla and they talked about other things besides men. How about Pippi Longstockings? I think that everything I read passed the Bechdel test,

Growing up surrounded by science fiction novels, women were often leaders. the front covers showed that. I admit I did not always read them, though.

Trying to think of movies and tv shows. I think Enchanted April passes the test? The tv show Friends? Switched at Birth is a TV show on the ABC family channel. I think it passes the test too.

Hope Miss Edna is feeling better.

~heart cozy novels

Kim said...

Susan, I read Hilary's post yesterday and yours today with great interest. As I have immersed myself more and more in the mystery world, I have discovered how few mysteries present women as human beings. In most cases, these books are by men. But I've been horrified to see how many books written by women also torture and otherwise harm female victims solely for the sake of story. There are exceptions, of course - brilliant exceptions, with the works by Jungle Reds among them.

As for the Bechdel test, when I find a writer who portrays women in a well-rounded way, I find myself becoming an instant fan: Penelope Lively, Anne Patchett, and so forth. On a personal note, I had to deal with many criticisms of my own novel because it does pass the test. My two main characters and female, and I would say that 10% of their time, at most, is spent talking about men - and most of that not about romance but in regard to the men's roles in the storyline. But this, apparently, made my characters "cold." I am fascinated by female friendships - they feature strongly in all of my writing, and all that the criticisms did was make me dig in my heals on my WIP to make sure my female characters' lives - and conversations - are as well rounded as possible.

Kristopher, good point about characters of color and LGBTQ characters.

And Lucy, so true about cozies!

Susan, I'm keeping Miss Edna and your family in my heart right now and sending lots of healing thoughts across the country to her. Please keep us posted. After all, she has become OUR Miss Edna. Sending lots of love too.

Anonymous said...

Here's hoping Miss Edna is back home soon.

Pat D said...

Oops, that was me. Can't answer the phone and post at the same time. My mom was in the hospital earlier this year, she is 94, so I know what you're enduring, Susan.

Kaye Barley said...

Susan, we're sending nothing but good thoughts your way to embrace Miss Edna and your family. This is hard.

About the Bechdel test - Kristopher stole what I was going to say.

paulabuck said...

Sending thoughts to you and your family, Susan!

Like many have said, I don't pick my reading/watching material on the Bechdel Test, but I do pay attention as I read and watch. Did I misunderstand, though, do the two women talking to each other have to be alone to "make it count?" They could be in a room with others and still talk to each other (not about the men), couldn't they?

Kathy Reel said...

Susan, I hope your dear Miss Edna has a short hospital stay and is soon home again.

I, too, had not heard of the Bechdel Test until yesterday, and I now fear it may become an earworm. Like Kristopher, most of my reading is by female authors, and those authors have strong women characters who may have romantic interests, but aren't defined by them. I admit that I enjoy the romantic part, too, but it is balanced by the capable, intelligent presentation of the woman and men who respect such. All of the Reds' couples are well-balanced and fascinating as individuals as well as couples.

Even though I haven't been applying the Bechdel Test, I have always been acutely aware of the ratio of women to men in movies or literature. The books that attract me have strong women characters, including the YA I read.

Deb Romano said...

Susan, I am thinking about Miss Edna and praying for a positive outcome.

I never heard of the Bechdel test; however, I've noticed that in some (not all) mysteries, some characters are constantly asking other characters about their love life. Since very few people I know are like that, I've thought it was a combination of odd and comical(and prying) and it DOES get annoying. Oh, and yes, I have noticed that in some mysteries, non law enforcement protagonists are constantly talking about the mystery and clues, etc, and seem to be obsessed with it to the exclusion of everything else going on in their lives. (Except for their love life!)

Mary Sutton said...

I've showered, gone for an auto estimate, shopped, worked, and eaten lunch and this is still bugging me. To those who have said Jane Austen passes the Bechdel test I must respectfully disagree.

If the entire point of the test is what else (besides men) women talk about with each other, let's examine Pride & Prejudice (my absolute favorite Austen novel).

How many conversations to Jane and Elizabeth have? A lot, both face to face and via letter. How many times to they discuss, directly or indirectly, men?

A lot, almost every conversation.

They talk about Bingley and Darcy (direct). They talk about their mother's embarrassing behavior (indirect, because Mrs. Bennett is all about marrying off her girls). The talk about Lydia's scandalous behavior (indirect, because all of the scandal revolves around Lydia's flirting with soldiers and eventual elopement with Wickham).

Even when Elizabeth goes off to visit her friend Charlotte they talk about men - either Mr. Collins or Darcy.

In short, Austen is all about the male/female relationships (well, relationships in general).

That doesn't mean she doesn't have good female characters. I adore P&P. But I think we venture into dangerous waters when we apply a modern test to works written over 100 years ago. Literature is always a reflection of its times and our times are much different than Austen's.

Ramona said...

I think the Bechdel Test is important. It, combined with discovering the Library of Congress still classifies much of what booksellers call women's fiction as domestic fiction, made me examine my writing and how I was using women in some of my stories. I found I automatically made certain authority figures (principals, coaches, cops) as men, when they could be either men or women.

I also changed what I had female characters do, as tasks or busywork. I made the conscious decision that there would be no laundry, dusting, cleaning of toilets, or babysitting, in my stories, and cooking only under duress. Once I didn't fall into those mundane tasks as habits, I found my women had more interesting lives on the page.

One thing about the Bechdel Test that (I don't think) has been addressed here is employment in the film industry. It's tough for women of a certain age to find work. The more female characters you write, even in small roles, the more potential jobs available for women actors when your book becomes a movie/TV series..

Anonymous said...

Blessings and good east vibes to Miss Edna. I love the kiddo remarks and am forwarding this blog to my daughter for her two sons who are 11&8. Fondly quirkfarms

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Thanks, everyone, for all your thoughts and good wishes. Miss Edna is in a (private!) room now and resting comfortably.

In terms of the test, I think it's a useful tool, but not the be-all and end-all for judging a work of art/entertainment. It's certainly a good debate starter!

Anonymous said...

One of the things I love about David Baldacci's books is that they are not so male-centric. Yes, most of his main characters are men, but he does have plenty of women in his novels who not only aren't there for sex only, or to be murdered, but who are smart and kick-ass on par with the main male characters. They are not helpless females in need of rescue, in fact, they are often rescuing the main male character.

That is not easy to find in thriller-type novels written by men.

I think the Jungle Reds do a great job of passing the Bechdel test I have always been more drawn to books that feature more women than men--or at least have a fairly even mix of the sexes.

And I will say that since I became a mother, I am MUCH more likely to discuss our children with other women than our husbands/boyfrieds. lol It's often hard to not have a conversation where our children don't ever come up. :)

Ellen Kozak said...

Sorry to hear about Miss Edna. In the ER, or any hospital, you need to good-cop-bad-cop-- one advocate wrings her hands and says "pretty please" and "help me," and the other one makes noises about a lawsuit and the medical board. Been there, done that, with both parents.

I mentioned the Bond books the other day-- I hated what the Bond girls (not women) were, when you looked past the drooling viewpoint.

As for Les Mis: Fantine sings about her daughter as well as the boyfriend who disappeared (which is how she got the daughter).

In my novels, when the women talked about the men, it was often derisively. Mostly, they bonded about the way they were being treated. In the third novel (which never saw print because the publisher went belly up), there is actually a locker room scene wherein the women discuss what a messy chore it is to slay a dragon (while they're getting cleaned up from the afternoon's activity.)

Sandi@Piecemeal Quilts said...

Mark, just to clarify, the Bechdel Test doesn't require two women to speak exclusively to each other, only that they speak to each about something other than a man. Men may be present, women may also speak to men in that scene, but two named female characters must speak with one another directly about something other than a man. A story written from the POV of a male character can still include two or more female characters who talk to each other. It doesn't have to anything earth shattering to qualify. Say the male protagonist has a female partner. If she, even in his presence, interviews a witness it qualifies.
That's not to say that every movie, tv show and book MUST pass the Bechdel test. I can't imagine 300, a movie literally about 300 men in battle, trying to wedge in a conversation between two named female characters. I'm okay with that because it fits the story. It's the movies that are supposed to appeal to a broad audience but can barely include two named female characters in the same scene that make my hackles rise. There's an article about 10 Famous Films that Fail the Bechdel Test, and it's surprising. For example, The Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I love) has three strong female characters, but they're never together. No named female characters ever talk to one another.
Still, the test is not the last word in how female-friendly a movie or book is. Showgirls passed, despite being about topless dancers and strippers, and Gravity did not, despite being about a female astronaut. The test is simply a measure of how visible women are in movies. Sadly, they aren't very.

Mark Baker said...

Sandi, thanks for the clarification.

My understanding is that the Lord of the Rings movies actually increased the rolls of the female characters over what they were in the books (essentially walk on parts). I'm not a fan of the movies and hate the books, but that's because they are long, boring, and over written. (Really, we don't need to know what the bark looks like on every tree they pass in the forest.)

FChurch said...

Susan, hope Miss Edna is doing well-and her family, too!

I had never heard of the Bechdel test either. I think it's a good tool for getting people to think about the entertainment they are consuming--books, movies, etc. And a book or movie that fails the test, as others have pointed out here, is not necessarily something to be scorned. It all comes down to what the writer (book, screenplay) is trying to accomplish.

I think much of the literature and movies out there attempt to follow a formula to success--if DaVinci Code hit #1, well, I'll write the NEXT big hit just like it, etc. This is especially true for movies.

I loved Indiana Jones--Raiders of the Lost Ark. Loved Marian's character--she had spunk, owned her own bar, didn't depend on Indy to save herself. But the ending--I thought she should've been asking him to pay up for the bar he destroyed!! However, the second Indiana Jones--the female lead spent her screen time screaming. He should have ditched her in the jungle.

Anonymous said...

Just finished the Fantasy/Sci Fi series Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. While the main character who is to save the world is male, at least half of the subsidiary characters are strong women without whom he would fail. In the almost 15,000 page series there is very little sex and lots of women kicking butt, especially at the end.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, I think it's fascinating..and I think of it all the time. It's not a be-all, and end-all--but it is, I think, a wonderful way of looking at a story through another set of eyes.

Anonymous said...

I am an EVANGELIST for the Bechtel Test. For a woman mystery writer, it's an easy way to check if my story is lightweight or digs deeper into the lives of women. (Roberta's right.---Mystery protagonists usually have lots of material to discuss. I write a mystery with a big romance thread, but I am careful that my female characters have lots of life-related discussion that doesn't involve the men in their lives.) I am currently stewing about the Heroine's Journey. Does every story about a woman have to be a "healing journey?" Does that make all heroines victims? Hm.......