Passing the Bechdel Test

August 8, 2015

For those who don’t know, the Bechdel Test asks whether a piece of fiction:

  1. Features at least two (named) women who
  2. Talk to each other about
  3. Something other than a man.

It’s always been important to me that my stories pass the Bechdel Test. Half of humanity is female, so it was inconceivable to me that I’d write stories where there weren’t at least two named women who had a conversation at least once in an entire novel! And if that makes me a SJW, then hand me my social justice pike (or whatever), because it just sounds like common decency to me.

So I was worried. I asked a friend: Does it count if the two women are in a group? Like, does the conversation have to be a private conversation between only the two (or more) women, or does it count if they are in a big (mix-gender) group, as long as they’re actually talking and (preferably) address each other at some point? (And aren’t talking about a man.)

To which my friend replied, of course that would count, you idiot. (I was being an idiot.) The point of the test is a rough measure of inherent sexism in a piece. That’s it.

Which is when it struck me: Isn’t it really easy to pass this test? I mean, seriously! All you need to do is have a few female characters, make at least one of them a main character, and then it’ll pretty much happen by accident! (For the record, Wage Slave Rebellion passes the test within like four scenes. The next book will pass it easily as well.)

The sad fact is that so many stories have so few female characters, or the female characters they do have are so unimportant, that they can’t pass this simple test. Which is the entire point of the test, clearly. It’s just so damn easy if you pay attention at all—the problem being that so many people don’t.

And look. Some stories won’t pass the Bechdel Test for totally sensible reasons. FiveThirtyEight notes that Gravity doesn’t pass the test, even though it has a well-regarded female lead. When Cast Away spends nearly the entire movie with Tom Hank talking to a volleyball, it can be forgiven for not having a ton of women. Likewise, some stories won’t pass the logical opposite for male characters, even though there’s no name for that test because it doesn’t exist. (I propose the Dick Test, because I’m twelve years old inside.) That’s fine, if there’s a narrative reason for it.

It’s when the vast majority of films (as an example) don’t pass something as easy as the Bechdel Test, that you realize the sorry state that industry is in. The deck is stacked against women, and my nieces won’t be able to see nearly as many interesting, dynamic female characters in movies as my nephew will see interesting, dynamic male characters.

Thank the gods that written fiction is so often better. That’s what nice about being out here on the long tail. I don’t have to cater to a mass audience, nor to idiot producers. I get to tell the story want to tell, with the characters I want, and I can make my villains, my heroes, and even my mooks female if I want to. Because, as my friend said, women are capable of being just as clever, vicious, and bastardly as men. Amen to that.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

11 Comments

  1. Reply

    Chris Daly

    firstly the Bechdel test that you, and other over-zealous feminists, hold so dear was spawned from a satirical cartoon mocking radical feminists that they took seriously, which I find particularly sad as it isn’t even a good measure of how well it treats women, you can have two named women talk about shoes whilst being complete airheads, this passes the test but Kill bill or other films with empowered female leads may not.
    secondly the fact that you feel the need to actively insert your politics in to your writing, especially to this degree, has severely decreased my respect for you as an author, it was already falling when you showed yourself as an ideologue that treats everything that doesn’t put women on a pedestal as Misogyny with your Kingsman review.
    I normally refuse to let an authors political views stop me from enjoying their work. particularly as your first novel did not come across like the work of a prudish Rad-fem sycophant, but if this blog is anything to go off I really worry your politics are going to deteriorate your style, so I have to say if wage slaves gets a sequel it’s no longer a sure buy for me.

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      Imagine you espouse your deeply held point of view. Something you have thought about at length, and decided you believe in. Sort of like you just did.

      Now imagine someone threatens your livelihood for your opinion.

      That’s what you just did to me.

      How would you respond to that? Because the only response I can give is: Okay. That’s your choice. Do what you feel is right. You may call what I’ve said “politics,” but I call it”common decency.” If you’re not going to buy my books because I decided, instead of defaulting all my characters to guys, to make some of them women, that’s your choice. Doesn’t bother me.

      It feels silly to me though

      It may not surprise you that I don’t agree with a lot of what Bill O’Reilly says, but I listened to the audio book of Killing Kennedy on a car ride recently, and it was pretty good. In the political realm, he and I might not agree, but as a historical storyteller, I was willing to give him a shot, and was rewarded for it.

      Likewise, I may not agree with Tom Cruise on religious matters, but he’s a good actor who works his ass off in every role. I’ll still gladly watch his movies, and I’m generally not disappointed with him, even if the movie he’s in is a stinker.

      Do what you think it right. It won’t bother me. Nor will it change what I do, or what I believe.

    2. Reply

      Daniel Mulley

      Excellent comment, with several valid points.

      Very interesting that the OP is immediately threatened by this post and ‘straw mans’ it as you say, rather than actually addressing any of the points on the Bechdel test and its (in)validity as an accurate measure.

      Even with your second comment pointing this out, the OP still gives no reply to any of the actual points raised.

      1. Reply

        Stephen W. Gee

        It’s entirely likely I made logical fallacies in my arguments. I don’t indulge in arguments on the internet very often. I don’t find it productive or fun. That’s why my goal is to be an author (which takes a long time, giving me plenty of time to (hopefully) get things right), rather than a columnist or a social media marketer.

        My points were made in the post. If you don’t agree, or if I didn’t argue them well, that’s fine. Isn’t the first time, won’t be the last. Have a good day.

        1. Daniel Mulley

          The main point made was that the Bechdel test is not a valid test of
          female representation and/or empowerment. As Chris said, you can have 2 airheads talking about some fluff and that would ‘pass’ the test, while Kill Bill, would fail. Indeed, it appears to have come from a satirical comic poking fun at feminism, but which for some reason has been taken seriously by the wider (especially feminist) community.

          The very premise of this so-called test is flawed. That is the point. Many people, yourself included, seem to blindly use this ‘test’ without actually considering its true validity.

          Logic, arguments, fallacies, etc are all extraneous to this main point.

  2. Reply

    Chris Daly

    Firstly Steven if you honestly think my opinion threatens your livelihood, then you either underestimate your ability or seriously overestimate the weight granted to a comment on an internet blog, particularly one with even vaguely anti-feminist themes, by the general web audience.

    Secondly you assume that just because I don’t agree with the bechdel test that I want all characters to be blokes, this is untrue, the world would be at a loss without such great women of fiction as Granny Weatherwax or Polgara.However the way you put it forward in your blog is that you’re using some arbitrary PC measuring stick and forcibly altering your natural writing style and the natural flow of your story just to fit it, I’ve seen that happen with other authors, where they make a blog post over new politics and their writing style suffers because they try too hard to actively express it in their fiction, many great stories by the likes of Terry Pratchett don’t pass the test but they’re still great because the author let’s the story flow naturally.

    Also I never said I won’t read your work what I said is that your next book won’t be an automatic buy, as in when it appears on Amazon I won’t hit pre-order instead I’ll have to download a sample when it comes out to see if the quality of your has suffered from narrative over narration as happened with the female Thor comics issue 5.

    Finally when someone questions the views I put forward I back it up with evidence I don’t try and present it as them threatening me and straw man their argument.

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      Ah. I see (one of) the misunderstandings.

      This isn’t anything new, nor will it change the natural flow of my writing. It’s well and truly baked in there already. I’ve been of the same opinion on this issue since well before I wrote Wage Slave Rebellion. So if that one didn’t annoy you, the next one shouldn’t either.

      Though if you’re worried, feel free to sign up for my email list. The first Adv of my next book is available for download to anyone who signs up.

  3. Reply

    Anya

    I feel the need to leave a positive comment ;-). I honestly have been wondering about the public versus private conversation thing for a while, so thanks for settling that! It really just gets down to “are your female characters enough of their own agents that they have their own thoughts not inserted for the male characters’ development” so a side conversation totally works! While there are certainly good reasons for some books to fail, such as a book that is first-person from a male character’s perspective, it’s most frustrating when there are a bajillion characters in third person and it still doesn’t happen. Then it becomes pretty obvious, ha! But it’s great to hear your thoughts on this and don’t let the trolls get you down :).

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      Is it bad that I had an instant pang of dread when I saw there was another comment on this post? I’m glad it was unwarranted. Phew!

      (It also tells me that I probably ought to write more posts like this. Uncomfortable topics are usually the ones worth writing about.)

      The public vs private thing is a legitimate question! It is just a benchmark though (and a false proxy as well), so whatever gets at the root of the issue is what matters. Which is as you said … “are your female characters enough of their own agents that they have their own thoughts not inserted for the male characters’ development”. As long as that’s true, the details aren’t that important.

  4. Reply

    Milferd Jones

    aka RedRocket

    People forget the film industry is for profit. And yes for profit businesses can get into a follow the herd mentality and miss out on possible profits, Hollywood has done that in the past. But women centered movies are made and keep not making the big bucks so naturally the big money goes to provide the films that mainly young men chose to watch.

    The comic industry somehow got it self to fifty percent female fans from a very few fans in the nineties. And so the comic industry is producing more and more female oriented works.
    I see signs of the not only wrong but the opposite is true push to avoid sexualization and skimpy outfits is going in parts right now even though many women like women in sexy outfits maybe a majority of women. If avoiding sexualization and keeping women covered up made men respect them as equals it would have worked someplace, actually many places by now. But the opposite is true when women are free to show off there bodies and be sexual women gain power. But still major strides. I notice the good in some ways iffy in others having a muslim girl superhero. It hard to do when being culturally sensitive to the dress standards make you approve of the rampant discrimination of that society. If muslim males had to dress in similar uncomfortable outfits in the heat I would have way less of a problem. In Pakistan women have had more power than many muslim countries and traditional dress has no head covering. Now the scarf is in and women are losing power.

    I remember my WOW MMO guild the females, at least sound totally female in voice chat and some I saw there face book pages. The females got together mainly girls only planed guys were only there if we were lucky enough to be on at the time like me. The women showed off the the outfits they had to each other in many cases spend a lot of grinding time to get for there characters. This before the idea of skins came to the MMO game. Maybe 8 to 10 of them can’t recall this several years ago before I quit WOW. All the outfits were skimpy most often thong bottoms. And the women were getting the outfits to please them selfs and other women primary not men. This not latent sexism this is the peacock sex of humans expressing the natural urge to show off.

    Now I sort of automatically pass the Bechdel test in the fiction I try to write I like powerful female characters and they often tend to have to work with each other.
    The problem with the Bechdel test is often it is applied to all works when especially in short story, high action and comedy inserting dram like character building scenes awkward. In this a author must be judged in the total of their work not just one work and if your nicely named but unlikely to be adopted dick test fails then it is ok for for the Bechedel test to fail in the same work.

    Sometimes a work a reflection of the culture, the Japanese are still sexist easily told by their censorship of porn. ALDNOAH.ZERO presents a interesting contrast it presents not liberating moments of women working about weight, although women do talk on the subject often I would find it fine realism if they just put in some non backwards chat, while passing the Bechdel test sort of by having women discuss the political and military situation with each other and the only way a man comes in is in that he is the enemy. But for the Japanese Aldnoah.zero a liberating middle step with women captain and ex, women aces in a work aimed at the male anime fan. Always a quandary show how women often talk to each other in a still backwards society or have them talk as a more liberated set of women would.

    We need to crowd source of other funding mechanisms to try to solve the female film problem. But will have to figure out what women would pay to see, maybe the female hero needs to be more sexy then you would think she would need to be. Maybe instead of putting SuperGirl in tights or something under the skirt like current efforts to make her popular put her in a thong under skirt just for a try. Look forward to seeing if SuperGirl in skirt and tights works this fall. As asking for profit businesses to act like charities always a poor bet.

    Now looking forward to reading your book in paperback as soon as amazon will work for me tonight. Kept putting it off as I have a mental health book to read but forget that I waited to long already.

    1. Reply

      Stephen W. Gee

      Will reply to a few things here.

      On Hollywood being a for-profit venture: Of course it is. I write books for profit as well. We gotta eat to be able to afford to keep creating. But the idea that female-centered movies don’t make as much money as male-centered movies has been debunked … in the article I linked to in this post. Check it out. It breaks down the numbers and everything.

      Gender equality isn’t about keeping women covered. Not in the least. You’re correct that women can like to see female characters in tight costumes, just as men can like seeing dudes in tight costumes. And it’s not even a sexuality thing—if some buff superhero dude shows up with rippling biceps and a six-pack, I’m liable to like that not ’cause I wanna bone him, but ’cause I want to be him. Women are liable to like a lady superhero with a six-pack and fantastic legs for the same reason.

      Buuuuuuut, the problem arises when the camera lovingly caresses the female characters’ butts and breasts when it’s not appropriate for the scene. Or when they don’t get leading roles because, “Movies featuring women don’t sell,” even though that’s not true.

      Neither of which was really my point. My point was that it’s a shame when, whether the characters are sexy or not, there isn’t more than one (or often, even one!) interesting, complex, dynamic female character in a Hollywood film. It’s so easy to do. Humanity is 51% female. It should happen by accident! And yet it doesn’t.

      And yes, not all movies (or books, or whatever) will pass the Bechdel Test, even if they’re extremely feminist friendly. I said as much, and gave examples, in the post.

      And … it’s way too late at night to be thinking about this. Thanks for commenting, and thanks for picking up the book. I hope you enjoy it!

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