So the Bechdel Test

I’m pretty confident my regular readers are familiar with the Bechdel Test.  For anyone who may not be, it’s a simple metric for works of fiction with three criteria that must be met in order to pass.  The criteria are 1) the story must contain at least two female characters who 2) speak to each other at least once in the course of the story about 3) anything other than the male characters.  It’s a pretty simple test, and it’s not that difficult to pass if you keep it in mind when you’re building a story.

And yet.

I’ve been thinking for the last couple of days since I saw this essay over at io9, and I realized that it’s really hard for me to think of the last bit of entertainment of which I partook that passes the test.

On the movie front, I’ve been kind of inundated with Disney films (obviously), and I’ve been scratching my brain to figure out what I last watched that passed.  Pocahontas has three female characters, but their conversations all revolve around whether Pocahontas should marry Kocoum (I may be forgetting some bit of sage advice from Grandmother Willow, but I think pretty much everything she says traces back to Pocahontas making a decision about her engagement).  Before that, I watched The Aristocats which did feature conversations between Duchess and her daughter Marie, but I’m stretching to remember if there was anything of substance there besides Marie’s constant fantasies about romance (they become especially pronounced after O’Malley shows up).  I also watched a few action movies that I didn’t write about (there’s only so much that can be said about an abomination like G.I. Joe: Retaliation; by the way, it manages to have two female characters who are on the same side and who never even speak to each other), but I don’t recall any of them being great bastions of good female characters with solid story arcs.  Atlantis had tons of female characters and somehow managed to have none of them speak to one another.  Heck, I think I have to go all the way back to Lilo & Stitch for a movie in the Disney canon that solidly passes the Bechdel Test (wow, that was such a good movie).

In books I’m doing a bit better, because I started reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice a few weeks ago (although I’m taking a hiatus from it right now because we gave our copy to a friend who’s moving out of the country as a farewell present, and I’ve not taken the time to replace it yet).  There’s a lot of good stuff to be said about that novel, so do go read it if you have the inclination (it’s being considered for the Hugo Award this year, which is a big honking deal in sci-fi).

Comic books are, surprisingly, a much easier medium to find Bechdel passing fare.  In case anyone forgot, I’m a big X-Men nerd, and since about half of any given team in the X-Men family is female, there’s plenty of examples of women talking with women about things besides the men in their lives.  Also (and I can’t stress this enough), there’s the first issue of Ms. Marvel that I’ve read which is phenomenal (I really do wish I could afford to purchase that book regularly, because it’s the sort of entertainment material that I think deserves economic support).

Television’s a little more tricky because I don’t watch a lot of series simultaneously, and it’s hard to apply the Bechdel Test to an ongoing series.  I mean, do you pass the series as a whole for one instance of non-male focused female interaction, or do you grade individual episodes and look at an overall average of how often the writers seem to be thinking about how they’re treating their female characters?  Being on summer break now, I’ve taken to sampling a couple of shows here and there to see if I can find anything fun to fill in some extra time.  My big mainstay at the moment is Star Wars: The Clone Wars, because the whole series is available on Netflix and with each episode being twenty minutes (and story arcs usually spanning three episodes for a solid hour of self-contained story), it’s quite digestible.  I want to say that this series is pretty good at passing the Bechdel Test, but that’s an unscientific statement.  Aside from Clone Wars, I’ve also tried out various shows like The IT Crowd (only made it through two episodes before I decided it was too steeped in the very nerd narratives that work against better attitudes about and representation of women in nerd subculture; the second episode did include conversations between multiple pairs of female characters about shoes, so I guess that’s a technical pass?), Adventure Time (ironically, I can’t recall any specific instances of two female characters interacting with each other, but I know that this show generally does a good job of fleshing out its female cast with complex stories and motivations), and Boondocks (season 2, specifically, which is much harsher satire than what was in the first season, which makes it a lot more difficult to stomach; this is a show I enjoy for its commentary, but the misogyny is so rampant that it becomes hard to separate what’s being critiqued from what’s just unexamined sexism).

In the realm of video games, I just finished playing through TellTale’s Tales of Monkey Island (which is an excellent game in the vein of old point-and-click adventures), which I have to say passes only on the technicality of a single post-credits scene after the final chapter of the game.  Besides that scene, every other instance of two female characters interacting revolves around the hero Guybrush.  I’m also playing the ongoing series from Telltale (I really like their games), The Wolf Among Us, which is based on Bill Willingham’s Fables comic.  It’s a good noir-style mystery story that features an even split of male and female characters.  Female-female conversations aren’t extremely commonplace, though they do happen, and they generally don’t revolve around men (part of this relative rarity likely stems from the game’s narrative structure where the protagonist Bigby Wolf goes around interrogating and investigating; most plot details are revealed through conversations that Bigby has with characters, and he’s always present in the scenes that the player sees, limiting opportunities for other characters to interact without involving him).

Altogether that’s a pretty fair mix of Bechdel passing and failing media that I’ve consumed in the last month or so.  One interesting thing to keep in mind is that unless I mentioned above that a series is problematic with how it treats the female characters it does have, I generally think that that series is doing okay with its female characterization.

Now, at this point it’s not unusual for some people to say, “Well, the Bechdel Test isn’t really that great of a test, right?  Plenty of stories fail it and still manage to have compelling female characters, while others pass while having horrible female characterization.”  That’s true up to a point, but the important thing to remember here is that the Bechdel test is a low bar for one simple factor (credit goes to Rachael for elucidating this point to me): are the writers thinking about their female characters as existing when the men aren’t around?

It’s far too common in fiction for writers to forget that the characters are supposed to still be doing things with their lives when the audience can’t see them.  In many cases, women get relegated to a supporting role where they’re treated as satellites tethered to the male lead.  If they leave his orbit, then they’re effectively nonexistent until they come back to him (be that through physical or mental engagement with him).

This is a really big deal, because seen through this light, the Bechdel Test is important for revealing what kind of attitudes we have towards women in our fiction (and by extension, in real life).  If a story has one good female character, then that’s great, but the Bechdel Test poses the questions, “Why is she the only woman in this story?  When she’s not onscreen with a male character, does she still exist?”  Those are questions that we shouldn’t ignore.

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One thought on “So the Bechdel Test

  1. Pingback: No, “Strong Female Characters” Do Not Earn Us a Cookie | Catchy Title Goes Here

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