The Bechdel Test

There was an interesting talk at Redemption on the Bechdel Test. It’s the one that checks whether films have a) two named female characters, who b) have a conversation with each other that c) doesn’t involve men. Originally it was a cartoon by Alison Bechdel, a comment on the under representation of women in Hollywood films, and I think it really makes a valid point.

A few people mistakenly thought that it was a test as to whether a film was good or bad. In fact it says nothing about quality, but put simply if the raft of output from a film studio fails the test a lot, then it’s underrepresenting women. I found a figure that says 44% of films fail the test. That’s truly appalling, particularly when films that pass the test can have dozens of male characters with triple barrelled names and super hero alter egos, while the only two women in the film have the briefest natter about shoes. The Bechdel Test can be seen as a bare minimum. Passing the test means women are represented, just not necessarily well.

(The Mako Mori Test is an interesting contrast and it requires at least a) one female character, who b) has her own narrative arc that c) isn’t about supporting a man’s story. There’s also the Sexy Lamp Test: if you replace the female character with a sexy lamp, would it change the plot? She may look beautiful, have endless conversations with other named sexy lamps, and be won by the man at the end, but she doesn’t actually do anything other than get turned on. She doesn’t affect the narrative.)

Some films will fail because of their subject matter. The Great Escape was the film used as an example, and obviously there aren’t going to be any female characters in a WWII POW camp. But, for every POW film there ought to be a film set in a nunnery. The balance of, say, a dozen films ought to be representative, just as the average gender balance on panels at a convention should be about fifty-fifty.

I thought about my published books. I’ve five.

The Other Christmas Carol’s protagonist is Carol Christmas and she has a conversation with Mrs Claus about Christmas quite early on. Well done me, I suppose, and yet most of the other characters, bar one important one, are male. Father Christmas, the three Wise Men, Rudolf – the source material is all about men.

The Derring-Do Club and the Empire of the Dead and The Derring-Do Club and the Year of the Chrononauts are steampunk adventures about three sisters. These novels romp through the test with flying colours. It’s a male world, the Victorian age, but these three young ladies hack a path through life, are named and constantly talk about life, the need to learn Latin, sword fighting, the dastardly plot to bring down the British Empire and, you know, stuff. (And men as well.)

The two near-future SF stories are more interesting in this regard. I, Phone does pass the test. The second most important character, Alice, is female and does interact with a named female friend early on. They do go out on the pull as it were, but not all the conversation is about men.

Hashtag, on the other hand, perhaps doesn’t pass the test. There are conversations between two named female characters that aren’t about men, I can think of one straight away, but only one of them is ‘on stage’ as it were. It may pass the Bechdel Test on a technicality, but I feel that, in the spirit of being brutally honest, it fails the test. It’s interesting why. The protagonist, Oliver Braddon, is male, it’s a first person narrative and the plot doesn’t really allow him to ‘overhear’ any ‘real’ female-female conversations. (The quotes are a fiddle factor here, because the story is set in a world where everyone receives everyone’s thoughts via social media, so there are billions of named females talking incessantly to every other female on the planet, mostly, judging by social media today, about cats.)

I’m not worried that I’ve decided to fail one novel for the sake of argument. Only 20% of my protagonists are male, the other 80% are female. It’s those sisters skewing the data, but it is a surprising bias. Forthcoming novels, despite a heavily male political thriller, are going to maintain that slant. Does that make me a feminist writer? Probably not.

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One thought on “The Bechdel Test

  1. It makes you a balanced writer – seeing females as a valid protagonists is a big step, I love it! Keep going.

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