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This Will Be On The Test

Friday, December 6th, 2013 | Posted by Violette Malan

Treasure IslandI don’t know whether it’s the controversy over the character Turiel in the upcoming The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but there’s been a big swell of interest lately in the Bechdel Test. You know what that is, right? Generally applied to movies and TV shows, it determines whether women are represented equitably. In order to pass the test,  there must be two female characters who have names; they must at some point speak to each other; they must speak about something other than men. Seems simple.

I remember my father once telling me that Treasure Island had no women in it. He seemed to think this was a good thing. He was wrong, of course, except that he was also right. What he didn’t realize was that the film he was familiar with had no women, but that wasn’t also true of the book. Jim Hawkins does have a mother.  We could argue, however, that the film guys got it right, since Mrs. Hawkins does little or nothing to forward the plot.

So Treasure Island, whether print or celluloid, fails the Bechdel Test.

Most films/shows don’t pass the test, even the ones we fantasy and SF lovers love the most. Big Bang Theory doesn’t pass, even though there are three named female characters (and not because Penny, as my friend Jim Hines has pointed out, has no last name). Stargate passes, at least SG1 – they were smart to make the doctor a woman, since that gives plenty of room for non-guy related conversation. It’s been a while, but I believe that Star Trek: Voyager passes (between Captain Janeway, B’lanna Torres, and Seven-of-Nine) and TNG as well – remember, the doctor’s a woman.

STVLOTR fails, both versions. As does The Princess Bride, both versions. I’ll admit it’s been a while since I read the print versions of either of these, but I have read them multiple times and I think I’m remembering correctly. I might also argue that if, after reading something multiple times, you can’t remember whether two named females talk to each other about something other than men, it has to be considered a failure of some degree.

Let’s see. Aliens passes. And at least the first two books of The Chronicles of Narnia. Agents of Shield seems to be doing a good job of passing the Test and provides us with a clue as to how we can improve the numbers.

Okay, we could do this all day, so let me sum up: according to a survey done by Entertainment Weekly, eight out of ten recent movies actually fail the Test. (They give Gravity a pass because the character is so rich, but it fails the actual test) So, 80% fail. The percentages are a little better if we narrow the films down to the seven fantasy or SF movies on the list, which include the same two movies that passed in the first place. So, only 60% fail. Feeling better? Yeah, I hear you.

How do we make sure that we pass the Test ourselves?  I’m pretty sure I do, most of the time.  But I’m writing novels, not screenplays. It’s easier for novels to pass the Bechdel Test, I think, which makes it all the more remarkable when they don’t – at least when we’re talking about modern novels. I don’t expect people who were writing even 50 years ago to hold opinions that would have been unlikely for them to hold at the time, let alone to write about them.  One of the reasons that there’s even a Bechdel Test in the first place is the increasing number of female writers, directors, and producers.

And those people are interested in writing, directing, and producing stories about strong female leads, who, given another woman to speak to, have reasons to discuss the advancement of the plot – I mean the solving of the problem,  rather than the men in their lives. Most of us, as I pointed out last week, aren’t writing romances.

Female doctors can speak to female characters about health issues. Females captains and leaders can speak to their female crew and followers about the events at hand. Female workers of any kind can speak to each other about the job at hand. It’s that simple, isn’t it? Women can talk to each other about their jobs; all we have to do is give them jobs.

One thing though. Almost all of the examples I’ve cited as passing the Bechdel Test have ensemble casts. I believe that’s the “recent” artistic innovation that makes passing the test easier than it might have been even thirty years ago. Female protagonists can interact with each other if there’s more than one of them, and that’s much easier to do with a group of people working toward a common goal than with just a single protagonist or star.

That’s a hint for us if we want to see more works passing the Bechdel Test: we’re a group of people, let’s work toward a common goal.

Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website


  1. Since you reference Star Trek a couple of times, I think it’s curious that the original might well have passed the Bechdel test had the actor playing Janice Rand stuck around (which was apparently Roddenberry’s plan). Imagine: she and Uhura could have had all sorts of discussions about warp capability and the unseemly length of their uniform skirts.

    The lack of (accepted) female agency is one of the great blots on our (the world’s) so-called enlightened civilization(s). Glass ceilings are only one recent manifestation of a much deeper societal assumption, that being that women don’t get to do very much (and might not even want to do very much). This translates clearly in the stories we, as a society, tell and value.

    There are exceptions, of course: a fairy tale or three. Warrant Officer Ripley.

    The solution is for those of us who do write or direct or otherwise craft stories for the page or the screen or the stage to provide memorable, flawed, fascinating female characters who have desires and goals, and work to achieve these despite obstacles.

    Much of my own writing fails the Bechdel test (I am constantly amazed by how many of the ideas I come up with seem inherently anchored to a male protagonist). But then again, a great many of my stories and plays do in fact pass the test (and yes, I am constantly amazed by how many of the ideas I come with require a female protagonist instead of a male).

    I’m rambling. Next!

    Thanks for posting.

    : )

    Comment by markrigney - December 6, 2013 12:27 pm

  2. The series that passes the Test with multiples of flying colors is Babylon-5, terms of names, conversations that aren’t about men, who are entirely people in their own right.

    Where it didn’t do so well was showing women having any kind of friendship with each other. All the females seem to exist within a male-centric universe, though the men do interact with them with respect and admiration. Two of the male characters do have romantic yearning for two of the females, which is not reciprocated. But these are merely one more thread in the complex tapestry that makes up their relationship with each other.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - December 6, 2013 1:06 pm

  3. Part of my day job is that I teach professional and business ethics where we deal with sexual harassment (quid pro quo and hostile work environment) as well as affirmative action issues. So I’m familiar with equality issues in the workplace.

    But I’m rather new to the SF&F scene. What exactly is the rationale for trying to shoot for the Bechdel Test? You present it as an obvious goal that fiction writers should shoot for. But it’s not immediately obvious to me why passing this test is important. Could you say some more concerning that?

    Comment by James McGlothlin - December 6, 2013 7:12 pm

  4. I really don’t think the Bechdel Test is a good way of determining I think it is a qualitative rather than quantitative analysis, and I don’t think it even does that well.

    It lets movies like Twilight pass while a movie like Gravity does not (The Bechdel test Movie List gave it a 0/3).

    Most people would argue that the test is not useful in a one-on-one basis, but emblematic of the disproportionate representation of women in the whole of Television and movies. Taken that way it is very sobering, and I think more in line with the joke Bechdel was making.

    However, I don’t think this test should influence writers. I don’t think any litmus test should influence writers. We’re already seeing a theater in Sweden rate movies on the Bechdel test. And i know more than a few people who won’t see a movie that doesn’t pass, or show their children anything that doesn’t pass. I know a seven year old who has never seen Star Wars because of the Bechdel test.

    I do agree that women need to be better, and more, represented in media, but I think that will happen more as we expand the culturally acceptable roles women can take, and I think that’s happening.

    I just think that if there is one place where case-by-case qualitative analysis should reign, it is in literary criticism, and I include movies and television in that as well.

    Comment by darangrissom - December 7, 2013 4:09 am

  5. James: While there are circumstances in which one shouldn’t try to pass the Bechdel Test (or at least where it shouldn’t be one of your primary criteria) on the whole I think it’s a worthy goal. Essentially, we’re talking about the representation of women in media. The idea is that if female characters don’t even have names, or if they never speak to each other (present only to interact with men) or if they never discuss anything with other women except men, it sends the message that these are the only acceptable roles for women. Please see my further remarks below.

    darangrissom: Let me start by saying that I believe story is king. There are plenty of movies, like Gravity, which can’t and even shouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test; to do so would have ruined the story. In that sense, there is no test, opinion, commentary, criticism, philosophy, you name it, that should be the sole and only influence on writers. But any and all of these things can and should influence and stimulate discussion, and thought. Which in turn might influence writing.

    I’m worried about what’s happening in Sweden, I wouldn’t advocate for that kind of rating system, in fact I’m sceptical about the value of any rating system. I’m sorry for that seven-year old. I’m sorry for people who use any tool to bludgeon other people with. I know parents who didn’t let their children read “Where the Wild Things Are” because there’s a gun in it.

    There are other ways to measure how women are presented in media, beyond the Bechdel Test. There’s no test that should be used as a set of handcuffs –or a set of keys either — perhaps especially this one. However, since women do need to be better, and more, represented in media, attempting to pass the Bechdel Test wherever it’s possible, is one way to actually do it. One of the ways we expand the culturally acceptable roles women can take, is to show them on screens and on pages actually in possession of them, and to show that not only men, but other women find that acceptable and culturally normal.

    The odd thing about something like the Bechdel Test, however, is that it is applied on a case-by-case basis — that’s the only way it can be applied. But it’s the accumulation of all these cases, that has impact on the social mind. As indications of how women are presented in media, and how male-centric the world is shown to be, the percentages I’ve quoted above are dire.

    By the way, I think the Bechdel Test is quantitative rather than qualitative. It’s counting noses, rather than counting the content of the heads behind the noses. It judges a conversation on one criteria only, for example (excludes men). I also think that people tend to interpret and apply it in their own way, which dilutes its impact. The Entertainment Weekly piece that I refer to above, for example, (found in November 29th, #1287)tweaks the test to include Gravity, but exclude The Croods. I think that might be a value judgement of another kind.

    I want to thank you (and the others) very much for your commentary; if nothing else, we see the value of even my light-hearted approach to something like the Bechdel Test in promoting thought and discussion on a serious subject.

    Comment by Violette Malan - December 8, 2013 7:37 am

  6. As glad as I am that the Bechdel test has made Hollywood’s representations of humankind more closely resemble the range of humankind, the test isn’t always applicable.

    I wonder whether Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale passes the Bechdel test. Atwood carefully never tells the main character’s true name, just the name she’s been given as a breeding slave. The other handmaids in the book have likewise lost their own names, and are called things like Ofjohn, Ofrobert, and Offred. In the dystopian world of the novel, the female characters are carefully isolated from and divided against one another by the masters of their society. If a book like that fails the Bechdel test, it’s probably part of the point.

    I haven’t read Entertainment Weekly‘s assessment of Gravity, but in a film that only shows the faces of two characters while they’re still alive, the Bechdel test is kind of irrelevant. The film is most of the way to being a one-woman show–and if it were a one-woman show, it still wouldn’t pass.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - December 9, 2013 2:03 am

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