Monday, July 29, 2013

Leonard Explores the Bechdel Test

First and foremost, how have I not heard of this before?!? It took reading an article on Sandra Bullock playing the lead in the upcoming film Gravity for me to hear of the Bechdel test.  According to Wikipedia (source of all knowledge):
"The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. [...] The test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In 1985, she had a character in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For voice the idea."
I've only read teeny bits of Bechdel's comic strip, but I read her entire graphic novel, Fun Home:  A Family Tragicomic for a class on writing memoir.  It was a difficult read because I have a hard time with comic books and graphic novels, but that's another post entirely.  I adore Bechdel's sense of humor, and not just because she's a lesbian and a feminist.

At any rate, I find the Bechdel test to be quite brilliant in determining gender bias in our works of fiction, even while it may have its limitations.  To review, we are looking for works that:
  1. Have at least two (2) named female characters
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than a man
At first, I considered clarifying the last point to mean "something other than a man in a romantic fashion."  But why?  I shouldn't have to qualify it.  Let's leave it point blank that these two fictional women are not talking about men period.

I looked through my collection of approximately 210 movies (on DVD; the VHS are in a box in the basement).  Of the 210, only 31 made the cut; that's  14.76% for those mathematically inclined.  Less than fifteen percent!  Of MY movies!  What the hell kinda feminist am I??

The 31 movies (in alphabetical order) are:
  • Anastasia
  • Beetlejuice 
  • Big Business
  • Brave
  • A Bug's Life
  • Center Stage
  • Chicago
  • Chicken Run
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Despicable Me
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • Ever After
  • Ferngully:  The Last Rainforest
  • All 8 Harry Potter films
  • Mary Poppins
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day 
  • Nanny McPhee
  • Practical Magic
  • Serenity
  • Shakespeare in Love 
  • Stardust
  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • Tangled
 Now here's where it gets a bit tricky.  Some of these characters may talk about men in a conversation, but as long as they had another conversation NOT about men, I included them.  Unfortunately, many of these conversations, while not about men, are not exactly full of feminist goodness.  Many of the conversations involve how to become a princess, what exactly is lady-like behavior, and whatever fashion mandates are happening at the time.

The Bechdel test has its limitations.  I have many movies that have strong, kick-ass female leads -- like The Matrix, but the character in question (Trinity) is the only named female character.  Oh yeah, there was that blonde lady.  What was her name?  Switch (which I've always wondered if that was a pun on bisexuality).  Do Switch and Trinity ever have a conversation to themselves?  No.  (And if they did, it would probably be about Neo.)

Damn there are a lot of guns in this film.

Nearly all of my period pieces fail miserably because the many women only talk about men and marriage; they, sadly, had no other options.  Sometimes there are multiple female characters, but they only interact with the male characters, not each other.  Even Harry Potter barely makes the grade because Hermione and Professor McGonagall have conversations about magical things (sometimes other people are present for said conversations).

It's all rather bleak when you think about it.  Of course, I don't own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, or Firefly on DVD; that would have changed the numbers a bit.

My next goal is go through and watch these movies to make sure they do hold true to these tenets.  Some of these movies are still in plastic (what??), so I'll start with those and report back.  Wish me luck!


  1. Does this only apply to film media? I mean, I'm thinking about my own novel (the one I'm writing) and am quite glad to say that I pass as my MC has many conversations with her Mom and a Mystery Woman (who does get named eventually) about things other than men....although they do talk about her Dad and her boyfriend at some point. I mean, that's life isn't it?

    So...just curious as I have heard about this and have read quite a few articles on about it, but never wondered until now if it applies to books too. Interesting!

    1. Jenn, it originally started (in the comic strip) as only applying to movies, but I think it's a good litmus test for any kind of media (and Wikipedia, source of all knowledge, agrees with me). I only used it for movies this round because I have fewer of those and they were easier to deal with, etc. Glad to hear your novel passes!

  2. Tenets, not "tenants." Good post!