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The Legacy of the Bechdel-Wallace Test

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi South chapter.

The need for the Bechdel-Wallace test, created by Alison Bechdel and Liz Wallace, was recognised with the rise of feminism and the consequent realisation that the media often just used women as objects or two-dimensional creatures to further the storyline of a man. The test does not lay out a comprehensive set of rules, instead comprising of three simple statements that outline the bare minimum every story should have.

The major features of the Bechdel test are as follows:

Are there at least two named female characters?

Do they speak to each other?

A few years ago when I first learned of this test as a casual consumer of media I figured that the test was slightly outdated and that while the premise remained good, the details needed to be tweaked a little in order to more appropriately fit the situation in this decade. Further research and awareness however revealed to me that even in this past decade, not all movies meet these criteria.

A study conducted by BBC in 2018 revealed that less than 50% of movies that won the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’ passed the test. A similar study conducted in 2019 reinforced these results by bringing in similar numbers. The reasons behind this are manifold, ranging from the shortage of women directors and male-dominated workspaces.

Some believe that a modernised version of such a test should exist and a campaign conducted in 2017 showed that women want to see women of colour in power and in healthy relationships, want crews to be at least 50% women, and that the female character does not end up dead or pregnant. However, the Bechdel test remains the most prevalent measure, and the most striking aspect of this conundrum is the simplicity of the test and the continual failure of media to pass it.

While the representation of women in media and movies remains sub-optimal, the condition of the LGBTQ+ community is dismal. Given the rise of awareness about sexuality and gender and its inclusion in society and media, similar tests loosely modelled on the Bechdel test are called for. Considering the complexity of the dynamics of these issues, there needs be a more detailed and researched test but to begin with, a simpler system could act as a benchmark.

The primary difference between the portrayal of women and that of queer people is that the validity of the existence of women has never been in question, and in general the public is has more information about women than it does about members of the community. This does not intend any disrespect towards women, and certainly does not intend to downplay the very real issues faced by women. It simply intends to focus on a different facet of the issue of accurate representation in media.

The need for any test that measures the representation of a section of society is two-pronged. The story should feature the existence of such people and have a positive portrayal of them. In essence, even if the non-heterosexual or non-cisgender character is the antagonist, their ‘crime’ or ‘villainy’ should be based on aspects of their character, not their deviance from heteronormativity. For example, the popular sitcom ‘Friends’ mentions homosexuality and transgender persons but in a light that automatically disqualifies the show from being progressive or inclusive. While the timing of its conception excuses the show partially, the example still stands.

So, a tentative model of a test for inclusion could look like:

Are there any non-heterosexual characters?

Do they serve a purpose/add to the story other than to be mocked/harassed/fetishized?

Do they exist outside prevalent stereotypes of their sexuality (like a butch lesbian with a pixie cut or a bitchy flamboyant ‘queen’)?

The major objective of the two-pronged approach is to elucidate that not all representation is good and that it’s very easy to wrap and present phobic sentiments in content under the guise of including them in the story. While there do exist gay men who love fashion and bisexual women who participate in threesomes, they don’t function as a blurb for the whole community and showing these sexualities through only these stereotypes pushes the narrative on the audience and irrespective of intent invalidates members who don’t subscribe to this manner. Shows such as Euphoria, Schitt’s creek and Bojack Horsemen that show an actual realistic facet of the queer experience set an example for content creators. The queer characters of these shows face issues associated with navigating their sexualities and gender identities but they are also not reduced to being only their queerness or their struggles with it.

As with women and the LGBTQ+ community, the representation of people of colour also demands a drastic improvement. While the sensitivity to issues concerning race is on the rise, so is brutal intolerance. While movies showing the struggles faced by people of colour are imperative, having them play positive and central roles in fiction is also instrumental. Race conscious casting is a step in the correct direction, but a test similar to the Bechdel would help further the purpose.

What all this discourse boils down to is that the media needs to create content that includes and uplifts all communities and that tests like the Bechdel could mark a watershed in inclusive representation with widespread use. While there is no way to be certain of the intent of a creator while including a character in their work, the recognition of such tests and their use would ensure that representation is accurate and non-degrading.

Aditi Singh

Delhi South '24

Aditi is a reader-writer-cake enthusiast who uses writing to channel her thoughts and ideas. She is a second -year mathematics major who enjoys writing pieces that force the reader to challenge their existing notions. She also talks about navigating a male-centric heteronormative world as a queer teenager