The Bechdel Test and the Role of Women in Fiction

The Bechdel test was created by cartoonist and author of Fun Home, Alison Bechdel, in order to measure the representation of women in fiction. The rules are simple enough, for a movie or piece of literature to pass the Bechdel test it only needs three things:

          1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it

          2. Who talk to each other

          3. About something besides a man

As easy as that sounds, many famous films and books do not pass this test, including The Avengers, The original Star Wars films, and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, out of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, only about half of them pass all three qualifications.

Alison Bechdel introduced this idea in 1985 in a strip from her comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, where the main character pokes fun and criticism at the male dominated movie industry by naming the three requirements she needs in order for her to go see a certain movie. While Bechdel is the namesake for the test, she attributes the idea to her friend Liz Wallace, who gave Bechdel the idea for the comic. She also claims inspiration from Virginia Woolf and her famous essay, “A Room of One’s Own” that explores the world of creative women and claims, “All these relationships between women, I thought, rabidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple,” and are almost always portrayed only, “in their relation to men.”

Obviously, this test is not foolproof. Films such as Gravity fail the test, even though the entire movie is about a very strong woman, while a movie with two women talking for 30 seconds about literally anything other than a man will pass, even if they never interact again, but it is still so important. Many movies fail the test because female characters are usually used for two main things: the love interest to the main (usually male) protagonist or “the chick” in the group of male friends. For example, Oscar winning actress Alicia Vikander even said that she, “made five films in a row before [she] had a scene with another woman.” Even when there are two or more women in a movie, most of their dialogue is about a man while the male characters are given actual conversations about the plot of the film and their character’s background that doesn’t necessarily involve their relationships with the opposite sex.

In recent years, the film industry has been attempting to become more diverse when it comes to race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender but, according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, women had fewer speaking roles in 2017 than they did a decade prior, making only 31.8 percent of all roles in the top 100 movies of the year. The fact that women are still underrepresented in film is not surprising, but it is a bit disheartening that the progression has been so slow. Equality may be even worse behind the screen than it is in front of it with zero women nominated for best director at this years Academy Awards despite many amazing female directed films.

On the brighter side, Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig, was one of the best films last year and six of the seven main roles occupied by women, along with great female representation behind the screen as well. Needless to say, Little Women passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Hopefully, the fantastic reception for this film from critics and viewers alike will encourage other Hollywood executives to put the trust in women that they deserve. It is so important to go, and support female driven films in the theaters, so everyone sees that women are capable of doing anything a man can, including creating amazing films, on screen and off.