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10 Tests Representing Women in Film, Literature and Music

Bechdel test

A namesake to cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who first outlined the rules of the test in her 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For, a film passes the Bechdel test if it has “[one], at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” With its very own website and film festival, this test is debatably the most easily recognizable test for female representation in media.

Roxane Gay’s six-part revision to the Bechdel test

In 2017, Slate magazine interviewed writer Roxane Gay, who proposed a six-part revision to the Bechdel test. Gay’s test asks that a woman is central to the story, her world is populated with intelligent women, she doesn’t compromise her sanity for romance, she doesn’t live in inexplicable extravagance, she “doesn’t have to live up to an unrealistic feminist standard,” and at least half the time, the woman is a person of colour, transgender, or queer.

Sexy Lamp test

Coined by comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, this test is simple: “if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.”

With Captain Marvel (2019), WandaVision (2021), Black Widow (2021), and even Eternals (2021), the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made strides in spotlighting its female superheroes. For years, though, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff was sidelined in the franchise and underrepresented on merchandise. During the time DeConnick wrote for the Captain Marvel comics, she even received backlash from male readers calling her an “angry feminist.”

“As an industry, we have to make more female-led books that are actually worth buying,” DeConnick said in a 2012 interview with Comics Alliance. “[Female characters] have to be protagonists, not devices.”

Tauriel test

Gender incompetence disproportionately disadvantaging female characters is a tired trope in media. Inspired by Tauriel, a character from the film adaptations of The Hobbit, the Tauriel test asks one question: is there a woman who’s good at her job?

Mako Mori test

The Mako Mori test was inspired by and named after Pacific Rim‘s Mako Mori, a character generally embraced for her nuance and complexity as a woman of colour. The test asks that a film or show has at least one female character with an independent plot arc, and that neither she nor her arc exist to support a male character.

Mako Mori escapes the “strong female character” paradox, which allegedly creates weakly written female characters who are physically powerful and emotionally detached, appealing to a traditionally masculine standard of strength. 

(Interestingly, Pacific Rim doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.)

Russ test

The Russ test, derived from writer Joanna Russ in a 1980 issue of Ms. Magazine and coined by musician Leslie Fish, precedes even the Bechdel test. The Russ test advocates for the value of female relationships independent of men and asks whether, in a piece of media, at least two women are friendly with each other.

“The crucial test of feminism in a work is the presence of at least two women who are friendly,” Russ wrote. “Not one, and not two who are rivals . . . The secret of feminism is what happens when women talk to women, advise women, love women. The two may be lovers, friends, friendly strangers, or friendly colleagues.”

Ellen Willis test

The Ellen Willis test tackles the skewed portrayal of women in music.

“A crude but often revealing method of assessing male bias in lyrics is to take a song written by a man about a woman and reverse the sexes,” Willis wrote in a 1971 essay.

Is it belittling, objectifying or condescending? Is it suddenly more insulting, more jarring? If so, it likely fails the Ellen Willis test.

Finkbeiner test

The Finkbeiner test tackles gender bias in yet another industry—science. Inspired by the Bechdel test, named after science writer Ann Finkbeiner, and proposed by journalist Christie Aschwanden, the Finkbeiner test is intended to guide science journalists away from gender bias in articles.

According to the Finkbeiner test, an article about women in science must not mention seven things: that she is a woman, her husband’s profession, her childcare arrangements, how she “nurtures” her subordinates, how she was surprised by the competitiveness in her field of work or study, how she’s a role model to other women, and how she’s the “first woman to… .”

Ko test

Actress Naomi Ko created a gender imbalance test that confronts intersectional feminism in films. A film passes the Ko test if there’s a woman of colour who speaks in five or more scenes and speaks “the language of the release.”

(Ko noted that “speaking means dialogue, not fight grunts.”)

Hagen test

The Hagen test, created by director Kate Hagen, had a 10% passing rate from the top 50 American movies of 2016. A film passes the Hagen test if half of one-scene roles belong to women and if the first crowd scene features at least 50% women.

In case you were curious, the five films that passed were Bad Moms, Finding Dory, Passengers, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Lights Out.

Larissa Zhong

Queen's U '22

Larissa is a fourth-year student at Queen's University. She loves Taylor Swift, heart emojis, and romantic comedies.
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