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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at York U chapter.

Have you ever watched a movie and wondered “where are all of the female role models?” You would not be the first. For decades people have been questioning the roles that women are (unfortunately) designated within arts and media. As it happens, a popular “test” was invented for this very reason. It is extremely important, incredibly flawed, and totally reliant on spectators to make it meaningful. Let’s talk about the Bechdel Test…

What is it?

The Bechdel Test, or the Bechdel-Wallace Test, is based off of a cartoon drawn by Alison Bechdel in 1985. In it, one female friend says to another that she will not go to see a movie unless it meets three simple requirements: “One, it has to have at least two women in it– who; two, talk to each other about; three, something besides a man.” The additional requirement– that the female characters are both named– has since been added by adopters of the Bechdel Test movement.

Inspired by Bechdel’s friend, Liz Wallace, the two women came up with the idea that was put into the cartoon after Wallace read  A Room of One’s Own by Virgina Woolf, which explores several disadvantages that females faced in society at the time it was published in 1929. Among its many quotable sentences, Woolf writes: “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”  

In the 1980s, Bechdel and Wallace found this content painstakingly relevant, especially when it came to female representation in pop culture–—film in particular. The cartoon that was originally intended as a joke (albeit with a strong cultural critique), has since gained popularity as a legitimate test and with it, also gained intense scrutiny. 

Why is it Important?

The cartoon’s original critique was trying to bring awareness to an issue of gender inequality in the film and television content made available to us. It was an attempt to recondition the way that women (and anyone other than middle-aged white men, for that matter), are portrayed in film. When women are used as ornamentation, for the purpose of serving a male protagonist’s storyline—or simply missing from the narrative altogether—it unconsciously shapes audience expectations of what value a woman holds in the movies and in real life. 

Since the film industry has inherently been a patriarchy for a number of years, the Bechdel Test calls attention to the way that women have been—and still are—depicted by their male counterparts in media by something called “the male gaze”. This way of looking at women sexualizes them and renders them powerless. Despite what you may think, this is very common in all types of media and art, even today. Users of the Bechdel Test have found it a useful tool in becoming conscious of and reflecting on these portrayals.

Outright instances of sexism are easiest to spot and thankfully today’s audience is less tolerant to these types of delineation. These instances include the male of the story—husband/boyfriend, brother, father—holding all the power, while the female’s primary purpose is to serve the man. Sometimes she’s literally serving them—dinner, beer, whatever he asks for—and other times she is yelled at, looked down on, or treated as a subject of sexual desire and nothing more. 

Similar to that, there are other times when the woman is there just to be a silent bystander in the man’s story. In these instances, she has few or no speaking parts but is intensely interested in the life, journey and problems of the man. While he comes in, vents his struggles and then leaves to save the world, she nods in sympathy, holds the baby and kisses him goodbye. She’s only seen when the male’s story calls for it and holds little or no relevance in the progression of the story.

Finally, there are times when women are simply not there at all. In Hollywood cinema, a shocking number of main roles, supporting roles, and even background roles for that matter, are male. Even in today’s day and age an average of only 26.9% of lead roles are female and that is an improvement from previous decades. Time and time again, males are seen dominating the screen, particularly in positions of power and in roles of physical and/or mental superiority (cf: superheroes, detectives, CEOs, etc). 

When women see themselves on screen in these ways, they unknowingly internalize it, which affects how they carry themselves and act in social situations, the platonic and romantic relationships they are involved in, and most importantly, the value they place on themselves. When they are seen on screen as unappreciated, unworthy, overlooked and invisible, they accept that as their worth in their everyday lives. The depth and range of female stories is so incredibly important and the Bechdel Test inspires people to think about how and why with its three simple questions. 

How is it Flawed?

Now that you know what it is, the Bechdel Test probably seems harmless and in fact, helpful in a lot of ways, right? Yes, but at the same time, the role that it has taken on is actually quite problematic. Because the cartoon has become a permissible guideline for moviegoers and film critics alike, it unconsciously sets standards for films that it never intended. As is the goal of many cartoons, Bechdel’s image was meant only as a critique of society and a motivator to consciously think about gender representation in media. 

What happened when the cartoon blew up, is that many people took these standards to heart and assumed the belief that if a movie does not follow these guidelines, and therefore ‘fails the test’, it is automatically anti-feminist. Since feminism is the belief that all genders should have equal rights and opportunities—and the idea that if a movie fails these they are against that belief—the test became a dangerous way of thinking. 

The truth is, the test was never meant to become a set of standards that judges the quality of a film or determines whether or not the film is sexist. There are many, many great films that fail the test, and that is not in any way a reflection that the film is “bad”. There are also many, many films that pass the test and that does not mean they are exempt from sexism. 

For example, if in a male-led film there is one single scene where two female characters talk to each other about nail polish, it passes the Bechdel test. However, the point is that the depth of their storylines, the importance of the females as characters, their screen time and contribution to the film is lacking in ways that the original cartoon was trying to express. Similarly, there are films that do not pass the test that in no way display these characteristics. If a female principal is talking to a mother concerning the behavior of her son, the film could still fail the Bechdel test because they are talking about a male. 

A film that only has one character will fail, a silent film will fail, even films that rely on their female protagonists like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, A Star Is Born, or La La Land will fail the test, simply because the story doesn’t meet the requirements. So by these standards, the test discounts female autonomy, depreciates platonic friendships between men and women, implies that only two women in a film meets an acceptable quota, and does not allow for a healthy romantic relationship between a man and woman on screen. Additionally, it discriminates against other genders that are not traditionally male or female, so there is an inequality in the test itself that strictly by definition is anti-feminist.

There are a whole host of other issues that can determine the feminist lens of which a film was made but that, in essence, is what the Bechdel Test is trying to point out. The bottom line is that the test is not a measure for the greatness of a film or an indicator of feminism, but is simply a tool for conscious viewing in regard to representation on screen. 

When Will it Change Things?

Now at this point you are probably not sure if you should be a fan or a foe of the Bechdel-Wallace Test and that’s okay. To help you out, I’ll summarize. Here are some things it’s not: a measure of sexism in a film; a comment on the quality of a film; a determining factor in whether a film is feminist or not. Here’s what it is: a tool to reflect on inequality, a way to think critically about how different genders are presented in all media, a starting point for change. 

How can this change become a reality? You. The test is an opportunity for you to create your own standards when it comes to representation in film. How many people of different genders are seen and in what context? How much diversity in terms or race, culture, sexual orientation, disability or age are seen? Is it okay that there is a lack of representation in a certain film? You hold the answer to these questions and if you spot a trend that you don’t like, point it out and show Hollywood that you’re looking for change. 

As long as you become an active viewer and think critically about how the depiction of people on screen affects their worth, the test is doing its job. It’s a call to action against the typical Hollywood model where women and minorities are portrayed with little thought and importance on-screen and used as an image of adornment, instead of as a conveyor of impactful stories. Not all films are about women, some portray women in a certain way to make a point and that’s fine—good even. But when people see what they can be on screen, they believe they can be it in real life. That’s a priceless mindset for any person to hold. 

If almost 100 years later, the content of A Room of One’s Own can be considered relevant to contemporary media, we have failed. The Bechdel Test is not a test itself, but a test of our own awareness and tolerance for accurate and meaningful representation. It’s a catalyst for change; you can be that change. 

*For a comprehensive look at statistics and information on representation in film and television, head to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media website.*

Roxanne Hahn

York U '25

Roxanne is a writer for the York University chapter of HerCampus Magazine, where she covers a wide gamut of article topics. Originally from rural Alberta, Roxanne studied Film & Video Production at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, prior to packing up her life for the big city of Toronto. Currently, she is a third year BFA Screenwriting major at York University, and has many creative passions, including photography, music, and (of course) writing. She looks forward to continuing her work with the talented, intelligent, and empowering HerCampus team in the 2023/24 year.