What is… The Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is a way of assessing women’s roles in movies. It was devised by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 and can highlight a severe gender bias across the film industry.

Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel

To pass the Bechdel Test, a film must satisfy the following requirements:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Bechdel came up with the test as part of her Dykes to Watch out for comic strip, that particular entry entitled ‘The Rule’. She attributes the idea to her friend Liz Wallace. It is otherwise known as the Bechdel Rule, Bechdel’s Law, the Bechdel/Wallace Test, and the Mo Movie Measure.

If you take a moment to apply the Bechdel Test to a bunch of films, it’s quite startling how many don’t meet the criteria. Of course, your feelings on that will depend on how much you think it actually matters whether films pass the test. And the test does have its limitations. It’s very possible that a film could pass the test but still contain highly sexist content. Similarly, it could fail the test but still have strong female characters and themes.

To see a reasonably comprehensive list of films and whether they pass the test or not (and if not, why), then check out bechdeltest.com.

Personally, I think it’s pretty flawed, primarily for the reasons mentioned above, although it is interesting to think about just how few women there are in many films and how male-centric the industry clearly still is. I guess a lot of this comes down to the writers and whether they should consciously try and write more female characters into their screenplays, although I’m not sure shoehorning a female character into a film for the sake of it is the right thing to do. It’s a topic that could be debated until the end of time.

So what do you think? Is the Bechdel Test a load of feminist nonsense? Or does it serve to highlight the lack of strong female roles in films? Spill your guts in the comments below.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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42 thoughts on “What is… The Bechdel Test?

  1. vinnieh says:

    Interesting article man.

  2. myreelpov says:

    The test is obviously flawed because there are a lot of factors that can make a movie sexist. It is frustrating that there aren’t more strong female roles because I think women are stepping up to the plate in the real world so this should be reflected in film. A board room never has more than one or two females, nor do detective precincts and hero’s are very rarely female, if they are then they are highly sexualised. There is a MASSIVE female audience out there that should cater for more than the romantic comedy fan. Girls like guns and violence too, but don’t necessarily enjoy watching women do it with their tits out…

    • “Girls like guns and violence too, but don’t necessarily enjoy watching women do it with their tits out…” – I think we already have a winner for best comment on this post! 🙂

      I agree though, there is a huge demographic out there that isn’t really being catered to. I only had to apply the test to a few films to realise women aren’t accurately represented in the industry. And I don’t think most women will want a cast that is just female to identify with, but would rather the playing field just be levelled a bit to make things a bit more even (obviously I’m just guessing there).

      • myreelpov says:

        I imagine it is quite hard if a film is written, produced and directed by teams of men to get a good grasp on how a real female character would work just as it would be vise versa – I think it should just represent the real world and shockingly we aren’t all beautiful damsels in distress haha! I can see a change though there are a lot more female orientated films coming out but unfortunately they also seem to advertise it as a female film therefore encouraging the divide!! ie. Bridesmaids, The Heat etc. Oh well I’m sure if there was an apocolypse that left physical strength a useless asset, women would rise up and take the lead 😛 haha.

      • Haha, you’re probably right! I’m with you on making a female-centric film for the sake of it; it does just encourage the divide. It is definitely getting better in my opinion, but I guess when people start talking about female directors and making a big deal out of it, that in a way makes things worse as it just shows how unusual it is. In a way we shouldn’t even be mentioning it.

      • myreelpov says:

        It’s great to make people aware but like you say it just highlights the fact it doesn’t happen very often, as if to say “Wow look she is directing a movie even though shes a girrrrrl!” Haha. It’s not that bad, I’m still a film lover, I just don’t watch films that I think will probably offend me!

      • And that’s a very wise move. Different films offend different people in different ways. I doubt there’s a single film that doesn’t offend at least one person.

  3. myreelpov says:

    PS. The bechdeltest link doesn’t work 🙂

    • Thanks, that should be sorted now 🙂

      • myreelpov says:

        I’d also like to make the point now I have seen the bechdel test page that you can’t use this system on story lines set before even the 80’s really! Of course The Great Gatsby is sexist – it’s set in a time where women were to be seen and not heard, duh!

      • That’s a very good point! And the test doesn’t really account for that. If a film is portraying the past then it’s likely to be sexist, which doesn’t really have any baring on what the industry is like today. If anything, an older film that has some sexist characters in is probably more realistic, even if that is a bit sad!

  4. keith7198 says:

    I refuse to voice my pick from your choices for fear of being executed. But let’s just say the ” test” is seriously flawed. You can’t take three questions like that and determine that a film is sexist. It’s just silly. This “test” doesn’t take into account so many things that are clear determining factors in a film being made. Is there sexism in some movies? Sure. Is it a male dominated industry? Yes. But this “test” certainly isn’t an accurate measuring stick IMO.

    • Haha, a wise move Keith. I wasn’t sure anyone would actually pick a side!

      Yeah I agree the test is very flawed. I don’t think its intention was to show if a film is sexist as such but rather to highlight a gender bias (not really the same thing), which it kind of does to a certain extent, but it’s very, very basic. I think it offers a platform for further discussion but doesn’t bring much to the table itself.

  5. filmhipster says:

    Wow, I have never heard of this before! Love your “What Is…?” articles. Quite fascinating finding out about all the nuances behind the camera.

  6. Very interesting and very nicely written as always buddy.

  7. theipc says:

    I love these posts – thanks!!

  8. Ewan M says:

    I see the test less as an effective method of judging whether a movie is sexist (as many commentators above have pointed, it’s not really), but as a provocation, a way of encouraging discussion about the ways in which women are excluded from or (mis)represented by films. In those terms, it’s effective.

  9. Lindsey says:

    I appreciate the point Bechdel was trying to make about the lack of variety in roles for/portrayals of women in Hollywood, but the test is flawed and shouldn’t be used as a measure for a film’s worthiness. I can’t stand when people use it as an easy excuse to hate a movie or TV show, sometimes a movie or tv show they haven’t even watched! Like you pointed out, plenty of films that fail the test still contain strong and complex characters, and a film that passes can still have sexist content. Great post.

    • Thanks Lindsey. I’m with you there; it is sometimes used as an easy excuse to hate something. I think some people just like to be outraged by things when there’s absolutely no reason to be! It certainly gets people talking though!

  10. ianthecool says:

    I have never heard of this before. Thanks for bringing my attention to it.

  11. Great post and interesting question. I agree with everyone that the test is flawed. If 90 percent of the industry is run by males directing/producting/writing, of course you are going to get a male-dominated perspective. I just wish we could get beyond the gender issue. A woman can create just as wonderfully as a man. It’s the same thing in schools where we’ve only just begun to encourage girls to study science and technology and leadership jobs, so there’s a need to encourage females to become directors and producers which could endorse strong female parts in film. It’s so conflicted out there–what’s expected from males and females. Media and society encourage women to be externally beautiful for men as a primary function in life. We’d be a better society if we stressed integrity and compassion.

    • Thanks Cindy! I think we’re all in agreement the test is flawed and you’re right that male-dominated films are inevitable in a male dominated industry. The whole gender thing is a massive issue and in a perfect world gender wouldn’t even be considered in virtually everything we do. I think things are getting better in the film industry though and hopefully the playing field will continue to level out. Ideally it would be nice if we didn;t feel like we had to make such a big deal when a woman directs a film or whatever.

  12. Nick Powell says:

    Fuck The Bechdel Test. I know too many bloggers that scream feminist and this only helps their argument against every man every. It’s a stupid, flawed test that has no need to even exist. The fact is, if women are want to be bigger in movies and have stronger characters, they need to go about it another way besides complaining about it. Hell, any “strong” woman that makes a film tends to make it too lopsided. Plus, I think the general public wants to see tits and objectified women and not dongs floppin’ about. It’s a male dominated industry that will never change and if people keep complaining about it, you’ll just frustrate more people.

    • “I think the general public wants to see tits and objectified women and not dongs floppin’ about.” – We have a new contender for best comment! Ha!
      That’s what we like Nick, impassioned responses! You make some very good points. Moaning about something doesn’t do anything and a lot of the time films that try to have strong female characters are often lopsided. I do think it’s an interesting test, even if it’s one that we shouldn’t take too seriously or take as any kind of hard and fast rule. It’s much better to see it as a conversation starter rather than an integral part of the argument.

  13. table9mutant says:

    Great post! Very interesting. I’ve never heard of this. It’s not surprising that many films don’t pass the test.

    Keep up the good work! Your “What is…?” posts are always very interesting (and always about something I don’t know, it seems!). 🙂

    • Thanks! This was a pretty new one to me too to be honest, and you’re right, I don’t think we should be too surprised a lot of films don’t pass the test.
      Glad you like the posts and if you get to learn a little something too then all the better! 🙂

  14. lauren says:

    I was talking about this test with some friends the other days. Its quite flawed but it does lead to interesting discussions on the roles of women in films.

  15. ruth says:

    Yet another informative post Chris! I haven’t even heard of this test before, hmmm even as a woman it doesn’t sound right to me. “…shoehorning a female character into a film for the sake of it is the right thing to do” Yep, I agree. I mean, of course I’d love to see more female-centric films but I don’t know if having these ‘tests’ are the solution.

    • Thanks Ruth 🙂 Yeah I definitely don’t think these tests are any kind of solution. They seem to get on people’s nerves more than actually doing any constructive. There are better ways to go about putting your point across than putting almost a blanket ‘sexism’ term across pretty much the whole industry. There’s definitely a discussion to be had but I’m not sure this is the most productive way of doing so.

      • ruth says:

        I think people just like to complain, same w/ people always using the race card for everything. As a woman of color (as I live in the US, that’s the definition people have of me about the color thing), I appreciate films that aren’t necessarily about women issues or have mostly white people in it, what have you. Of course it’d be great to see more women of color represented, but complaining about isn’t gonna get it done.

        Btw, I reddited this: http://www.reddit.com/r/moviecritic/comments/1jtxu3/you_call_yourself_a_cinephile_but_do_you_know/ Great post! 😀

      • Thank you Ruth! 🙂

        You’re very right, complaining doesn’t get anything done and that’s a very open minded attitude you have. There are many who don’t share such an attitude. In a perfect world, every race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, etc, etc would be catered for equally but that’s never going to happen. I think things are getting better though, particularly in regard to women in film. People are making more of a conscious effort I feel, but that brings us back to whether that actually solves anything 🙂

  16. Mark Hobin says:

    I’ve heard of this rule.

    Recent films that PASSED the test: The Call, Escape from Planet Earth, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Last Exorcism Part II, Mama, Red 2, Sharknado.

    Recent films that DIDN’T pass the test: Mud, This Is the End, Star Trek Into Darkness, Monsters University,

    You decide. I’ll let the movies speak for themselves.

    • Haha, yeah the test certainly doesn’t indicate how good a film is, that’s for sure! I don’t think that’s its intention though. Those are pretty major films that didn’t pass the test, so one could argue that male dominated films tend to be more successful.

  17. Hmmm checking out the films from the last two years it would appear that the majority of the films have been passing that test. Is there a site where they apply the test to the IMDB 250? That would be interesting to check out.

    • That certainly would be interesting and I think you’re right, more and more films are passing the test I think. There’s the site at the bottom of the article that I’m sure contains a lot of the IMDB 250, but just scanning through the list, there are quite a few that would fail it!

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