The Bechdel Test

I’m currently reading Dr. Nina Power’s book One Dimensional Woman. As well as being an insightful critique of contemporary feminism it has introduced me to an entertaining (if depressing) game to play when watching movies. The Bechdel Test originates from a 1985 instalment of a cartoon strip by Alison Bechdel called Dykes to Watch Out For. The test is simple: to pass, a film must meet only three criteria:

  1. There are two women in the film;
  2. Who talk to each other;
  3. About something other than men.

Dr. Power points to an extension of the third criterion, suggested by Charles Stross in 2008: that as well as ‘men’ we might include ‘marriage’ and ‘babies’. Doing so, Stross argues, cuts down the number of films which pass the test by as much as 50%. It seems like a necessary if bleak addition to the test.

Another small alteration to the first criterion is pointed out in an Entertainment Weekly article from August 2010:

A later (and shrewd) variation added a particularly brutal requirement to question No. 1: Do the two women have names? … Names are things like ‘Annie Hall' and ‘Erin Brockovich’ and ‘Scarlett O’Hara.’ Things that are not names include, to cite some credits from this year’s movies, ‘Female Junkie,’ ‘Mr. Anderson’s Secretary,’ and ‘Topless Party Girl.’

Again, this seems like such a vital thing to expect that we can add it to the test without debate.

Applying the test in this way, as you may have guessed, results in a horrifically low pass rate, especially (but not exclusively) for mainstream Hollywood film. At users are invited to apply the test to films and report their findings. The catalogue of results doesn’t make for pleasant reading. Just looking at some of the biggest films of 2010 we find that Green Zone, Hot Tub Time Machine, Iron Man 2, Kick-Ass, Knight & Day, Let Me In, Prince of Persia, Shutter Island, and The Social Network all fail to meet the criteria.

What is perhaps most concerning is that there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in the thinking behind Hollywood film production. As screenwriter Jennifer Kesler reported in a 2008 blog post, film schools are actively teaching screenwriters to fail the Bechdel test, and studio executives argue that audiences don’t want to see “a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about”. Arguments to the contrary are refuted by pointing at the box office takings for some of the movies mentioned above.

No one would argue that passing the Bechdel test is an absolute prerequisite for a good film (Citizen Kane does not meet the criteria for instance). But under the law of averages, as an indicator of the level of sexism in the modern output of the film industry, the results are truly shocking.

Adam Wood @adam