It comes down to this. To pass the Bechdel Test, a film must:
- have at least two women in it
- who talk to each other
- about something besides a man
The test first appeared in 1985, in a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. In a particular strip called The Rule, two characters are outside a movie theatre trying to decide whether to go see a film. One character explains that she has this rule:
I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements.The last film she has seen that passes is Alien.
Dykes to Watch Out For author Alison Bechdel credits her friend Liz Wallace with the idea for the rule. Used by DTWOF readers over the years to pick satisfying films or critique gender bias in film and film-making, the test gained prominence in the 2000s when picked up by feminist bloggers. The most obvious thing to arise from even a cursory application of the test is how the overwhelming majority of films (and other media) fail it. Of the few films that pass the test, many do so only just.
Also known as The Dykes To Watch Out For (DTWOF) Test, the Alison Bechdel Test, or the Mo Movie Measure1, the Bechdel Test is now used as a starting point for analysing the portrayal of women in popular and other culture. While movie-goers can also use the test in choosing which films to see, the crux of the test is that it has such a ridiculously low threshold for films to get over. This highlights the large gender bias particularly in mainstream Hollywood-style cinema, where film producers seem intent on making movies for young men, despite the fact that films that pass the Bechdel Test get good ratings and make good profits2. The point is not that any individual film fails the test, but that so many fail, and that this is an intentional exclusion on the part of film producers.
It's also a stepping-off point for examining gender in film in more detail. For example, if there are two women in a film that doesn't pass the test, what are the two women doing? Why are they in the film? Do they have any agency3?
Originally applied to films, it is now also used to discuss television shows, theatre, books, or any medium where women appear (or don't appear). Shakespeare does better than Warner Bros. Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing all pass, MacBeth doesn't. George Bernard Shaw also does well.
The test has evolved in a few directions. Some people feel that the female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man have to be named characters in order to pass the test. That makes the test harder to pass, but yields more satisfying results in the ones that do pass. However if the test is left at the original, very low threshold, it better highlights how few films pass even that.
A variation of the test has also been applied to toy catalogues. The test is passed if, in the catalogue, there are:
- One or more girls, playing;
- with no boys around; and
- with something that is not related to domestic work, mothering, being sexy, or ponies.
Most fail. As do most children's films when The Bechdel Test is applied.
Then there is the Reverse Bechdel Test (or Anti-Bechdel Test), where a movie is deemed to have passed if it has two male characters who talk to each other about something other than a woman. Most films fail to fail at that one. In other words it's very rare for a film to have male characters that only talk to each other about women.
The point of this test is to take the opposite approach to highlight the gender bias in film and other media where films with male characters with agency are overwhelmingly and often exclusively the norm. Most films fail the Bechdel Test, and 'pass' the Reverse test but for the same reason - most film-makers seem to think that filmgoers are only interested in films that revolve around men.
A blogger made up a new test for male sci-fi writers, called the Frank Miller Test, in reference to the comic-book writer and director's seeming focus on women as prostitutes. In this test, if the proportion of female sex workers to neutrally presented female people in his story is above 1:1, he fails4.
Films that Fail the Test
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – only one of the central characters, Trillian, is a woman and she doesn't talk to the other, secondary, female character. Douglas Adams, author of the original book, apparently didn't feel comfortable writing women characters.
The Matrix – despite several strong female characters, none of them manage to have a conversation with each other about anything apart from the men in the film.
Lord of the Rings – as in The Matrix, there are several key female characters, who in this case don't talk to each other at all. The book also fails.
Films that Pass the Test
Thelma and Louise – an obvious pass. Despite lots of talk about men, the two characters talk about all sorts of other things too.
Sex and The City – rated very highly at the box office despite industry pundits expressing surprise that it could do well.
Alien – often cited by feminist film buffs as an example of an action/horror/sci-fi film that had a strong lead female character and which was also a critical and box office success. It's also the film mentioned in the original DTWOF The Rule comic as the last film she was able to see. The sequel, Aliens, also passes the Bechdel Test.
Juno passes the Bechdel Test well, and fails the Anti-Bechdel test well too, which makes it a rarity.