The Bechdel test (// bek-dəl) asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added. Many contemporary works fail this test of gender bias. On average, films that pass the test have been found to have a lower budget than others, but of comparable or better financial performance.
The test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In 1985, she had a character in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For voice the idea, which she attributed to a friend, Liz Wallace. The test was originally conceived for evaluating films but has since been applied to other media.
Gender portrayal in popular fiction
In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf observed about the literature of her time what the Bechdel test would later highlight in more recent fiction:
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that […]
In film, a study of gender portrayals in 855 of the most financially successful U.S. films from 1950 to 2006 showed that there were, on average, two male characters for each female character, a ratio that remained stable over time. Female characters were portrayed as being involved in sex twice as often as male characters, and their proportion of scenes with explicit sexual content increased over time. Violence increased over time in male and female characters alike.
The Bechdel test
What is now known as the Bechdel test was introduced in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:
- It has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
Bechdel credited the idea for the test to a friend and karate training partner, Liz Wallace. She later wrote that she was pretty certain that Wallace was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, reproduced in part above.
The test, which has been described as “the standard by which feminist critics judge television, movies, books, and other media”, moved into mainstream criticism in the 2010s. By 2013, an Internet newspaper described it as “almost a household phrase, common shorthand to capture whether a film is woman-friendly”, and the failure of major Hollywood productions such as Pacific Rim (2013) to pass it was addressed in depth in the media. According to Neda Ulaby, the test still resonates because “it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns.”
In 2013, four Swedish cinemas and the Scandinavian cable television channel Viasat Film incorporated the Bechdel test into some of their ratings, a move supported by the Swedish Film Institute.
Several variants of the test have been proposed—for example, that the two women must be named characters, or that there must be at least a total of 60 seconds of conversation.