The Bechdel Test is an examination of a film, book, or any work of fiction in general based on three criteria. For a work of fiction to pass the Bechdel Test, the work must a) have at least two women b) who talk each other c) about something other than a man. If the work of fiction meets all three criteria, the Bechdel Test gives it an “A for Approved” rating. The Bechdel Test is often applied to film, but it can also be applied to literature, comics, TV shows and some podcasts. Even day-to-day interactions between everyday people can pass or fail the Bechdel Test (Selisker 2015).
Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist, introduced the concept of the Bechdel Test in a 1985 strip of the comic Dykes to Watch Out For. In this comic, an unnamed character asks two women if a fictional piece can who two or more women who talk to each other about something other than a man (Lindvall 2013). When the Bechdel Test is applied to films, audiences can determine if the film has a gender bias that may or may not be intentional but certainly prevalent (Scheiner-Fisher, Russell 2012).
Gaul (2017) uses the Bechdel Test implicitly to analyze the relationships between female characters in the novel studied by herself and the class she instructed. Sincerity by Susanna Rowson, one of the books her class studied, became a popular novel among her students for the “female relationships, and, even more provocatively, how marriage affected female relationships” (Gaul, 2017: 146). Sincerity, Gaul says, exemplifies how the Bechdel Test can be seen in other media forms than just film, and she compares her class’ understanding of literature by American women to the Bechdel Test, saying it mirrors her students’ value of Sincerity and its take on the complex nature of female relationships.
Selisker (2015) describes the Bechdel Test in the form of character interactions in fictional narratives to find a method of linking these communications in one network. He breaks down his analysis into three different sections. In his first section, Social Network Analysis and Literary Works, he observes social interactions between fictional characters and how these interactions evolve into a connected network in that work of fiction. In his second section, Female Networks, or Between Women, he observes the roles of women in social interactions and how they act as intermediaries, if not instigators of conversation. In his third section, Critical Labor and Literary Data, he brings his article to a conclusion by referring to the Bechdel Test as a collection of data and closes with a new goal society should reach towards. “Rather than replacing persons with networks, I see the Bechdel Test as encouraging us to place persons within networks” (Selisker, 2015: 519). Selisker would like for society to insert themselves into these networks that he presents in his analysis and go further than just seeking out the presence of women who talk about something other than man.
Scheiner-Fisher & Russell use different examples of films with more prominent female characters to promote gender equity in history. They created a list of movies that both met the criteria for the Bechdel Test and remained popular among their audiences. These films include Elizabeth, Persepolis, and the Diary of Anne Frank. Scheiner-Fisher & Russell credit these films because unlike most films that are seen through the male gaze, “these ten films show women who are capable of carrying their own story and do more than satisfy the ‘chick flick’ narrative” (Scheiner-Fisher & Russell, 2012: 223). These films all pass the Bechdel Test and make strides towards gender equity in film and history.
Gaul, T. S. (2017). Female Relationships in Susanna Rowson’s Sincerity: The Bechdel Test and American Literature Syllabi. Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, 34(1), 141-150.
Lindvall, D. (2013, December). Editorial. Film International (16516826). pp. 4-5.
Scheiner-Fisher, C., & Russell, W. B. (2012). Using Historical Films to Promote Gender Equity in the History Curriculum. Social Studies, 103(6), 221-225. doi:10.1080/00377996.2011.616239
Selisker, S. (2015, Summer). The Bechdel Test and the Social Form of Character Networks. New Literary History, 46(3), 505-523.
Image Attribution: “Bechdel Test” by Srravya is licensed under CC0 by 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
Written by Michael Mensah, 2018