Stop using the Bechdel Test to Measure Feminism

Created by graphic artist Alison Bechdel in 1985, the Bechdel Test requires movies to fulfill three simple tenets in order to pass: it must have at least two female characters, the two female characters must have a conversation with one another, and that conversation must not be about a man.

Interesting parameters, right? For a comic book, sure! For measuring feminism and female representation in film and television? Not so much.

Listen- that video up top is top notch, and you should definitely watch it. I’m going to repeat myself a bit, but I wanted a text record of these thoughts because this is an actual, tangible issue, and I will not be ignored, damn it!

Top facts via the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film:

  • In 2015–16, 79% of the broadcast, cable, and streaming programs considered featured casts with more male than female characters.
  • In 2015, females comprised 22% of protagonists, 18% of antagonists, 34% of major characters, and 33% of all speaking characters in the top 100 domestic grossing films.

This isn’t even getting into race and sexuality, which are their own massive topics. Suffice it to say, overall, white straight women have it the best. Obviously.

I am not getting into this topic right now- intersectionality in feminism is very important but to discuss the Bechdel Test as a whole I can’t get into it any more specifically right now. If you want to read about how garbage the film and television industries are to women, especially women of color and LGBT women, read here:

Back in late 2013, several Swedish cinemas decided to start rating movies using the Bechdel Test, and the internet rejoiced! Take this quote from Jezebel:

“Consumers will now be able to select what entertainment they consume based on how successfully it treats women like human beings.”

Except, no, because the Bechdel Test does not measure “how successfully a film treats women like human beings.” In fact, using the Bechdel Test like this might make things worse, because simply following the tenets of the Bechdel Test to create a movie you want deemed acceptable by feminists is not enough and, frankly, kind of insulting.

Why should I stop using the Bechdel Test to evaluate feminism in media?

Let’s explore!

First, it’s a quantitative analysis being used as a qualitative one.

The Bechdel Test only looks at numbers, and in no way determines whether or not the female characters that allow a movie to pass said test are “strong” or even “good” characters.

This is not the Bechdel Test’s fault, but rather the fault of people who misunderstand how analysis works. Having two women speak in your movie does not equal feminism, and having that be the bar is worrying to say the least.

Second, the “test” defines “male” too broadly

If a woman talks with another woman about a male child, the movie fails the test, which to me seems a little harsh. The Bechdel Test isn’t specific enough, and “fails” a movie if the women talk to one another about ANY man, be that man 2 months old, a sibling, or gay. This effectively discounts any movie about motherhood unless the child is female.

Third, using the Bechdel Test to rate feminism in media confirms the worst stereotypes about feminism, and is actually kind of sexist towards women.

The second step of the test, where the two women have to talk to each other, essentially says that women are only valuable or treated well when they’re around another woman, which is absurd.

By framing movies in context of the Bechdel test, we are effectively telling women that they are hurting the cause of feminism whenever they speak to or of men, and we’re telling men that their very existence hurts women.

And what does this say about modern feminism? Does no one else see the irony in a feminist pop culture test claiming that women are only valuable to the feminist agenda if they’re in pairs?

Finally, the Bechdel Test discounts any non-romantic conversation between a man and a woman as non-progress.

If a woman talks to a man about her job, her children, her fears, a war they’re both part of, the fate of the world, or her experience as a woman in a world made for men, how is that harming female representation in film?

We should be celebrating movies that allow men and women to be friends, or even more than friends, if both characters are full, actual people.

What will move us forward as a culture is not just randomly throwing in conversations between women about their periods, but, perhaps, making characters whose gender is not important to the plot female instead of the default “man,” or making characters whose whiteness is not required by the plot people of color.

Or, better yet, write stories about women being women and people of color experiencing the world as people of color that aren’t indie films or outliers from pop culture, and rather just STORIES. And maybe hire women and people of color to write and direct them too.

And now for…

THE CASTELLINI TEST!

This is mostly a joke, but it’s also not a joke, because if you probably still want something catchy to evaluate (non intersectional) female representation in film and television. I’ve dismantled the Bechdel Test, and would be remiss if I didn’t offer an alternative. Enter: The Castellini Test!

  1. There have to be at least two named women characters with at least 5 lines of dialog each.
  2. Those characters must have a conversation, not necessarily with the other woman, either not about their partner or with their partner (future or current) and not about their relationship.
  3. At least one of the women has to be integral to the plot, meaning that if she were written out of the film, it couldn’t reach the same ending.

I mean, you could also Google “feminist film theory” and take more than two seconds to decide whether or not a piece of media is problematic or otherwise, but where’s the fun in that?

Bottom line

Despite its intentions of illustrating a problem with gender disparity in media, the Bechdel Test (as it is used by lazy journalists and casual viewers) ends up telling women that they only matter when around other women, and tells men that in a perfect world, they don’t exist. We all have a personal responsibility to critically evaluate other critical examinations of our art and culture, and to critically evaluate them broadly.

Writer, filmmaker, adjunct prof, and human bulldozer. Colorado>Oregon>NYC>LA www.BriCastellini.com