I’ve seen several references recently to the “Bechdel Test” for movies, including one last week in Christianity Today‘s Her.meneutics blog. If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it judges a movie’s portrayal of women based on three criteria:

1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

I too want to see strong female characters on screen, and I’m glad the Bechdel Test calls attention in a pointed way to their shortage. However, like any arbitrary set of criteria (like, say, counting the number of profane words in a film), it has its limits. For example, I tend to relate to strong female characters who feel rather isolated from other women: a movie focused on this type of character might fail the Bechdel Test based on a technicality. Furthermore, the Bechdel Test doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue, which is the assumption that we have to create books or movies (or church, for that matter) in a particular way to woo men and women who are only interested in products catering to their own genders. (YA author Ben Jeapes describes this mindset in fiction as “the magic Harry-Ron-Hermione formula for pre-teen adventures of 2 boys to 1 girl. . . . This is because boys only want to read about boys whereas girls will read about either gender: so, you get a boy for the boys, a girl for the girls, and another boy to make up for the girl. Sad but true.” While this formula tends to be the norm for juvenile fiction, it seems publishers and movie studios have recently discovered that products targeted exclusively to adult women can, in fact, make money. I’m not sure this is an improvement, though. (See: Sex and the City, as well as most women’s Bible studies.)) It’s insulting to both men and women to assume such a narrow range of interests for either.


  1. I’ve never been a big fan of Bechdel’s test. It’s just too simplistic. I’ve actually read a ton of commentary on the test (Bechdel being a big indie in my primary field of study) and generally the feeling (from those who support it critically) seems to run something like: “Well, it’s a nice conversation-starter, but that’s about where its usefulness ends.”

    I like the Bechdel test as something like an early-warning system, an easy way for the less astute to have their mind pricked to consider whether a film or story plays into the kind of institutionalized sexism that is So Very Present to this day in Hollywood cinema. Of course, as you point out Carissa, merely failing Allison Bechdel’s stipulations doesn’t automatically assign guilt to a film for there may be any number of valid reasons that a film might fail such a test.

    And of course, a failing grade on the test bears no necessary relation to the film’s value as a worthwhile expenditure of time. In its original use, the character expressing the criteria uses it to decide whether to watch a given movie or not (ignore for a moment the fact that the character would have to see the movie in order to know whether a film met her criteria, making the purpose of the test impossible to meet anyway). This is not something that any of us who care to elevate critical thought ought to endorse.

    For any interested, here’s the one-page comic that the test first appeared in (from Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For).

  2. In some ways, yes a film that counts any movie as unwatchable because there aren’t two women talking to each other about something other than a dude isn’t fair. Alot of my favorite movies fail the Bechdel test completely. And even though I haven’t seen a film yet that does pass and is terrible, I’m sure there’s an example or 10 out there somewhere. However, dismissing the test altogether because it’s ‘insensitive’ is kind of ridiculous.

    The Bechdel test is a great conversation starter. But have you thought that maybe it’s also an important test because so many films today that had the opportunity to be WAY more than just another movie about a girl in love is diminished to exactly that? The test, however useless it seems to you, is still relevant (and will be for a while), because it’s kind of important that young women and young men who love film and are influenced by film see that women don’t exist for the sole purpose of serving men, fighting over men, gushing about men, etc. Maybe I’m just too much of a feminist… maybe I’m the only person in the world tired of seeing one-dimensional female characters while male characters get to be complex and super interesting and have deep conversations with each other, but until more movies actually pass the Bechdel test, then it’s not too simplistic for me (Cause if it’s so simple, why do so many films fail it like crazy?).

    Neither do I think it’s too narrow. The rules to the Bechdel test aren’t complicated. They aren’t two women in a conversation about politics, or two women in a conversation about social issues only, or five women in a conversation about dogs. It’s two women talking about something OTHER than a dude. There are a MILLION things two female characters can talk about in a film other than a dude and it can still relate to the plot, add to the story as a whole and create cultural value in the film world that’s inclusive. As Christians, I think promoting an inclusive message in all we do, believe in and even the things we consume is MASSIVE (but that’s another topic for another day). By sticking to the Bechdel test, the filmmakers are saying, ‘Hey – our lady characters actually matter as people in this film and not just symbols or stereotypes or the romantic double or the object to be won or fought over.’

    Just my opinion.

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