In this article:
- The Bechdel-Wallace Test is a simple tool that studies whether women exist and have a voice outside of men in film.
- It invites us to think about what kinds of people our culture allows to be seen, to speak, and crucially, about what.
- Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t the be-all end-all feminist litmus test we can use to judge what we watch.
- That so many films today still fail a test from the ‘80s — one that, clearly, shouldn’t be too difficult — is a testament to how far there is left to go.
Created in 1985, the Bechdel Test (or the Bechdel-Wallace Test) is a simple set of requirements that’s been described as a “cultural barometer,” but also “meaningless” and even a “nefarious plot.” But for its namesake and one of the test’s two creators, Alison Bechdel, it was “a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper.”
Online, the term stayed relatively unknown until the early 2010s, peaking as a search term in 2017. It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018 and has since become more common in our newsfeeds. In the past month, for example, I’ve seen people describing the Super Bowl, the Bible, and even their inner monologue in terms of whether it passed or failed the Bechdel Test.
So if you’ve seen the term thrown around recently but are too afraid to ask what it means, then you’ve come to the right place.
What Is It?
The Bechdel Test traces its roots to a comic strip by Bechdel called Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF). Published regularly between 1983 and 2008, the strip featured a diverse group of characters — though, given the title, you could guess that most of them were lesbians — and was, according to Bechdel, “half op-ed column and half endless, serialized Victorian novel.”
One of the longest-running queer comic strips, DTWOF followed her characters’ lives, and often featured them talking about both day-to-day concerns and political events. It’s in one such strip, called “The Rule,” that the Bechdel Test was born.
In it, one woman tells another about a rule she has for watching movies. “I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements,” she says, as they walk past several movie posters. “One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” (Emphases in the original.)
The other woman describes this idea as “pretty strict, but good.” And really, how hard can it be, right?
It turns out, it’s pretty hard: None of the movie posters they walk past seem like they would pass those three criteria. So, the two lesbians decide to go home.
This rule has since been expanded to media other than just films in what’s now known as the Bechdel Test. And so, when thinking about the rule in terms of works of fiction, we can summarize the test like this:
- The piece of media has at least two women in it;
- The two women talk to each other; and
- They talk about something that isn’t a man.
Another name for the test is the Bechdel-Wallace Test, which Bechdel actually prefers, as she credits the idea for the strip to Liz Wallace, a friend and karate training partner.
The test — and DTWOF in general — is very specific to the queer experience, and the three rules express the very real alienation queer women felt in film and entertainment at the time (and, well, to this day). But the idea that women in fiction tend to lack depth and are defined mostly by their association with men is not new.
Just over half a century before DTWOF, Virginia Woolf wrote about the literature of her time in the influential essay A Room of One’s Own (which inspired, among other things, the award-winning, women-led project of Archive of Our Own). She wrote:
“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… seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …”
Since its inception, the Bechdel-Wallace Test has seen several versions. For instance, some have suggested amending the first criteria to require that the minimum number of two women have actual names (as in, not just “Waitress 2” or “The Secretary”).
Others, meanwhile, want to expand the second requirement to ensure that the women talk for at least a minute within a 90-minute film.
What’s It For?
At this point, you might be thinking about your favorite films and how they square up to the three requirements of the Bechdel-Wallace Test.
Let me save you a quick minute of Googling: The Twilight Series? Pass. Also passing are Spirited Away (2001), Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 (2003-2004), Frozen (2013), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), La La Land (2016), Black Panther (2018), Parasite (2019), and Birds of Prey (2020).
On the fail column are The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003), Finding Nemo (2003), Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004), Ratatouille (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Avatar (2009), 500 Days Of Summer (2009), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), and the Deadpool movies (2016 and 2018).
But while the lists of movies that pass or fail are interesting to think about, the truth is that whether individual films are able to meet Bechdel-Wallace’s three criteria is not the point.
There are, after all, some films that pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test but aren’t exactly shining beacons of feminism — as in, 1992’s The Bikini Carwash Company. Heck, even Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back passes by virtue of its first line: A woman telling another, “Oh my God Becky, look at her butt!”
Meanwhile, some films that fail the test are actually pretty feminist. Take, for example, 2013’s Gravity and even 1998’s Mulan. Moreover, Deadpool’s Wade is also really progressive, a feminist, and canonically pansexual.
So, no, the Bechdel-Wallace Test isn’t the be-all, end-all for deciding whether a film is misogynistic or not. It’s not a tool for passing moral or ethical judgment on a film, its characters, and its creators.
But now you might be asking: If it’s not about the many, many lists online about which films fail or pass, then what is it about?
For Queer Women
The first answer to that question is rooted in the original context of the Bechdel-Wallace Test: In DTWOF, the three criteria were discussed by two lesbians.
There’s a reason, for instance, that most lesbian films today easily pass the test. At the time of Bechdel’s writing, lesbian-themed films were really few and far between — one character even admits that the last film they saw was 1979’s Alien, which had premiered a whole six years prior to the comic strip.
This choice of movie (a sci-fi horror flick that, not incidentally, launched Sigourney Weaver’s status as a queer geek icon in particular and acting career in general) also holds significant meaning.
For most of Hollywood history, lesbians and queer women had to make do with queer subtext — usually found only in horror films — for any form of representation. They were surviving on crumbs.
Thus, the Bechdel-Wallace Test is first and foremost a lesbian joke about how hard it was (and can still be) to find women in movies that aren’t just obsessing about, fighting over, and/or falling in love with a guy.
This plays into what feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, herself also a lesbian, wrote about in 1980 when she coined the term compulsory heterosexuality: Women are taught in a million tiny ways, most visibly through our media, that being with men is not only required, but is also a source of fulfillment for us. This, she argues, contributes to the erasure of the lesbian existence.
But just as the Bechdel-Wallace Test highlights the lack of lesbian representation in film, many of today’s discussions about it do a great disservice to Bechdel and queer women by neglecting to recognize the test’s queer roots — that is, on top of using it as a simplistic litmus test for female representation.
For Women in General
Of course, I can’t deny that over the years, the Bechdel Test has developed a life of its own in pop culture beyond the original context, and that’s okay. Even among straight women, friendships with other women based on something that isn’t a man are important, fulfilling, and, all too often, absent in mainstream films.
So, even though it was originally written by a lesbian for lesbians, the Bechdel-Wallace Test resonates with women in general because it highlights a shared experience: Despite making up around half of all human beings, we have been historically absent on screen (though this has risen to near-parity in recent years, but primarily for White women).
The versions of us we do see in film tend to lack depth. Many don’t even speak, and when we do, it’s about a man.
Crucially, this isn’t just about a singular film — the Bechdel Test has become a commentary of sorts on how we enforce gender norms through the media we produce, and what we deem important to see and not see.
It’s a commentary on a culture that can’t (or doesn’t want to) imagine and tell stories about women whose existence, conversations, hopes, dreams, and friendships don’t revolve around men.
Think about it: It’s hard to find a film that doesn’t have a scene where men talk about something that isn’t a woman. If there was such a thing as a Reverse Bechdel Test, it wouldn’t be hard at all.
So the punchline to all this is that the standards set by the Bechdel-Wallace Test are on the ground. It’s not asking for a full character arc, for the majority of the characters in a film to be women, or even for the main character to be a woman.
It just asks for women (plural) to exist, and to have something — anything — to say that isn’t about a man. It’s not necessarily about meeting a quota. That is, if you can even consider the requirements of the test as much of a quota at all.
But even then, so many fail.
Because the standards are almost laughably low, it’s extra odd that some have treated passing it as a means to get bragging rights for feminism. Yes, you have two women characters in a cast of 12 named characters. Okay, and…? Yes, they speak to each other once in a 90-minute film about the weather. And so..?
This is why insisting on talking about the Bechdel Test in the context of individual films, whether or not it makes sense in a feminist way, is like missing the forest for the trees.
What does it say about us, that it’s so hard to find films that pass three simple rules? What does it say about our culture that we have to consciously put in an effort to create stories with multiple women in them, and in which they can speak words that aren’t about men?
If something as simple as the requirements of the Bechdel-Wallace Test feel like an unreasonable burden to ask filmmakers to think about, then what does that say about how we view women on screen and in real life?
How Can We Do Better?
Though it was originally a joke among lesbians, the Bechdel-Wallace Test invites us to think about how we as a society do films in relation to how we see and represent women. The next step, now, is to think about how we can do better.
It starts by challenging the outdated Hollywood myth that movies about women do worse at the box office. This isn’t always true, and when it is, it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Women-led films tend to get lower production and marketing budgets, which can help explain the lower earnings.
It’s important to support women behind the camera, too. Unlike women on screen, the percentage of women in film production has not moved much in the last couple of decades, and this lack of parity definitely plays a role in the films we’re able to make.
(Women’s systematic removal from behind the camera has a lesser-known history, too, if you want your blood boiling.)
Lastly, it’s crucial to think about other axes of inequality, like race, sexuality, and disability. Over the years, the Bechdel-Wallace Test has inspired several variations in this regard:
- Deggans’ Rule: Sometimes referred to as the Race Bechdel Test, it focuses on whether or not two characters of color talk about anything other than the white leads;
- The Vito Russo Test: Highlighting the lesbian roots of the original, it studies whether two LGBT characters talk about anything other than straight people and their problems; and
- The Disability Bechdel Test: This one’s not as established as the other two, but there is a proposed version of the test looking at whether people with disabilities are involved in plots that aren’t just about their disabilities, and if they’re depicted realistically.