Normally the subject of the Bechdel test comes up in sitcoms or comedies, but if you’re acutely aware of the Bechdel test, it’s one of those things you never really stop paying attention to. At the very least, you’ll have a little “oh you just failed the Bechdel test” moment anytime a movie or show you’re watching does fail it. So what exactly is the Bechdel test?
Start Calling it the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This might be a weird thing to open up with, but the Bechdel test was first penned by cartoonist Alison Bechdel and Liz Wallace. While the name of the test is largely attributed to Bechdel, she holds that Wallace deserves the same credit. Bechdel herself would prefer it be called the Bechdel-Wallace test. That name probably hasn’t caught on because people don’t like adding extra syllables to things?
The Bechdel-Wallace test first made its appearance in Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, in 1985.
What Does the Bechdel-Wallace Test Measure?
The Bechdel-Wallace test is (broadly) a measure of gender inclusivity in film (though you could probably apply the test’s principles to other narrative mediums). Yes, while gender inclusivity is generally trending in a better direction, there’s still quite a bit of progress to be made.
Of the top 100 grossing films in 2019, about 20% of all directorial or otherwise executive roles went to women. If this number seems incredibly low, know that’s it’s actually a vast improvement from previous years (ouch). Take that as you will. Onscreen statistics for women fare a little better. Of that same group of films, 43% featured women as leads (or co-leads). Compare this to the period from 2007 to 2015, when only 30% of speaking characters were women.
So yeah, the point is that there are far less women in media than there are women in the world. You know, about 50%. And that brings us to the test itself.
The Bechdel-Wallace test has three criteria:
- The film must have at least two (named) women within the cast of characters.
- They have to talk to each other.
- The thing they talk about has to be something other than a man.
In large part, the test is about calling out contemporary norms in media culture. It calls to attention that women are largely under-represented in popular culture–in this case, film. Of course, it’s not only about women being on screen, but also about how popular culture can reinforce gender norms. For example, a predominant amount of female character’s being only as important to a narrative as their relationship to male characters.
Passing Does Not a Good Movie Make
Owing to its origins, the Bechdel-Wallace test is largely attributed as a measure for cultural norms. It calls into question something quite simple that people might not notice.
Of course, the test has been criticized for being reductive; good films may fail it while bad films may pass. That’s largely your opinion. It is perfectly fair to not resonate with something if it does not feel friendly to you (even if everyone else likes it). There’s also criticism of the test that’s just rooted in sexism. A film might not pass for reasons arguably outside of the realm of gender bias. Maybe its cast just has one character.
But in the same way passing the Bechdel-Wallace test does not necessarily make a film good, it does not always make a film (or narrative, really) particularly feminist. It doesn’t take too much imagination to game the test and have a scene pass but still be astoundingly bigoted. You could also pass through token representation.
The point is, representation is important; we should probably work towards more genuine diversity in consumer media and popular culture. It’s not going to hurt anyone, and we could all do with new ideas and voices in the field.
Hey, at the very least, we hope you found a new something to poke fun at with when you’re watching movies with friends or something.
See if you know which of the cultural juggernaut Disney’s movies pass the test here.