A Writing Issue: Passing the Bechdel Test

First things first: If you haven’t heard of the Bechdel test, it’s a simple test invented in a comic strip in 1985 that originally applied to movies. In order to pass, the work in question must:

  1. Have at least two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

That’s it. And it’s surprising the films that can fail it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II fails the test. So does the entire original Star Wars trilogy and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The test itself is problematic. Feminist films can fail it. Films that portray women absolutely one-dimensionally can pass. But it’s supposed to be a simple test. A baseline assumption about whether women are being represented in movies.

And it’s something I’m struggling with in my WIP. My main character is male. He’s always been male. I tried gender-bending him in my mind to see if a female protag would work, and it just… doesn’t. My antagonist is also male. I thought about making him female as well. But part of what drives him mad is his inability to relate to his teenage daughter.

So far, I have two parts of my book that make it pass the Bechdel test, or at least will pass once I go through and do revisions. Both times, the main character and his love interest, Hayleigh, are hitchhiking. First they’re picked up by a female truck driver. Right now, I don’t have any conversation (I don’t think. My WIP isn’t with me.) between the truck driver and Hayleigh, but it’s something I intend to add. The second time, they’re picked up by a family of six, split in gender 50/50. And I’m fairly certain I already have a conversation between Hayleigh and one of the girls. If I don’t, I will after revision.

When I started thinking about the topic, though, I thought I had written almost 30,000 words without passing the Bechdel test, and that embarrassed me. As a feminist, it’s important to me that I write something that passes such a simple test. But writing a male protagonist makes it more difficult. Especially in first person present. And especially after he and Hayleigh get separated. Is this something you pay attention to as you write? How do you work on consciously passing the Bechdel test in stories that are narrated by men or boys?

Is the Bechdel test something you notice when you’re reading or watching movies? How does it affect your moviegoing/book reading experience?

Comments

  1. Since becoming aware of the Bechdel test I have consciously tried to meet the spirit of it in all the stuff I write. The most problematical situations are where you have first person narration, if the character is male then it is almost impossible to easily meet the criteria. Something I’ve done to address this is switching POV characters between male and female. Even with a female protagonist in a short story it can sometimes be difficult (e.g. in a single scene two character piece).

    What I think is most important though is meeting the spirit of the test, which as I understand is that there should be real characters of both genders that aren’t just there to be the love interest of another character. This is something well worth doing, not only does it promote gender equality (and you could also work in colour and other points of discrimination) but it also makes for more interesting characters that have real differences from each other.

    Anyway you’ve inspired me to write a more detailed blog post myself. http://www.themself.org/2014/11/meeting-the-bechdel-test/

    • Checked out your blog post. Excellent read! I think there is a version of the Bechdel test that focuses on people of color. Like I mentioned on your own post, I do think the spirit of the test is far more important than actually passing.

  2. My novel pretty much fails it. It did pass for a long time, but recently i had to cut one of the side characters, so now the only women left are the MC and her mom, and they have one giant discussion about her marriage prospects and that’s kind of it between them. Unless secret letter count, which i don’t think they do.

    My WIP marginally passes. But that’s like the problem you have, with a male MC, first person POV, it’s gets more difficult because that MC is pretty much everything in the story

    I’m not overly worried in either case.

    • Having to cut a side character makes sense as a reason. And since the main thing is having female characters who are just as rounded out as the male, I’m not worried about you passing, either.

      Like I mentioned, plenty of amazing movies, with excellent female characters (hello Hermione and McGonagall) don’t pass. 🙂

  3. This is so fascinating! I’ve honestly never heard of the Bechdel test, but it looks like my WIP passes it. Phew! 😉 I’m not much of a feminist, but it’s nice to know how other people might interpret my views based on my cast and character interaction. Thanks for sharing!

    • Most stories with female MCs pass, at least I’d hope so! I’ll address your comment about not being much of a feminist in my next non-NaNo post, but it’s definitely worth considering. The gist of the whole feminism thing is that women are people, too, and should have say in where or if they work and should be represented as more than love interests and sexual objects in movies. I have a hard time believing you disagree with that. 🙂

      • Most of the feminists I’ve interacted with take feminism a few steps further. I agree with everything you said, but I feel like the term “feminist” comes with a stigmatism that I don’t want to represent, so I would never describe myself as a feminist. I think it’s important for women to have equal rights, but I believe God made men and women different for a reason, and we should celebrate and encourage those differences as they complement each other. I feel like the heart of feminism is probably fine, but when it gets magnified and starts to turn towards gender neutralization, I can’t support it. And it’s hard to explain that to people, so it’s easier to just play it safe and not align with feminism.

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