The Bechdel Test

The Rule: The Origin of the Bechdel Test

As I’ve been rereading WTRPCPSU during this revision process, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Bechdel Test.

If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it was based on a comic strip by Alison Bechdel nearly 30 years ago and has since been used to point out gender inequality in movies. Well, it began with movies, but it can just as easily be applied to television shows and literary works.

The criteria for passing the Bechdel Test is as follows:

There are at least two named female characters…

who talk to each other…

about something besides a man.

Now, I can’t speak for other women in this world, but I know that my real life would easily pass the Bechdel Test. Even if you discount the writing-centric conversations I have, I talk to my female friends about myriad topics ranging from politics to economics to petty gossip (I’ll admit to that) to sports to entertainment. Yes, we may talk about our husbands and our children, but those conversations don’t make up the bulk of our communication.

Since the main character of WTRPCPSU is a 15-year-old female, it should be a given that my novel would pass the Bechdel Test, right? Well, I’d hope so, but just because you have a female lead doesn’t mean you’d automatically pass. I mean, look at Pretty in Pink. I’ve watched that movie several dozen times, and I can’t think of a single conversation Andie has with her friends that don’t involve a guy. And that’s unfortunate.

(If anyone reading this disagrees or can prove me wrong, by the way, please let me know in the comments. I’d be happy to help myself to a heaping plate of crow if I’ve missed it.)

Well, I’m happy to report that WTRPCPSU passes the Bechdel Test. Despite the fact that it’s Teen Chick Lit (hey – I’m being honest), there are more than a handful of conversations among the girls that don’t involve a guy. (Of course, as Teen Chick Lit, there are plenty of conversations that discuss guys, too.) Moreover, I think I’ve done an adequate job of representing both genders, meaning that I include conversations between guys that discuss something other than girls.

That the Bechdel Test should be applied in reverse seems kind of unfair when you consider the initial purpose of the test, but I think it’s possible to swing too much in a single direction. And that’s part of the problem.

Gender equality is about equality. Female characters should get at least as much screen time as male characters. We absolutely need more strong female characters on the screen and in books who interact with each other and talk about real-life issues, not just boys. I’m not denying that. It happens in real life; it should happen in fictional works, too.

But I do worry, as a writer of a female-centric work, that I might not afford my male characters the same consideration that the Bechdel Test demands for female characters. It could be, as author Jeff Fecke suggests, that novels with female leading characters might not pass a Reverse Bechdel Test because the main character wouldn’t necessarily be privy to male conversation. (This would help explain why so many movies fail the Bechdel Test, if for no other reason than the main characters are often male.)

It’s a lot to consider, I’ve discovered, if an author wants to ensure gender equality in his work. But if you take the time to watch how people interact with each other on any given day, I think you’ll find that if you focus on portraying your characters in realistic situations as accurately as possible, you’ll inevitably pass the Bechdel Test – and its reverse – quite organically.



  1. Connie B. Dowell

    Good point. It’s important to create authentic character interactions in a world that’s not largely peopled with one gender.
    The intersection between movies and books here got me thinking. Book-to-movie conversions could be interesting study in terms of the Bechdel test. The Harry Potter series, the books at least, pass the Bechdel test, often with flying colors because there are a number of women in leadership roles. The movies… not so much. I know characters have to be diminished in role for such adaptations, just to fit the plot into a movie time-frame, but then that brings up the question: When you have to cut something, why women’s leadership? Was this a conscious decision or a result of unconscious cultural bias?

    • E.M.

      I suppose the Harry Potter books pass the Bechdel Test when you consider Hermione talking to Mrs. McGonagall or Mrs. Weasley talking to Ginny. I love the stories (don’t get me wrong!) but the female characters’ interactions seem so few and far between. Ditto in reverse for Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series.

      I do like the question you posit, though. I doubt it’s a conscious decision. When characters need to be combined or outright eliminated, it’s easiest to take out a character who doesn’t do much within the story. In a male-centric story, that would probably be a female. In a female-centric story, it’s most likely a guy.

  2. Ponytail

    Doesn’t Andie speak to her boss on a number of occasions ? At least one of them is about the dress. And she speaks to a couple of horrors at the party about not-boys. And the gym class is female only, and while it’s not a very nice conversation, it’s not about boys either.
    I need to leave 1986 behind me…

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