I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for a while now, but I only got around to it now after a friend of mine did it on her blog and I thought to myself, “Yeah, might as well get my butt in gear and do this already.”

So anyway, if you’re unfamiliar with the Bechdel test, it’s used to measure how feminist a work of fiction, usually a film or a novel, is. It was first created by cartoonist Allison Bechdel for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and has since become used in academic circles and with critics.

Here are the criteria for passing the Bechdel test:

  1. You have two female characters (sometimes having them named is a requirement, and I’ll do that here).
  2. They actually have to talk to each other.
  3. They have to talk about something other than a guy.

On that last part, I usually take it to mean talking about a guy who is in some sense romantically linked to one or both characters. After all, a lot of stories focus solely on a woman’s quest for love or marriage, and that’s it, and I feel like that’s what this test was designed for. And what if the two women are detectives and they’re talking about a suspect who’s male and how he’s difficult to bring to justice? That should be worthy of passing the Bechdel test.

Now before I begin, I want to make one thing clear: I don’t see this test as the end-all test for how feminist a work is. While some do use the Bechdel test in that capacity, I see it more as a tool to examine various works of fiction and promote discussion, rather than as the only way to get a work to be called feminist. Heck, even film organizations who use the test when rating a movie do it mostly for collecting information on gender inequality in films and to make viewers aware of that same gender inequality more than anything else.

So without further ado, here’s how my novels (I’d do the short stories as well, but there’s a lot of those, so I’ll pass) do with the Bechdel test:

  • Reborn City/Video Rage. I place these two together because they’re part of the same series. And they do pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. There are several named female characters in RC, particularly protagonists Zahara Bakur, Ilse, and Iori. And they do talk to each other about a lot of other stuff besides men, including the gang situation in West Reborn and how being a gangster is not for the faint of heart (a problem for Zahara considering she prefers peace and harmony to violence and gun fights). Similarly in VR, there are at least four or five named female characters, including the ones I mentioned above, and they also talk a lot about things other than men, including the situation they’re stuck in or the history of the war that made the world how it is in their present (our future).
  • Snake. Um…yes, but just barely. There are three or four named characters, including the female protagonist Allison Langland. However, as so much of the book focuses on the Snake’s quest to save Allison and then to keep her safe, she doesn’t have a lot of onscreen time with other female characters. There is a scene where Allison speaks with another character about events to come, but the Snake is also part of this conversation, so I guess it depends on your point-of-view on the subject. If there’s ever a sequel to this book, I may try to do better on that front while writing the story.
  • Laura Horn. Despite still working through the second draft, I can tell you LH passes the Bechdel test. There are several named female characters, including our protagonist, and that they do talk to one another about things other than men. Especially the fact that Laura’s wanted for a crime she never committed. Yeah, heavy stuff. Guys and romance actually don’t come up that much. Yeah, romantic feelings are part of the story, but by no means are they the focus, and I expect that will be the case still when I reach the final draft (whenever that is).
  • Rose. Again, this one just barely passes, and whether it does is a matter of perspective. As I’ve mentioned, Rose is about a woman held captive in the home of a man claiming to be her lover. Rose spends a lot of time on her own or with the guy whose house she’s in. She does have conversations with another female, but this female isn’t exactly human, and a few other things about this being call into question whether or not it counts. There’s also a conversation Rose has with another girl in a flashback, but I don’t know if flashbacks count either. So again, this one’s up for debate, one that might not be settled until after the book is published (whenever that is).

So the final verdict is that one half of my novels pass the Bechdel test, and the other half are a matter of opinion. Again, this test isn’t definitive by any means, and as demonstrated in the cases of Snake and Rose,  there are shortcomings to the test. However, it does feel good to know that half my work does pass the test, and the other half might. Surprisingly about half of all films don’t pass the Bechdel test, while quite a number of movies pass what is known as the reverse Bechdel test, which focuses on men (not going to bother with that, except to say that Rose is probably the only one that doesn’t pass). I like to think it says something good about my personality or writing style.

Perhaps in a few years I’ll try applying the Bechdel test to my works again and see what happens. In the meantime, I think I’ll focus on creating good stories in general. And possibly applying other tests to the stories I write (though I’m kind of afraid of what the results might be and what they say about me as a writer). We’ll see how I feel about it.

What are your thoughts on the Bechdel test? Do your works pass it? Why or why not?

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Comments
  1. Now that is a good test! So simple, yet so telling. I’m suddenly concerned about my own works…

  2. All of my novels pass because having a the main character being female means I just need to add in a second woman and if they converse about the joys of blood drinking, I’m done. wOOt! LOL! okay, seriously though, I think the feminist thing is great, but not all stories NEED two women talking about something. If it fits the book/story it should be there, but if it has to be added in just to be added in then it’s superfluous and only being put in to MAKE it PC and at that point it’s not PC at all because then it’s just the author trying to *prove* they are PC and when someone has to prove it, then they aren’t really…like someone who has to say “I like gays/black people/fat chicks! They’re great!” As soon as you have lumped them into a “group” – even if you’re saying “they’re great” – you’ve taken them out of the broader group of “normal people” and given them a secondary label – meaning they aren’t just normal people anymore, they are apart from the herd of normal. This applies, in my mind, to women as well. I get that people are trying to create a “strong female character” but if they have to *try* then they aren’t really doing it because the story led them there, or because they view women in general that way, but because they think they should – because in their mind she is not part of the normal, she is a thing apart, she is something they must mindfully and purposefully create, not something organic.

    • I have to agree, you shouldn’t only put two characters into a situation or two types of characters just to fulfill an expectation or something. You should do it because it works for the story. But like I said, this test is just to allow discussion and thought about female portrayal in media. It shouldn’t be used as an absolute measure of quality or how feminist a work is.

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