The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test, used when watching movies, is simple. It names the following three criteria:

(1) it has to have at least two women in it
(2) who talk to each other
(3) about something besides a man.

I just learned of the test recently, even though it’s been around for a while, and have asked my screenwriter friends from Wilkes to give me their thoughts on it. In the meantime, though, one writer talks about why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel Test. There’s even an entire blog that reviews movies (and TV and books) based solely on the test.

Of the nine movies I’ve reviewed in the past year, only three passed the Bechdel Test. Working backwards: I found that…

FAIL The Time Machine passed the first part of the test (it has two women in it—the housekeeper and Weena), but failed the other two (the two women never even meet, much less speak to each other).

FAIL How to Train Your Dragon has two women in it (Astrid and Ruffnut), but—as far as I can recall—they never speak to each other. They share screen time, though, which could mean something. (I know I’m reaching here, but I really wanted this movie to pass!)

PASS Alice in Wonderland, thank heavens, has more than two women in it (Alice, The White Queen, and the Red Queen/Queen of Hearts, among others). Alice and the White Queen do talk (passing the second part of the test), and they mostly talk about whether or not Alice is going to be the White Queen’s champion or not (third part: passed!).

FAIL Forbidden Planet fails all three parts of the test. There’s only one woman in the entire movie (Alta), so there’s no possible way to pass the second and third parts of the test.

FAIL Peter Pan passes the first part of the test pretty easily (Wendy, Tinkerbell, and Tiger Lily are all featured, as well as Mrs. Darling and Wendy’s prudish aunt). As far as I can remember, Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily have no significant speaking lines, and Tinkerbell doesn’t like Wendy in the first place; the only thing they have in common is Peter, anyway. Wendy and her aunt do talk to each other, however, which passes the second part of the test, but it’s about Wendy almost being old enough to be betrothed/married, which counts as talking about a man in my book. So, ultimately, Peter Pan fails the test on the third try.

PASS New Moon [gag] passes the first part of the test with Bella, the main character, as woman #1 and other minor female characters (Rosalie, Alice, Esme, Jessica, Jane, Emily, and even Victoria) all clocking in with woman #2 potential. So, we have a lot of options here, but do any of these women talk to any of these other women on screen? Well, we barely see Victoria in the movie at all, much less hear her speak, so she’s out. However, Emily, Rosalie, Alice, Esme, Jessica, and Jane all interact with Bella, so that passes the second part of the test.

Emily and Bella talk about the Quileute wolfpack (“Do they always eat like this?” “*laugh*”), who are (mostly) men, so that conversation is out. Jessica’s and Jane’s “conversations” with Bella are pretty one-sided (they do all the talking while Bella stands there, basically mute), so I can’t count either of them. It gets iffy with Rosalie, Alice, and Esme. These three mostly interact with Bella during Bella’s ill-fated 18th birthday party, and I don’t remember exactly what they say to each other, but it’s quite possible that one of their interactions with Bella (or each other) passes the third part of the Bechdel Test. (Argh… that really frustrates me because, like Twilight, New Moon is hardly feminist-friendly, so I kinda wanted this movie to fail the test, not pass it.)

FAIL Watchmen has at least two women characters (most notably the two Silk Spectres, Sally and her mother), and they do talk to each other, but they only ever talk about the Comedian, so this movie fails the third part of the test. (No big loss, really, because the movie wasn’t that good.)

FAIL Jarhead outright fails all three parts of the test: there’s only one woman in the movie (the main character’s girlfriend who dumps him), so the movie automatically fails the second and third parts of the test.

PASS The Legend of Chun-Li, amazingly, passes all three parts of the Bechdel Test. First, it has multiple women in it (Chun-Li, Cantana, and Maya). Maya mostly interacts with Nash, but Cantana and Chun-Li literally duke it out in an early fight scene/conversation. In the bathroom of a dance club, they talk/fight about “The White Rose” (which, we later discover, is actually another woman).

I’d be interested to watch more movies with this test in mind. It seems like a decent litmus for Movies I’d Like to Watch, but it’d be nice if the main site had a more comprehensive list of movies so that I could tell if a movie passes before actually going to see it for myself.

I’ve been thinking about it and talking it over with my parents (good sounding boards, they are!), and I think the main reason the Bechdel Test is important is to get people thinking and talking about movies critically instead of just sitting back and soaking in what’s put in front of them. There are quite a few movies that fail the Bechdel Test that are good for other reasons (The Dark Knight is an example of this), and even some otherwise feminist-friendly movies fail, for whatever reason. Also, there are some horrible, terrible movies that pass the test *cough-Twilight-cough* when they’ve done nothing but set women’s rights back 20 years or more (or, would’ve set our rights back that far if they’d had their way).

The Bechdel Test is a litmus of the lowest common denominator; the bar is set so pathetically low that it’s painful to see good movies fail (and bad movies pass). Maybe if we think more critically about what is being presented to us, we’ll have a better shot at changing Hollywood for the better.

Viannah E. Duncan

Viannah E. Duncan is a writer and activist hailing originally from Los Angeles. She lives outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She has a cat, Cleo.

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