The Bechdel Test, named after its creator Alison Bechdel in 1985, is a little thing that frequently gets thrown around these days to comment on certain films. It is a test that can be applied to films to judge their treatment of women and whether or not they have a gender bias. Which unfortunately, more often than not, they do. But, just what is the test? The test is very simple (some might say overly so and some might say not simple enough) as it has only three requirements: First, that there must be at least two female characters, second that those characters have names and finally that they must talk about something other than men. It seems simple enough? But it’s quite alarming how many films fail this test. Think about the last film you saw, does it have two named women characters? And do they talk about something other than men? I’d say chances are slim. Some of the films I have watched recently that have failed (at least to my knowledge, correct me if I am wrong): The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Life of Brian, Snowpiercer, Shaun of the Dead, The Grand Budapest Hotel, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Transcendence et cetera, et cetera.
However, what the test is actually useful for is categorically not judging individual films on a qualitative basis: Just because a film fails the Bechdel Test it does not mean that it is bad misogynistic/sexist. Some films are simply about men and thus the film has no need to include a scene where two females talk about something other than men as it would distract from the point of the film. Take a film like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner for example, a film that is nowhere near passing the test (it does have two named female characters, but at no point do they interact) however that doesn’t make it a bad or misogynistic. In Blade Runner’s case it is about two surrogate brothers attempting to discern meaning in a chaotic amoral world. More specifically it is about Rick Deckard and Roy Batty’s relationship and their maleness so femininity would be an unnecessary distraction. Similarly a film that passes it is not automatically good. Put plainly, The Bechdel Test is not a barometer of quality.
Instead what the test shows us is merely a general trend in terms of gender bias in films. That is to say the presumed normal character is male and the presumed audience member is also male. So therefore, women in cinema (characters and real life ones) are occupying – or borrowing – a male space. The really damaging thing in all this in that it slowly teaches women and girls that they are defined by their interactions with men. Consequently this gives women a severely limited scope for agency and thus leaves them consistently on the fringe. Whereas men are defined by pretty much anything else. A man defined by a woman is codified as being ‘unmanly’ for example, and the opposite is not. So the test is not saying that male interactions need to change, it’s female ones that do.
If a film does not pass the test one shouldn’t say: “look at this sexist film”. It’s about placing the film in a wider cultural context and saying (something like) “this is one of many films that under represent women, we must address this”. Anyone that does apply the Bechdel Test to specific films and then claim that they are bad are simply using it incorrectly, sure some films may be sexist or bad but it usually has little to do with the test’s parameters. The Bechdel Test is about identifying trends in our culture about gender representations and as such remains a useful tool. It’s not perfect, but then again, what is?
Moreover, what alternatives are there to the Bechdel Test? Some would argue that it is too lenient, some would say the opposite. We should, surely, arrive at conclusions about our culture through many different means, as opposed to just one.