The Bechdel Test: Analysing the Representation of Female Characters in Film

Bechdel Test - So The Theory Goes

The Bechdel Test is a standard for evaluating whether or not a story features meaningful interactions between two women without focusing on a male character. Alison Bechdel wrote it in 1985, and it’s been used ever since as a test for the representation of women in film. This article will explain the background of the test, why it’s more important than ever, and provide examples of Hollywood films that do well on the test.

Bechdel Test: Definition, Criteria, and History

In her 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, American cartoonist Alison Bechdel popularised the test, hence the name. Bechdel said she got the concept from Virginia Woolf and her friend Liz Wallace. As the test gained more attention in the 2000s, many offshoots and variations appeared.

bechdeltestcartoon
The 1985 comic strip = where it all began

The Bechdel Test results do not necessarily reflect the degree to which women are represented. Instead, the exam is meant to highlight the gender imbalance in fiction and indicate women’s participation across the broader cinema and fiction industry. Recent analyses of the media market show that movies that succeed on this front tend to do better at the box office than their counterparts that fail.

Critics have amended the Bechdel Test to state that the female leads should be introduced, have meaningful conversations lasting more than five words, and appear onscreen together for at least one minute. However, the three initial guidelines are still frequently used as a litmus test for representation of gender

How does the Bechdel Test work?

The test aimed to demonstrate how deeply rooted the stereotypes and sexism are in Hollywood’s portrayal of female characters.

First, there must be at least two female characters who are given names or are referred to by their character’s name.

Second, these two identified women must have a common interest other than men.

Finally, the two women must exchange more than five words in conversation.

The film passes this gender litmus test if all three conditions are met.

The test has been used with video games and television shows, but it applies to any type of media, fictional or otherwise. The Bechdel Test is useful for determining the onscreen time given to female characters.

Bechdel Test - TAR
Credit: Focus Features

What are the flaws of the Bechdel Test?

You may make an argument that the Bechdel Test has certain problems. Despite passing the criteria, some films nonetheless present women in a negative light or are sexist in spite of this base criteria. Given that it’s not simple to pin down precisely what constitutes a discussion, the exam is quite open-ended. A film could get by with only one offhand remark or insulting sentence, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a good indicator of how the picture treats its female characters. Moreover, the Bechdel Test doesn’t inquire into intersectionality by questioning race, sexuality, disability, or class.

But that’s no reason to dismiss it altogether. Rather than seeing the test through a narrow lens as an all-encompassing evaluation of gender balance, it should be considered a low-barrier criterion, more of a litmus test than a final judgment. It’s still a good test of whether or not a script presents women accurately.

Criticism of the Bechdel Test

While Bechdel and Wallace intended this test just as a way to call attention to the predictable, mindless plots of Hollywood blockbusters, the phrase has been co-opted by others as shorthand for feminism today.

In no way was it intended as a gauge of feminist sentiment. Andi Zeisler points out that if creators use these criteria by including just enough female characters and lines of speech to satisfy the test, they will still deny women significant representation outside of stereotypical plots. Alyssa Rosenberg, another film critic, voiced similar concerns, stating that the Bechdel Test might be used as a “fig leaf” by the entertainment business so that they could “slap a few lines of dialogue onto a hundred and forty-minute compilation of CGI explosions” and pass it off as feminist.

Financial effects of the Bechdel Test

Multiple studies have found that box office performance correlates with whether or not a film passes the Bechdel test. The authors of Vocativ discovered that the $4.22 billion made by the movies that passed the test in 2013 in the United States was significantly higher than the $2.66 billion made by the movies that failed, leading them to the conclusion that “putting more women onscreen” could be a profitable strategy for Hollywood.

FiveThirtyEight found in 2014 that the median budget of successful films was 35% lower than that of unsuccessful films using data from about 1,615 movies released between 1990 and 2013. It was determined that the ROI for successful films was 37% higher in the US and 27% higher worldwide than for unsuccessful ones.

The Bechdel Test is undeniably one of the most significant techniques in modern film critique, regardless of your ideas on what constitutes a good film. Unexpectedly, quite a few movies fit these characteristics, even if they aren’t necessarily well-known or critically acclaimed.

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