Does Your Story Fail The Bechdel Test?

Today’s topic is all about the Bechdel Test and why you might want to think about it when you’re writing your novel. Not sure what the Bechdel test is and why it’s important?  Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

Does Your Story Fail The Bechdel Test? | - Image of two women talking over coffee


What the Heck is the Bechdel Test? 

For those who don’t know, the Bechdel Test (also known as the Bechdel–Wallace test) was popularised by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

It first appeared in Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch out for”.

The strip in question was titled The Rule.  To pass the Bechdel Test, a work of fiction must have:

a) at least 2 women (preferably named)

b) who talk to each other

c) about something other than a man

While the Bechdel Test is used to rate movies, it can be used when studying other forms for fiction too.  Such as novels!


Is it Important?

Surely we don’t need the Bechdel Test? Fiction is full of strong, well-rounded female characters

Can I be honest with you? I didn’t really give it much thought when I originally heard of this test years ago.  Convinced that there really must only be a few pieces of fiction that wouldn’t pass.

Until I started watching movies and reading books with that test in my mind.  It was pretty shocking to see how often women in fiction were badly represented.

Let’s take a general example in fantasy fiction:

We all know the adventure quest concepts, usually featuring a group of differently-skilled men and… one woman.

Probably to be used as a love interest to the hero character.  After all, he needs that special prize and she fits the bill.

Or what about all those sitcoms? 

Where the women characters regale each other with bad relationship stories or secret crushes?

What happens is you can end up with a lot of male-dependent female characters, needing to be rescued, needing to “see past his faults” and fall in love.  Needing to be his emotional support.

These women end up lacking in real character development.


Not All Fiction is Like That… Surely?

Nope, there are some great works of fiction where the women characters are given full personalities, plot arcs and conflicts that have nothing to do with the men of the story.

But sadly they are not as many as you think.

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Do I Really Need to Think About the Bechdel Test?

Of course not!  Your novel, your story…t hey are yours and you can do whatever the hell you want with them.

But if your novel is aimed at a broader audience that includes women, then you might want to at least consider it.  It should not be used as a be-all and end-all scale for which to create your female characters. Jeez, don’t do that! 

Don’t just jam in another female character and have the two have a somewhat strained, awkward, unnecessary conversation that doesn’t revolve around men just to pass.  That is not a solution!

Even the Bechdel Test has its flaws and some works of fiction that technically pass it, are still not doing any favours to female characters.

Instead, use it as a loose guide, as something that makes you look critically at the female characters you create to make sure they are not just a ‘prop-up’ for the male character.


My MC is Female, So I Don’t Have a Problem

Err… sorry to burst your bubble there, but just because your MC is female doesn’t mean your story will automatically passed the Bechdel Test.

Remember to check the rules, are their other females in the story?  Do these women talk?  Are their conversations about more than men?


I’m a Female Writer, So I’m Fine

That’s another no!  You might not be fine.  Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you aren’t guilty of doing a disservice to your female characters.

Yes, even female writers who write female MCs are guilty of dulling down their characters to being heavily focused on their relationship to a male character.

It’s not a surprise, society has done a bang-up job of making many things male-centric.  Even in this day and age, there is still a strange pressure on women to find a man, get married, have kids (preferably boys, need to pass on that name the woman has taken, right?)

So it’s no surprise we subconsciously incorporate such things into our work.

Side note: I have no issue with women who want to marry and have kids or who take their husband’s names, that is not what I am saying.  I am saying that it is still often considered as an expectation of women, despite their individual thoughts and feelings on the matter.


Ari, Have You Been Guilty of This?

Oh yes.  I’ve looked back over older stories and found I was pretty guilty of having female characters that never spoke to each other.  I even wrote stories where there was a cast of characters and only one was female!  Eeessssh, looking back at these stories and seeing that I did that was a bit cringy.

Society constantly shapes our thoughts on women and we can all be caught in its effects without realising it.  That is how ingrained it can be.

I have written female characters that are submissive, male-dependent, shallow…to name a few of their shitty characteristics (don’t get me wrong, there are some ladies out there who fit that bill… but then there are some men who fit that too!)

And before I get pounced on, writing a character like that on purpose with a strong backstory to explain or with a plot that will turn this submissive, weak and indecisive woman into something better – is fine.

What is NOT fine is just blindly stereotyping your female characters without thought.  So don’t just crow-bar in some woman to be a sexual/spiritual/emotional lean-to for a male character.

You might also be interested in my articles on Avoiding Female Stereotypes and Avoiding Male Stereotypes.


Final thought

The Bechdel Test isn’t perfect.  However, it is a good starting point to make us think differently about how we portray our characters.

Not just women, but men too, as well as people of different ethnic groups, people with disabilities, people with mental health issues, people with different sexual orientations etc.

A book can be a tapestry of character lives’ interwoven.  Try and do them all justice, M’kay?

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Hope you enjoyed this blog post.  If so, I hope you stick around by following this blog (I do love the follows!) and reach out, people.  Drop me some comments!  I wanna know what you’re thinking.

Feeling shy? Don’t know what to say? Here’s an ice-breaker question for you to answer in a comment: if you were escaping from zombies and could pick any (normal) vehicle you might find on a road (no combine-harvesters, people!).  What vehicle would you pick to flee the horde?

Happy writing

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29 thoughts on “Does Your Story Fail The Bechdel Test?

  1. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of the Bechdel-Wallace test and it’s a good standard. However, I think we need to clarify what’s meant by a conversation about a man. For example, rival female assassins plotting to kill the male tyrant, female scientists laughing about their inept male lab assistant, doctors discussing a male patient, sisters deciding how to care for a disabled brother… all conversations about a man but they’re not exactly the stereotypes the original inventor of the test was thinking about. Moreover, a story about a woman surviving alone in the wilderness would also fail the test. The test is a good start to get you thinking, but it’s not infallible.

    1. Thanks for your comment, apologies for the delay, it was in pending and I hadn’t spotted it!

      You made a good point about clarification, and in short stories / flash fiction / short comics etc this makes sense.

      However, if we are talking about a larger body of work – a novel, novella, movie, comic-series etc then i think the standard still stands.

      The examples you gave would, in my eyes, would be scenes within a story rather than the story as a whole. So if the only female characters in the book are 2 female assassins and they only ever discuss the male tyrant either about killing him or gloating/discussing him after death, and have no other conversations together that can still be a problem.

      Same with the scientists, are they only in the story talking about their male colleague? Do they never discuss anything together where he isn’t involved?

      Female characters can discuss men and the examples you gave were excellent in regards to how some conversations are required. But if that is all they do, every time they come together, is discuss their male colleagues/relatives/love-interests then I feel it falls short.

      However, I believe the Bechdel-Wallace test came about (mostly from the typical romance tropes) where throughout the entire story, the female characters only chat about the male character or their relationship to him (or wanting a man etc).

      Even just one part of the story where the characters talked about something else, their job, their kids, their hobbies, the traffic would be something – though it’s nice if female characters can be well-rounded and have more going on for them than just the relationship issues/pursuit etc of a man.

      The part about a woman surviving alone in the Wilderness failing the Bechdel test is true, just as I mentioned in the article, there are some stories that do pass the Bechdel test and still don’t represent females well.

      But the test, I believe, is meant to be a guiding hand to make writers/creators think about the times when female characters are interacting.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. 🙂

  2. Never heard of it, but it got me thinking! Personally, I wouldn’t (and won’t) worry about it in my writing. It seems that all kinds of characters interacting with each other just happens naturally in most of my plots, and if it doesn’t, then I will assume the plot didn’t need it.

    Then again, I write emotion-driven, relationship-driven fiction. It’s all about peeps interacting with each other :-p Not something like sci-fi, which might be more theme-driven and easy to shove characters in the background of the plot without meaning to.

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  4. Sofia

    This is so true! I haven’t heard of the Bechdel test before but I thought about what you wrote. Even in my own stories I haven’t represented women properly because I thought it wasn’t needed because it was a romantic plot. It doesn’t only help to write better but also to be a good critic of the shows and movies that we watch.
    Good post!

    1. Thanks for reading, Sofia. I am so glad you found this article useful. I know what you mean, sometimes we can miss representing women well without even realising it.

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  7. Mark

    Male first time writer here, but I’m trying to be as fair as possible 🙂 Does it count if one of the named female characters is a villainous mythical being? (my WIP’s a fantasy/sci-fi mix)

    She only lasts a couple chapters but features prominently and nearly succeeds in finishing off the heroes (because of an ability they don’t know how to deal with). There’s quite a bit of dialogue between her and a major female.

    I know there’s a better opportunity coming up when I get a little farther.

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for your comment. Apologies for the delay, I took a few days off at the weekend.

      Having at least two female characters is important, even if one is a mythical being.

      I think a good way is to imagine your story where all your characters are the opposite sex. Does it suddenly seem strange how few men there are?

      That’s how it feels for women when we read books/ see movies which barely have our representations in.

      If you are still currently writing and may have other female characters coming up, then that’s great.

      It’s more of a guide to kind of remind writers to be aware of this issue. Too often it happens were the cast is all male with the “token” female dropped in. (and even female writers do it) so we can all learn from it.

      I love sci-fi/fantasy, what if your story about if you don’t mind me asking? (I know we writers sometimes keep our stories close) 😀

      1. Mark

        Yeah, I can absolutely understand. Learning about this test has really made me think about it as well.

        It’s a mostly male cast but that female character is quite important to the story, though it’s not immediately clear why, so she may seem a little “token” at first.

        A lot of the typical fantasy elements are actually kept to a minimum – knights, royalty (though the protagonists are noble. Their mother has a brief role, that’s another female), creature races, etc. The monsters that are in it were mainly created artificially by the antagonists (two friends from present day, this is where the sci-fi comes in), and the “mythical being” is one of them.

  8. My books are for kids, 8 to 12. My main character is female and she has a female BFF and they talk to each other, a lot. Seldom about men, or in their case, boys. So I guess my books have passed the test. Whew! I like to think Amanda is a good role model for young girls.

    1. That definitely sounds like it passes the Bechdel test. 😀 I think kids books that pass it are great because you are right, we want good role models for young girls and it sounds like you have that in yours 😀

  9. Okay, I’m going to be in trouble here.

    I’ve become tired of all the emphasis on “kick@ss, they can beat any man they ever come in contact with, are smarter than any man they ever come in contact with, they never need any help from anybody” female characters. When I read book descriptions I sure seem to see a lot more of them then the weak, dependant, needing to be saved types, and that is often a reason for me to not read a book. Not that I want the doormat females either, but I’m just plain weary of the pushy, bad@ss types of characters. I’ve read many writers who actually have their female lead characters say to themselves (in their thoughts or even aloud), “I have to do this by (for) myself!” – – – often more than once in the story! It has become trite and cliché, but they do it because so many writing advice articles tell them to make sure they make it clear that their female characters always go it alone, depending only on themselves.

    I think it is much truer that we all need each other. Everyone needs help sometimes and we usually grow just as strong from giving and getting help as we do from doing everything for ourselves. I really like stories where characters mix the two approaches. For me it makes them much more real and believable.

    I think our culture is getting just as guilty of pushing this new stereotype of females as it was pushing the old one. Both extremes are just that, extremes, with the vast majority of women living their lives somewhere on a spectrum between the two.

    [looking around to see if any mushy veggies are flying towards me]

    1. lol I can understand that. Though I think it’s a typical expression from always having been (and still in a lot of media now) that the female characters are either a) weak b) constantly being saved c) a one-dimensional prop for a male character.

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with a strong female character, however what you’ve described which as you saying is starting to creep in – fails on a different level because it then becomes a “Mary Sue” character.

      The Bechdel Test is a good start point to move female characters away from being props. It allows writers to make sure they are thinking carefully when creating a character.

      They don’t have to be kickass at all, just be well-rounded characters that are not there as prizes or romantic plot points only.

      As you say, all extremes are just as bad. We need well created, deeper characters that are just verging on the edges of the spectrum. 🙂

      lol there will be no throwing on mushy veggies on my blog! 🙂

  10. Never heard of this test, but it’s a great one. I’m probably a couple of decades older than you are, and no doubt much more disgusted with the “prop up the man” dynamic.

    I became aware of it quite early in life because my first career was acting/directing. It was in my face in a personal way during those years, competing for a limited number of female roles at all, then struggling to add some human-being depth to characters who might as well have been ghosts. Add in the the over-focus on female characters under 30, regardless of the age of the men in the work, and its easy to see why I use the term disgusted.

    I was appalled when I noticed that many female writers and directors contributed to the problem. It not only does society a disservice, it is as guilty as the fashion industry of the self-esteem problems we see in so many girls today.

    For a long time now I have voted with my wallet and my time. I do not attend “guy” films or watch television shows in that genre AT ALL, and do my best to avoid similar books and any that don’t seem like they have interesting, well-developed female characters when I read the blurb.

    From my vantage point, I’d add a few codicils to avoid character cliches:
    a – any women in the work primarily for the sake of “relationship” don’t count when you tally your two (somebody’s mother, wife, or secretary),
    b – nor do the age and interest inappropriate (i.e., enough with the young love interests for male characters over 40, and older woman who do little more than retire to the kitchen to bake or rocking chair to knit).

    Loved this post!
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to transform a world!

    1. Hi Madelyn, thanks so much for the comment. I am happy you liked the post 🙂

      What you said about the age issue especially strikes a cord. I see that in so many places. Apparently EVERYONE female is under 30. I’ve even seen Grandmothers in movies who looked under 30, stood beside their very obviously older husband.

      This test is one of those things that stays with you, makes you start to look at movies, books, plays etc differently and (hopefully) at our own works.

      Society plays its part and we can often get swept up in the so-called “norm” until we aren’t even aware we have done it.

      Hopefully this post will help people just think a little more critically when it comes to their own work as well as those made by others. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment. It is just to get people thinking about their characters and can be a good guide but not definitive. If we talk the movie Gravity, Sandra Bullocks character does not speak to another woman and yet her character is well-developed and isn’t there to prop up a male character or be a romance plot twist.

      So even those that technically fail the Bechdel test can still be good. This test can just help people to think more critically. 🙂

  11. Great post! I’ve known about the Bechdel Test for years and do try to keep it in mind when writing my fiction. I’m currently working on my first novel and both main characters are female, so at least this one will definitely pass!

    1. Thanks for the comment. That’s definitely a good way to be. Keeping it in your mind while writing. I think it can be a good starting guide. 🙂

      Good luck with your first novel. Would you be interested in doing a guest post on this blog? I still have some slots for this year and I am always looking for writers (published and unpublished) who might be interested.

      If so, please read this post that covers all the details. I would just need to know your topic (or if you want an interview) and then which available deadline you want:

  12. I hadn’t heard of the Bechdel-Wallace test. I have a feeling it’ll be nagging at me often. (I still can’t wrap my head around a Senator calling his female peers “eye candy”. There is something very wrong in this world.)

    1. O.o “eye candy” eww that’s just so wrong.

      lol Yeah, the Bechdel-Wallace test does linger once you learn about it. You will never see movies, plays, books, comics etc the same way. 🙂

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