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 tests, 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!
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.
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.
Do I really need to think about the Bechdel Test?
Of course not! Your novel, your story…they 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!
Even the Bechdel test has it’s flaws and some works of fiction that technically pass it, are still not doing any favourites 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 you’re a woman doesn’t mean you aren’t guilty of doing a disservice to your lady 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.
Ari, have you been guilty of this?
Oh yes. I’ve looked back over older stories and seen I was pretty guilty of having female characters that never spoke to each other. Eeessssh, looking back at these stories to see that I did that was a bit cringey.
Society has done a great job of shaping our thoughts on women and even women like me have fallen for it. (hangs head in shame)
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: And with that in mind, here’s some links to earlier blogs about Avoiding Stereotypes:
The Bechdel test isn’t perfect. However it is a good start point to make us think differently about how we portray our characters.
Not just women, but men too, 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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