Problems with the Bechdel Test

While wading through some message boards and comment sections of the internet, which is a messy business in and of itself, one can almost guarantee that where ever movies are the subject of discussion, sooner or later someone will bring up the “Bechdel Test”. It is the accepted measure to which “we” hold movies to establish whether or not women are being fairly represented in that particular work. One then, usually, has to sieve through the mindless drivel that is the sexists to a fro between self proclaimed feminist champions and non-feminists (for the sake of being polite?) in the inevitable battle of those who clearly have too much time on their hands.

Now, it is no secret that Hollywood and many of it’s international movie making colleagues, have a really bad habit of misrepresenting almost any group that isn’t comprised of white, heteronormative males and as a society and a culture, this is an issue that we desperately need to address. The “token” _____ character (as in token woman, token ethnic sidekick and token LGBTQ character just to name a few) need to stop being used. They shouldn’t be afterthoughts, set pieces, and punch lines but instead need to be fully represented as the complete human beings that we all are. (That is not to say that men in movies don’t also suffer from severe stereotyping and unrealistic expectations, but let’s tackle one issue at a time here… so today, I’ll stick to women.)

That being said, the “Bechdel Test“, which was devised, almost somewhat by accident, by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, is in principal, this simple rule: does the movie feature two women, who have names, and who talk to each other about something other than a man?

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It seems pretty straightforward and has also become “the standard by which feminist critics judge television, movies, books, and other media”.[reference]

Primarily, sure, it seems like almost any movie should be able to deliver that. How hard can it be to have at least two, named, women talking to each other about something other than a man? And yet it’s indeed alarming to see just how many classic and popular movies fail this simple test.

That leads me to my main thought though; as surprising as that fact might be, my personal problem with this test is, that, in a nutshell, I think it’s useless as a measure to truly grasp a single movie’s representation of women.

I do not for one second believe that this overly simplified rule actually allows for he assessment of whether or not a movie is sexist, inclusive or empowering. So, I do not believe that a movie that does not abide this rule is inherently “sexist” or “disenfranchising” to women, and I am also very certain that just because a movie passes this test, does not mean that it actually has well rounded and properly represented female characters in it either.

Let’s take a look at one of my favourite movie series of all time as an example: Harry Potter. (7 out of the 8 movies pass according to by the way.) What inspired me to write about this topic at all, was a conversation that I had online last night about the Bechdel Test in relation to “Deathly Hallows Part 2”.

This movie passes the Bechdel test, but most “hardline” guardians of the rule believe that it shouldn’t be allowed to pass. There are three scenes that include a female character talking to another female character about something other than a man. List here:

The first one is a young Petunia yelling at her sister Lily: “You’re a freak Lilly. I’m going to tell Mummy.” in reference to Lily’s use of her magical abilities, the ones that Petuina didn’t have. (See the scene here starting at 1:05 ->

The second features Minerva McGonagall and Molly Weasley as they prepare for the Battle of Hogwarts and Minerva declares: “I’ve always wanted to use that spell” when she has just commanded an army of stone soldiers (who only a moment previously were inanimate statues) to defend the castle. (Watch it here starting at 0:20 ->

Finally, Molly Weasley, who has just lost a child in that battle, protectively steps in front of her daughter, to fight Bellatrix and screams: “Not my daughter you bitch!” before obliterating her in a fierce magic fight. (Watch it here:

Now, the aforementioned hard line defers of the rule proclaim that none of these should count as a pass since in neither of these scenes the women talk “to each other” (it’s just one woman declaring something to the other). What nonsense.

Let’s dissect those scenes a little bit, and whether they truly need to meet the Bechdel Test standards for the women in those scenes to be considered real and well rounded characters.

Would Petunia’s fear and simultaneous jealousy of her sibling been any less real or deep, if Lily had been a boy? Would it have made a difference to the tale told in that scene, if Lily had answered in some way? We all know that Petunia grew up to be a terribly fearful, spiteful and bitter woman, who was afraid of anything different and yet  she is secretly, devastatingly jealous of the life her sister had. That anger turned back to fear when Harry arrived and she did everything she could to squash the magic out of him, in the hopes that he wouldn’t also be a “freak” like his mother. That childhood scene carries so much emotion and depth, especially to those who know the whole series, that it doesn’t need anything else, and yet, if Lily had been a boy, this scene would have failed, despite the real pain Petunia was feeling.

Minerva McGonagall has been an incredible role model throughout the entire series. Stalwart and strong willed, with a cool head and open mind she is as fine a leader and teacher as Hogwarts could ever ask for and I would even tend to say that she is an even better role model than many men in the series. In her above mentioned scene, we see a silver lining in her darkest of days, one could even call it a sense of childlike joy, cracking through her tough facade, even for just a moment as she gets to finally use that spell. Would that moment, that pure joy at doing something awesome amid the chaos, have been any less endearing, sincere or touching if she had said it to Neville, Ron or Hagrid instead of Molly? I most certainly don’t think so.

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Molly grieving with Ron for his brother Fred.

Finally, Molly and Bellatrix. Dear mother Molly, the woman everyone wants to have looking out for them. She has been a quintessential part of the Harry Potter series since day one. A true mother and housewife by choice, she has just as much brain and brawn as any of her male counterparts, and the heart of a mother to add to it.When she selflessly stepped into battle with one of the most notorious, criminally insane, mass-murdering lunatics of her time to defend her baby, would that have been any less powerful, any less heartfelt, any less brave, or any less real if she had been defending a son? Think about it; if she had been defending Ron instead of Ginny this scene would have failed!! How on earth can that be? Is the implication here that daughters are worth more than sons? If you genuinely believe that to be true, then I invite you to go tell any mother that one of her children is somehow worth more than the others based on their sex and I’ll wait here, as you get driven to the ER to get what ever implement she got her hands on first extracted from your chest cavity.

Not tempted to try? Good – let’s move on.

All of this being said… these scenes just barely passed the “Bechdel Test” and yet the qualifications by which they passed have absolutely no bearing upon the content of scenes or the strength of their character.

(BONUS ROUND: Was Narcissa less of a woman as she defied the single most terrifying monster in the HP universe to save her son Draco, just because she talked to a man (Harry) about her son? Is Hermoine less of a genius wunderkind, or less of an incredibly loyal friend and brave fighter, just because her two best friends are boys and so most her time is spent with them? And what about Tonks? Was her sacrifice to give her son and her community a better future any less noble just because she died at her husband’s side rather than with other women?) You see where I am going with all of this don’t you?

The Bechdel Test is not, in any way shape or form, a fair way to determine whether female characters are truly represented in movies.

I believe that a character is defined by themselves, their own actions and their own strengths, regardless of their surroundings. Making the decision as to whether a movie is female friendly based on the surprisingly sexist notion of who those women should be allowed to talk to and what they should be talking about is incredibly disjointed.

There simply must be a better way to examine the balance and fair and realistic representation of women in movies. Instead of the quantity of screen time, what about the quality of said screen time? Regardless of whom the character was talking to, or about what, we should ask ourselves was the scene earnest and the characters well rounded, or was the woman (and her lines), just thrown in as an afterthought?

I’d rather see a movie with no women in it at all, than one where 2 women were crammed in as the last minute, as token females, to pass this very arbitrary test.

As I so avidly pointed out with the Harry Potter examples, it’s not about who they talk to, or what they talk about – to me it’s about it being genuine, well rounded, relevant and authentic. Whether the woman is talking to a another woman or a magic teapot and whether that conversation is about a man or a toaster, I don’t care as long as it’s real.

In closing, I would like to provide you with some alternative “movie tests” that you could read up on if you like. The Russo Test is like the Bechdel Test for the LGBTQ community, except one of their requirements is that “the character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect”. Now that makes sense! I also like the “Sexy Lamp Test“. Comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick suggested this test saying that: “If you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.”

There are countless movies that fail the Bechdel Test, that (each in their own way) have awesome, amazing, funny and well rounded female characters and I will leave you with a list of those I found most surprising. I like/love all of these movies and believe that classifying them as somehow being “sexist” or “misrepresentative of women”, just for not passing this test, is unhelpful and plain wrong:

  1. Home Alone, 1990 (What won’t his mother do, to get home to Kevin?)
  2. Aladdin, 1992 (Jasmine was pretty clear in wanting to choose her own life and not letting herself be controlled.)
  3. The Pagemaster, 1994 (Fantasy proved hands down that “fantasy” is not gender specific, and that she is tough as nails.)
  4. The Hunchback of Nortre Dame, 1996 (One word: Esmeralda)
  5. Shrek, 2001 (Really? Fiona isn’t a powerful female character? )
  6. Lord of the Rings, 1, 2 and 3 (Eowyn and Arwen must have been figments of my imagination… the one defied death to save an army and the other faced mortality to be with the one she truly loved, but that’s not strength I guess).
  7. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 2001 (wait… what?)
  8. Mr. & Mrs. Smith, 2005 (super powerful female spy anybody?)
  9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2005 (… nope …)
  10. Ratatouille, 2007 (“Keep your station clean, or I will kill you” – Chef Collette)
  11. Wall-E 2008 (BTW I just want to mention that Wall-E failed to be “female friendly” while in that same year “Twilight” passed!!)
  12. Avatar, 2009 (Yes, James Cameron’s Avatar the one with the kick ass female warriors and whose society is a religious matriarchy is not female friendly…)

You know what … that’s enough for my nerves… that’s 12 examples (I skipped so many) and I didn’t even reach the 2010’s …  you can read them all for yourself here: 

It would also have been fun to comprise a list of movies that passed, but have terrible female representation… but I will leave that for another day. xoxo