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What is the Bechdel Test and do we still need it?


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The Bechdel Test can be defined as a highly controversial, yet unofficial, film standard, meant to display the disparity between male and female representation in films all around the world.

Any film student who knows their stuff will have heard about the Bechdel Test, and whilst it may have begun to worm its way into the general pop culture narrative thanks to the #TimesUp initiative, many people are still unaware of what this test really is.

The term, which originated in the 80s, actually started life as part of a comic strip (Dykes to Watch Out For, created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel), and eventually led to the unofficial test that nearly every film is judged on in the present day. Named after the creator of the original cartoon, the Bechdel Test’s purpose is a way to test representation in film.

However helpful its intentions are, though, the Bechdel Test has gathered a poor reputation - so, whilst the movement was started with only the purest of intentions, is it something we still need to use when evaluating a film?

What is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel test is a set of three simple standards that film must include in order to pass.

1. The film must include two women, with names

2. The women must talk to each other

3. They must talk about something besides a man

Image credit: SrrReal [CC0]

Origin Story

The test was created by Alison Bechdel in the comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called The Rule. The comic strip depicts two female friends attending the movies together. One of them suggests getting popcorn and seeing a film, and her friend replies telling her she has a rule about films - she only watches them if they pass three basic rules. She then explains to her friend that the last movie she was able to see was Alien because the two women talked to each other about the “monster.” The comic ends as the two women walk away from the theatre, not paying to see any movie, and instead decide to return home. The comic strip was initially met with backlash, but it brought up some very important points that can still be relevant today.

Click the link here to see the original comic strip

Do we still need it?

Whilst the Bechdel Test aims to promote representation, it does nothing to judge the actual quality or content of the film. Because any film can pass the Bechdel Test by providing a throwaway line of dialogue at the very last minute as long as it has two female characters within it, the test is virtually useless when discussing the actual merits of a film.

Despite the challenge of the Bechdel Test appearing very simple, many hugely popular blockbuster films do not pass. Because the test does not measure how good or bad a film actually is, its real value is in its ability to highlight how male-dominated cinema really is.

The fact that so many films don't pass such a simple test is a very sobering reality. Despite the fact that the Bechdel test was created by a woman, many film critics and viewers complain that measuring a film by its standard is a way for the film industry to make money from the feminism movement, without any effort or progress being accomplished that will actually fix the issue. However great the Bechdel Test is at pointing out the flaws and disparity within Hollywood and the entertainment industry, it could soon become a system that is outdated due to campaigns like the #MeToo movement and the #TimesUp initiative. Increasingly, the industry and audiences are asking for more.

Image Credit: RayneVanDunem [CC0]

Until representation between males and females is equal on screen and behind the camera, the Bechdel Test can still be used and is still needed. Increasingly though, the issue of film representation goes beyond simply seeing equal lines of dialogue on screen. The differences go beyond that, and female storylines should be able to take up a more prominent space on the screen. When females are allowed to have deep, meaningful or plot-based conversations that do not revolve around a man, it will be time for the Bechdel Test to be labelled archaic. Until then, the real victory will be when we no longer need to discuss the issue of representation as something that still needs improvement.

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