The Reverse Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is a well-established feminist principle for looking at a piece of art. Named for Allison Bechdel, the artist behind Dykes to Watch Out For, who popularized it, the test is laid out by a character who explains that she only sees movies in which:

  1. There are at least two named female characters, who
  2. Talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man

The test is not a pass/fail on a work of art, of course, but it’s a good lens to analyze how female-friendly a work is. And it can be startling just how many films, books, and TV shows fail the test — from Star Wars to Forrest Gump to My Best Friend’s Wedding, female characters are often shunted aside, there as window-dressing. If they chat about anything, it’s men. Because, you know, women don’t talk about anything else.

The novel I wrote — The Valkyrie’s Tale — passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors — as it should. With a female lead, a female sidekick, and a quest that involves fighting a powerful enemy, the two end up talking about quite a lot of things that have nothing to do with men.

But one thing that struck me upon revising the work was how rarely the men in my book talk to each other. That’s not a surprise, I suppose — my lead is a woman, and the story’s told in Third Person Limited Omniscient, and by that fact any discussions between men are going to have to either be overheard by Lorelei or related to her.

I began to think of this as a sort of Reverse Bechdel Test — a way to measure the reality of my universe. Because, of course, there should be conversations between men when there are a bunch of them in the story. They shouldn’t drive my story, but they should exist. And they did, just not as much as discussions between women, or between a man and a woman, did.

What this drove home to me was simple: many of the Bechdel Test failures are a natural consequence of the gender of the protagonist, combined with a failure of imagination regarding secondary characters. If your lead is a man, most of the conversations will involve a man. That’s natural, and not necessarily evil.

The reason so many films and novels fail the Bechdel Test is not that writers are evil, sexist jerks. It’s because so many films and novels focus on men.

If there was a balance in protagonists, the Bechdel test would be less important. There would still be films, good films, even feminist films, that failed Bechdel because they had a male lead. But they would be balanced by the good films that featured a female lead, where two male characters don’t talk to each other, or at least only talk about women. And nobody would mind much, because there might be three films at the multiplex that fail Bechdel, four that fail reverse Bechdel, and another one that passes both — and it wouldn’t be as out of kilter as it is.

But the underlying message the Bechdel Test continues to expose is simply that we do not have enough works of fiction focusing on women. Given that more than half the population is female, that’s inexcusable.

(Via The Valkyrie’s Blog)

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17 Responses to The Reverse Bechdel Test

  1. 1
    PG says:

    I’d never thought of it that precisely, but I had noticed something like that when I was talking to someone about our differing tastes in heterosexual romantic comedies. I posited “When Harry Met Sally…” as one of the best, and he made a face and said he’d prefer “Three to Tango.” I pointed out that the lead female character was gullible and of questionable ethics (and couldn’t even seem to handle her own wrongdoing). I said that my favorite romantic comedies were not just about romance but about relationships, including same-sex friendships, so the best ones included men talking to men and women talking to women (something that made “Jerry Maguire” tolerable for me; I thought they depicted something like a social context — a sister, a friend/client, the client’s wife and family — rather than an isolated romance). I contrasted that with “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” in which the main character’s only relationship with other women is antagonistic, which makes the scene in the ladies’ bathroom the one really good one: she’s finally faced with a roomful of angry women condemning what she’s doing.

    Does Bechdel consider talking about romance conceptually — the Rosie O’Donnell “you want to fall in love in the movies” from “Sleepless in Seattle” — to be talking about a man?

  2. 2
    Lu says:

    I’m not sure I’m clear on this — the reverse Bechdel test is are there two men in a movie who talk to each other about something other than a woman? Or that they don’t talk to each other about anything other than a woman? I’m going to assume it’s the former.

    Let’s see, among my favorite movies…
    King of Hearts passes the reverse Bechdel (although it’s mostly the “sane” characters talking about war), but not the Bechdel as best I recall. Although most of the characters are insane by conventional standards, so most of the conversations are somewhat surreal.
    The Truth About Cats and Dogs passes the Bechdel (I’m pretty sure — don’t Abby and Noelle talk about Noelle’s newscasting ambition?), but not the reverse Bechdel as best I recall.
    While You Were Sleeping passes both.
    The Joy Luck Club passes the Bechdel, in spades, redoubled, but I don’t think it passes the reverse Bechdel — as best I recall there’s never more than one man on screen at a time except in crowd scenes.
    Tootsie passes both only if you count Dorothy as a woman.
    The Wizard of Oz, amusingly enough, passes both.
    So does Gone With the Wind, I think.

    Hmm… nothing here less than 5 years old. Do I need to get out more?

  3. 3
    Dylan Thurston says:

    Volver also fails the reverse Bechdel test.

  4. 4
    Genevieve says:

    The best example of the Bechdel test in the past year–Juno–does not pass the reverse Bechdel.

  5. 5
    marmalade says:

    So now that we’ve got the reverse Bechdel . . . perhaps there’s category for art that does a complete end-run-around the Bechdel. I’m thinking of one of my very favorite novels: The Left Hand of Darkness (in which most of the characters are bi-gendered). Quite a feat, I think, for a novel to create a sympathetic, admirable, complex character who has no defined gender.

    There must be other examples, but they’re extremely rare, I imagine.

  6. 6
    Jeff Fecke says:

    The Left Hand of Darkness should be required reading for anyone considering the nature of gender — I read it in high school, and it left a big impression on me. I think I’m still processing it.

  7. 7
    Mandolin says:

    The Bechdel test seems to be a better measure for analysing groups of work, while being relatively inadequate as a comment on individual pieces of work.

    I’m one of the subset of people for whom The Left Hand of Darkness does nothing, but I think it’s harder for that book to be transformative for people who are A) reaidng it as adults, B) post-1990 or so.

  8. 8
    Anne says:

    When I described the Bechdel test to a female friend of mine, she was puzzled why anyone would expect any movie to pass it. After all, she said, all women really talk about is men; and anyway, wouldn’t a movie that focused on women be hopelessly boring? It was a pretty depressing conversation, really.

  9. 9
    Lu says:

    Yeesh, Anne, that is depressing. Has she not seen The Joy Luck Club, or Steel Magnolias, or even Terms of Endearment? There are certainly men in all of these, but they function much as women do in most movies, as mannequins, so to speak, on which to hang plot developments.

    Jftr, Steel Magnolias isn’t my favorite movie, although I love the dialogue, and Terms of Endearment does nothing for me at all, but their deficiencies in my view have nothing to do with their focus on women.

  10. 10
    Thene says:

    I’ve only seen Steel Magnolias on stage; there are no men in the stage version, which I think is the original one. So did they add a few token men before putting it in cinemas?

    I’ve never seen it, but iirc Quentin Tarentino’s Death Proof infamously did not reverse-Bechdel. (you are, btw, not the first person to come up with that term. I’ve seen the folks at fsf speak of such things before now). Did Kill Bill? I’m not sure any two men in that film ever had a conversation about anything except for The Bride. That said, it possibly doesn’t Bechdel either for the converse reason; people talking only about Bill.

    That out of the way…Jeff, I really think you don’t quite get it. It’s not the main character’s gender that defines what you get. It’s two pretty clear things acting together: male neutrality and male homosociality.

    If you need a character to fill some plot role in a movie, major or minor, male is the default choice. Making your character be female is seen as a deviation from the norm, something that should only be done in defined special circumstances, and so which doesn’t happen as often as it should. Even in children’s movies, 72% of speaking characters and a mind-numbing 83% of non-speaking characters are male, as were 80% of the movies’ narrators. So that’s neutrality; the idea that if you need a simple hook to hang your plot on, that hook is male by default.

    Then there’s those lovely homosocial relationships. Female Impersonator recently wrote a great post on how this works in Nolan’s Batman, esp. with regard to father-son relationships: ‘…this Batman franchise is about men’s relationships with other men.’ Virtually all interesting relationships in films are between men; filial bonds, rivalries and enmities, close friendships, mentor/student or guardian/ward relationships, buddyships, leader/follower bonds, even connections between man and God. Do they think women never have these connections to other women, or to men?

    So women rarely get a look-in except for romantic/sexual relationships, and that’s boring as shit and leads to the Bechdel Test; Randall Monroe’s got an interesting table here, noting that horror movies are the only genre which regularly bucks this trend.

    The only sane response to this culture is slash fiction.

  11. 11
    Mandolin says:

    That out of the way…Jeff, I really think you don’t quite get it. It’s not the main character’s gender that defines what you get. It’s two pretty clear things acting together: male neutrality and male homosociality.

    Agreed. Very nicely put, Thene.

    (By the by, you might like our latest podcastle episode — http://podcastle.org/2008/09/30/pc027-red-riding-hoods-child/)

  12. 12
    Lu says:

    I’ve only seen Steel Magnolias on stage; there are no men in the stage version, which I think is the original one. So did they add a few token men before putting it in cinemas?

    All the men are defined by their relation to the women — husbands, boyfriends, sons. Sort of The Handmaid’s Tale in reverse. Their function is occasionally to move the plot along in transitional bits and also to be never around when anything essential is happening.

  13. 13
    Thene says:

    The play consists entirely of conversations between women at their hair salon; so they sometimes talk about their husbands, boyfriends and sons, but those people never appear – it’s all dialogue between women.

  14. 14
    Genevieve says:

    Do they think women never have these connections to other women, or to men?
    Oh, they’ll depict male/female friendship–if it leads to the two of them hooking up in the end, or at the very least considering doing so. One more way in which women are only there to look pretty in most movies. And then people see these and apply the ‘lessons’ of the movie to real life (“oh my God! Your best friend’s a dude? You must secretly want to date him”) rather than looking at the movie as, “that probably wouldn’t happen, at least not usually.” Which ends up screwing up friendships, relationships, trust issues…ugh. I just wish Hollywood was more reflective of real life.

  15. 15
    Kutsuwamushi says:

    I have another shortcoming of the Bechdel test to point out: It doesn’t take into account proportion, and it seems much more meaningful when applied to shorter works.

    This occured to me as I was reading a discussion about which anime and manga pass the Bechdel test. A lot of series that I wouldn’t consider to be feminist-friendly at all passed, largely because of the format of many long anime/manga stories: many secondary characters, reliance on “filler,” female characters with important–but still gender-limited–roles, and so on.

    This isn’t really meant as a criticism of the test. I think its very existence is a good tool to make people think about how the genders are represented in a work. The anime and manga discussion I read was interesting because even when series passed the test, it prompted thought and discussion about why that didn’t necessarily make the work feminist-friendly.

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  17. 16
    Red says:

    I Binged “reverse Bechdel test” after someone posted a thread about it on the Straight Dope message boards. Kept me awake counting movies that failed it, and I had to get them off my chest. Here they are:

    Valley Girl. The five main male characters are Randy, Fred, Tommy, Skip, and Julie’s dad. Most of Randy’s dialogue is with Julie, except when he’s talking to Fred about how to win her back after she breaks up with him. This, by the way, is pretty much Fred’s main function in the movie. Tommy’s only interaction with Randy is threatening and punching him, Skip exists as a love interest for Susie and Julie’s dad mostly talks to his wife and daughter. (I adore this movie, BTW.)

    Queen Christina with Greta Garbo. The only two significant male characters are Lionel Barrymore, who plays Christina’s royal vizier, and John Gilbert, who plays her lover. On the other hand, this movie might pass if you count the scenes where Christina is dressed as a man.

    Easy A. The whole movie is a first-person story centering around the female main character. The only male-to-male dialogue I recall involves her dad and little brother.

    My Winnipeg fails, but that movie was totally non-linear, semi-silent and had more narration then dialogue.

    Away From Her. I think Gordon Pinsent was the only significant male character. There was the man that Julie Christie starts to fall for at the nursing home, but I don’t even remember his name and he never speaks directly to Pinsent.

    I think The Divorcee with Norma Shearer is another candidate. Most of the men in that movie were just sexual playthings for Norma. I believe that Red-Headed Woman with Jean Harlow might be in the same category. Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck almost fails, except for that one scene where the board members are all talking about how to save the bank from scandal. On the other hand, they were talking about Stanwyck in a sense.

    Some people on the Straight Dope brought up Waiting to Exhale and The Women.

    You want the truth? I think that sixty-five percent of all movie dialogue occurs between two members of the opposite sex.