Screenwriters: Think back over the scripts you’ve written, and ask yourself three questions about each one:
- Are there two or more female characters with names?
- Do they talk to each other?
- If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?
This is the Bechdel test, first articulated by cartoonist Alison Bechdel and amended by others over the years.1 You’d think it would be a very low bar to climb over. You’d be surprised.
Let’s be clear: many, many great movies don’t pass this test, and many terrible movies do. It’s not even a particularly good gauge for determining a film’s feminist content; Transformers 2 meets the requirement because Megan Fox receives a compliment on her hair.
So if this rule doesn’t necessarily speak to quality or content, what’s the point? My friend Beth, who took all the women’s studies classes I never did and therefore yawns at the mention of this old axiom, would argue it’s meaningless checkbox-marking.
But for screenwriters, I think it’s still fascinating. After all, we’re the ones who ultimately put characters in scenes together.
Looking back through my movies, I’m struck by how rarely the female characters actually do talk to each other. In Big Fish, it’s only a brief moment with Sandra and Josephine. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it’s a throwaway moment between Violet and Veruca. Titan A.E. fails the test unless you know that the alien Stith is technically female.
In each of these cases, I had to spend a few minutes just to come up with these (admittedly slight) examples.
Also, I find it fascinating that the Reverse Bechdel Test is almost meaningless. Pretty much every movie made includes two named male characters talking about something other than a woman.
Does acknowledging the situation change anything? Maybe. I’ll certainly ask myself these questions about future scripts. For now, my upcoming projects all seem to pass, but they have a familiar paradigm: a single main female who mostly interacts with the men in the story.
- The origin of the test is complicated, and very Googleable. ↩