How Good is the Bechdel Test?

If a piece of pop culture, whether it be a TV show, movie, book, comic, etc…, passes the Bechdel test, many consider it feminist. Or at least somewhat empowering for women. I think this is where people get the Bechdel test wrong. Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s infamous hit, “Baby Got Back” passes the Bechdel test. My mother despised that song for it’s objectification of women. Before I go any further, let me explain what the Bechdel test is. 

In one of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s comic strips from 1985, a woman explains to another woman what her requirements for seeing a movie are. See below:

Image from ‘Dykes to Watch Out For 

If that’s hard to read, I’ll spell it out for you. The movie has to have 1) two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. Seems like rather simple rules, and yet, as Fusion pointed out, only half the top films from 2015 passed the test. As a woman, with many female friends, I can say with conviction that we talk about much more than just men. Books, politics, money woes, which neighborhoods we wish we could live in; we talk about it all! But pop culture struggles to mimic this reality of female conversations. Or the fact that women talk to each other at all. 

There’s a flaw in the Bechdel test, which is where “Baby Got Back” comes in. The song starts with two girls talking to each other about another girl and how “gross” her big, round butt is. They criticize her for flaunting what her mama gave her. Then Sir-Mix-A-Lot goes into a long rap about why he likes women with narrow waists and a large “back” (lower back, that is). Doesn’t sound too feminist or female empowering, does it? But the song still technically passes the test.

That’s one issue with the Bechdel test- just because something passes the test, doesn’t mean it’s a pinnacle of female empowerment. The other issue is that the test sets a very low standard for ‘accurately’ representing women in film. Alison Bechdel has her own reservations about the test as well. “I have always felt ambivalent about how the Test got attached to my name and went viral,” she told The Beat. However, she’s tried to “embrace the phenomenon” because, she continued, “the test is something I have dedicated my life to: the representation of women who are subjects and not objects.”

Image courtesy of Brainless Tales

That’s where the Bechdel test becomes important. Writer Michelle Dean told Slate, “I do think that it’s such a low bar for good reason…If movies can’t even meet that low standard, that says something.” Sad, yes. Many writers and cultural critics have commented that the Bechdel test is an arbitrary measure of a fully realized, fleshed out female character in a movie/book/TV shows. But the test has remained popular because many feel that, if anything, two women should talk to each other about something other than a man at least once in any piece of art. At this point, the Bechdel Test is the bare minimum in humanizing women. 

It clearly is not always a measure of success in this regard (yes, I’m referencing “Baby Got Back” again). Now that the test is over 30 years old, perhaps it’s time for a revision as Katy Waldman suggest in her article for Slate, “The Bechdel Test Sets the Bar Too Low. Let’s Write a New One.” The test is still important because so many people know about it and so many more think it’s a ridiculous way to asses a piece of pop-culture’s good or bad representation of women. 

All that being said, how ridiculous is it that so many movies, TV showsm, and even beloved books, don’t pass such a simple test?

Featured image courtesy of Mubi.Com