The Bechdel Test: Why It’s Important For Students
Representation matters! It’s more than just a hashtag—it’s a fact. When children (and adults) fail to see characters who remind them of themselves represented in the media they consume, they often feel unimportant or invisible, a phenomenon sociologists have termed “symbolic annihilation.” Even in 2018, straight white men and boys still enjoy the most diversity of representation in the media across platforms, and social scientists believe that’s why that demographic tends to feel good about themselves after engaging with media. But when it comes to women, people of color, disabled individuals, members of the LGBTQ community, and so on, that’s not necessarily the case—and even more so when those identities stack on top of one another.
But it’s not just about quantity, it’s about quality. Having underrepresented groups appear in a story isn’t enough—the characters must ring true to those they’re seeking to depict. Seeing shallow or offensive depictions can be just as frustrating to underrepresented groups as seeing none appear at all.
Leading conversations about representation in media can be challenging for educators for a number of reasons, including the sheer depth and breadth of the topic. That’s why over the past few decades, various individuals have tried to come up ways in which people can narrow our discussions about media, ironically making it easier for everyone to see the bigger picture.
The Bechdel Test is one of these techniques. Sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace Test, the Bechdel Test is a relatively easy lens through which we can look at the depiction of women in media. It takes its name from a comic strip created by Alison Bechdel in 1985, in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In the comic “The Rule,” one woman tells another woman that she’ll only go to see a film if it passes the following test:
- It must have at least two women in it
- Who talk to one another
- About something other than a man
The “punch line” of the comic is the women are unable to find a film at the theatre that passes the test, so they go home… after noting that the last film they were able to see in the theatre was Alien.
While at first, the Bechdel Test might seem like an easy one to pass, in 1985 it certainly wasn’t—and even today, many films fail this very basic requirement. While conversations among men appear in just about every film, television, novel, comic book, and so on, conversations among women seem to be considered socially unimportant when it comes to the stories we tell about ourselves. So, let’s take a deeper look at four reasons why using the Bechdel Test in the classroom can be a great thing for helping students talk about representation in media!
- It Promotes Critical Thinking About Media
Using the Bechdel Test in the classroom is an easy way to get students who may not be used to thinking critically about representation in media talking about it. Asking a group of kids “how do you feel about the representation of women in media?” is an enormous question and can be overwhelming! But starting a discussion by analyzing the Bechdel Test can help students look in a different way at the latest blockbuster films, or popular television shows, or the novel or comic books everyone happens to be talking about. It’s efficient and conversation starting! It can be interesting as well to talk about the novels students might be reading in their English classes, or students’ personal favorites.
That said, it’s important to remind students that failing the Bechdel Test isn’t necessarily an indicator of a lack of quality in a text—it’s just one metric by which we can observe and comment upon trends in media. Plenty of beloved and well-respected novels fail the test—The Hobbit, for example, and The Catcher in the Rye—and films too. After all, Star Wars may feature the feisty princess/feminist icon Leia Organa, but the entire original galaxy-spanning trilogy fails the Bechdel Test.
- It Illuminates the Concept of Unconscious Bias
Students may ask if creators set out to specifically exclude women and women’s relationships from television, film, and other media. While that’s likely the case some of the time, it’s also true that people just don’t really think about excluding women, or representing them beyond stereotypical roles of love interest, femme fatale, or relative such as sister or mother. It’s so ingrained in our society that women occupy certain typical roles, that representing them in those ways over and over again goes unquestioned, even sometimes by women creators.
And even when we do see women in important roles that break down gender stereotypes, those women still mostly tend to speak to men, rather than to other women. For example, in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, we got two strong and powerful leads: Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), an Asgardian warrior who has fallen into depression and alcoholism after her defeat at the hands of the former. This seems like an amazing jumping-off point for a complex rivalry, but instead, Hela and Valkyrie speak almost exclusively to the men in the film, and never to one another. Would a conversation between Hela and Valkyrie have made Thor: Ragnarok a better film? That’s up for debate, but it’s worth noting that even though Valkyrie goes into an emotional spiral because of Hela, Valkyrie’s redemption has nothing to do with confronting the person who defeated her. Thor is given that privilege, even though he has no relationship with Hela before the start of the film.
It’s also good to discuss with students the social bias against respecting the importance of women’s speech. Sometimes, when working with students, they’ll say something like, “But girls do just talk about boys all the time!” Maybe this remark will be to get a laugh from the class, maybe it really reflects the student’s opinion of what women do and don’t discuss, but that’s a fruitful place to talk about the way women speak with one another, and why it’s so rare to see women’s conversations represented in media. When we think about women’s conversations with one another, we often categorize them as “gossip” or “girl talk” instead of as just conversations of similar importance to those men might have with one another. With that attitude, it’s no wonder women’s conversations don’t seem relevant enough to record in media!
- It Can Lead to Discussions of Quality Representation
It’s amusing to note that Sir Mix-A-Lot’s song “Baby Got Back” passes the Bechdel Test. Two women have a conversation about the size of a third woman’s rear end. But does that make “Baby Got Back” a feminist text? Well…
There’s been quite a lot of hostility over the years toward people who point out when popular media fails the Bechdel Test (and other various “tests”, which we’ll discuss below). The argument usually goes like this: Why should creators have to “shoehorn” conversations between women into movies, TV, and books just to pass some test? Of course, this hearkens back to the above—the disregard we have socially for women’s conversations, as well as the point that to some, it seems “unnatural” to have two (or more!) women in such positions of power that their conversation would move a plot forward.
It’s better to reframe that question: what sorts of conversations do men have in films, and are they all crucial to the plot? When we see two dudes drinking beers and talking about sports in a bar, do we give it more importance in terms of characterization than a scene where two women share a cocktail and discussing getting up to get pedicures? And is that scene of a casual moment between men “shoehorned” into the film?
That said, showing two women talking about getting pedicures isn’t necessarily the sort of “quality representation” we discussed above. A show, film or comic where two women have this conversation, but all the major roles are occupied by men, may pass the Bechdel Test on the letter of the law… but not the spirit. Which moves us to our final point—that the Bechdel Test is a good one for noticing trends and thinking critically about the roles women have in media, but it’s not the only metric by which a text’s progressiveness can be judged.
- It fosters discussion about representation beyond simply “women”
A movie where two or more straight, thin, able-bodied white women have a conversation about something other than a man would pass the Bechdel Test, sure… but is it truly “inclusive”? And is it more inclusive than, say, Pacific Rim, a film that fails the Bechdel Test, but does show women in meaningful roles, and features many main characters of color?
In the wake of the Bechdel Test becoming part of our critical consciousness, several other tests have emerged to allow us to discuss various other failings of mainstream media. Here’s a list of a few:
- The Mako Mori Test: Derived from the abovementioned Pacific Rim, the Mako Mori Test asks whether a film has a female character who gets her own narrative arc that’s about something other than supporting a male character’s story.
- The Racial Bechdel Test: This test asks whether a story contains two characters of color who have a conversation about something other than a white person.
- The Sexy Lamp Test: This test asks if women characters could be replaced by a sexy lamp and see no narrative change. This may seem a bit flippant, but it’s essentially asking if female characters contribute to the action, or grow or change at all throughout a text.
- The Furiosa Test: Another seemingly flippant test, this asks whether a film makes people angry simply for being focused on women’s stories rather than men’s. Notable films that “pass” this test include Mad Max: Fury Road (for which the test is named), the Ghostbusters remake, and the upcoming Oceans 8.
- The Vito Russo Test: Named after the writer of the famous book about LGBTQ representation in Hollywood, The Celluloid Closet, the Vito Russo Test asks if a text contains an identifiably LGBTQ character who is not defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, and who is a crucial part of a plotline.
- The DuVernay Test: Another test for race-based content, the DuVernay Test, named for Ava DuVernay (director of Selma and A Wrinkle in Time) asks if the minority characters in a story have fully realized arcs and lives apart from supporting white stories.
Hopefully, some of these “tests” will help you get a classroom discussion going about representation in media! While you’re at it, why not try to come up with more tests with your students?
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