The Bechdel–Wallace test and how it can help us

I briefly spoke about the Bechdel–Wallace test in my post about complex and powerful female characters, which you can read here. But as it’s such an interesting idea, I wanted to talk about it in depth.

The Bechdel–Wallace test was created by the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. It first appeared in 1985 in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. BechdelRule.png

Basically put, a movie passes the Bechdel–Wallace test if it ticks the following:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Simple, right?

You’d be surprised.

Here are some of the hundreds of movies which fail the Bechdel-Wallace test:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy
The Social Network
Indiana Jones Tetralogy
The Star Wars Trilogy
Avatar
The Avengers
Breakfast at Tiffany’s

If you’re interested, here’s a link to an amazing website which has the results for almost any movie you can think of.

Going through the list, a pattern of failures did seem to emerge. Movies aimed at a largely male audience continually fail. But perhaps the key point of this test is that these three little points shouldn’t be impossible for Hollywood directors and writers to achieve.

Virtually every movie which doesn’t include at least two men who speak to each other about something other than women falls squarely into the ‘chick-flick’ category. And if that isn’t frustrating enough, bizarrely, even chick-flick movies can fall foul of the Bechdal-Wallace test as the women discuss nothing but their man! For example, The Ugly Truth and What Women Want.

Another slant on this idea can from the comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who proposed a Sexy Lamp test:

If you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.

This is all a fascinating, albeit disturbing exercise to play with movies and books, but what does it show us? Does it mean that films which fail the Bechdel–Wallace/Sexy lamp test are bad movies? Absolutely not. For example, some dubious movies (in terms of quality) pass the Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colours, like Twilight, Barbie: Princess Charm School and, believe it or not, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Okay, but are they good movies which are anti-feminist? Again, of course not. You shouldn’t scrap every film which fails this test as a bad film, or anti-feminist. Some of my favourite films of all times fail this test. Movies with historical roots or in very male centric themes are going to have more male characters than females. A film about a war in the 1800s is not going to have a lot of female centric themes. Naturally, this means scenes between two female characters are usually the first thing that ends up on the cutting room floor.

What I take away from the Bechdel–Wallace test is that screen writers haven’t even begun to scrape the surface of what they can and should be doing with their female characters. Whether intentionally or simply because they’re too scared or unwilling to take that leap, there’s a world of story and character out there to tap into which they’re completely ignoring and have been for a very long time.

The fact is if a large percentage of movies fail these simple criteria, how is it possible to create female characters with any life and complexity outside of their roles in the male character’s lives?

I for one, can’t wait for them to try something new. Hollywood, as we know it now, first started churning out its silver screen masterpieces in the 1920s. So… 97 years later, with Wonder Woman and Ghostbusters 2, maybe they’re about ready?

What do you think of the Bechdel-Wallace test? Is it a good test? What do you think it can tell us about a movie? Or is it just a useful guide? Let me know your thoughts!

5 thoughts on “The Bechdel–Wallace test and how it can help us

    1. Yes, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole with that link and all the movies the list includes! Glad the Bechdel–Wallace test makes a little more sense now, seeing the original always helps.

      Like

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