Bechdel Test: the struggle of female representation on screen
Growing up, I always looked to female characters on screen, to someone who looked like me. And even if it is true that women characters are present and featured in nearly the majority of films, that does not mean that it is a perfect representation. Looking at the characters on screen, I often felt like something was missing: as if they wouldn’t fully capture the complexities and nuances that I could see daily in the real women in my life.
When just asking for representation is clearly not enough, the question now is: how are women represented on screen?
The Bechdel Test attempts to tackle this exact issue. It is named after the cartoonist Alison Bechdel as she introduced it in a comic strip in 1985; however, the creator herself credited her work to Virginia Woolf who had originally raised similar issues when discussing gender portrayal in the literature of her time in A Room of One’s Own.
In 1929, Woolf had identified similar issues to those that we are still discussing in more recent popular fiction, writing that women are “almost without exception [..] shown in their relation to men, […] not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex.”
The test first appeared in 1985 and became more commonly discussed in the 2000s, moving into mainstream criticism in the 2010s as a standard to judge television, movies, books, and other media and was later adapted into other versions to test other characteristics, such as the Vito Russo test to analyse LGBT representation. The Bechdel Test became so popular that in 2018 screenwriting softwares such as Final Draft incorporated a specific function to analyse scripts in terms of gender representation.
Bechdel Test: criteria
The Bechdel test measures the representation of women in fiction according to specific criteria: firstly, that there are at least two women characters who must be named in a media production. Furthermore, that these women talk to each other and, lastly, that the subject of their discussion is something other than men.
A list of films divided by year is available on the official website which operates as a user-generated database where everyone can add a film and discuss whether or not it passes the Bechdel test. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by looking closely at the list provided on the website, we find out that about half of the films do not meet these criteria.
For example, the newest James Bond film No Time to Die (2021, Cary Joji Fukunaga) only meets two of the criteria, therefore not passing the Bechdel test: while there are two women who communicate with each other, they only talk about James Bond.
Contrary, a recent film that does pass the Bechdel Test is In the Heights (2021, Jon M. Chu) in which all three aspects are met: a variety of named female characters # are featured in the film and talk about various topics in multiple conversations.
It is worth noticing that the Bechdel test did attract some criticism. It is true that the test is not, and can not be, the only indicator of how well women are represented in a media work nor about the quality of the work it tests.
However, the test can make us reflect on the active presence and inclusion of women in media and call attention to how female characters are represented in fiction. In other words, the Bechdel test is clearly still necessary in 2021 to analyse gender portrayal in popular fictional media. It can be seen as a step towards a better – and more accurate – representation of women and female relationships in media, one that we can finally identify with.