The Value of the Bechdel Test

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


I’ve been here before. Reading a book, epic fantasy, relatively new, not bad, but I’ve got a growing feeling that something’s missing. Something like . . . half the world.

Where are the women?

Two hundred pages into the book, and there’s been three named female characters. One is evil. The second existed only for a brief scene, for the purpose of highlighting how attractive the third one is. And other than the three of them, it’s just been nameless, faceless, voiceless females occasionally flashing through in the background. Very occasionally. The furniture plays a bigger role.

Some of you may have heard of the Bechdel Test (or Bechdel-Wallace Test, or Bechdel Rule). I don’t use it as a guideline for what movies to go see (the original formulation of the rule), but I think the three components of the test have very specific value when it comes to thinking about the presence of women in a story. The test goes like this: does the story have

1) at least two female characters, who
2) have a conversation with each other,
3) about something other than a man?

Each component carries an important point, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about them. What do you gain by passing each stage of the test?

Let’s start with #1. Does your story pass? Congratulations! You have more than one female character in your story. Getting one seems to be easy; most books I read/movies or TV I watch have that, even up at the level of Major Character. But it’s like there’s a checkbox in the author’s head: put women in the story. And once there’s a woman, that box gets checked, and never revisited. Mission accomplished. Because one’s all you need, right?

Before anybody starts to complain about the notion of quotas, let me say: not every story needs to have a 50/50 balance. A lot depends on what kind of story it is, taking place in what kind of society. On the other hand, who’s in control of what kind of story it is, and what kind of society? The author. If a secondary-world fantasy falls out in such a way that women are irrelevant to the story, that’s because the author chose — consciously or unconsciously — to make it so.

Even if the story’s set in the real world, you aren’t off the hook. If you’re writing about a premodern army, sure, you could have that one cross-dressing girl — but that’s pushing it, and having two would be over the top. Am I advocating for shoehorning them in anyway? Not at all. I’m advocating for taking a look around and realizing you have more options. Contrary to popular depiction, armies consist of more than just their soldiers. Your premodern army will have cooks and laundresses and camp followers. The officers may have their wives along. The army will probably not be occupying an uninhabited wasteland, so there are villages, and the villages probably have women in them. You don’t have to bend reality to make this happen; you just have to acknowledge reality, and probably make your story richer in the process.

Onward to #2: the two female characters (or two of the more-than-two, ideally) need to have a conversation with each other. The value here is that it means both of the characters are important enough to do more than just interact with the male protagonist. (It should go without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — that a two-line exchange of small talk doesn’t really cut it. Though I suppose it’s better than nothing.)

Again, circumstances may limit this. If you have multiple points of view, and one of them’s female, it’s easy to pass this stage with flying colors. If you’ve got only the one viewpoint, though, and it’s your male hero, then you don’t necessarily want him sitting around listening to other characters talk to each other, without taking part himself. But a good group conversation scene is one in which the participants interact with each other; if everybody’s only talking to the hero, the whole thing falls flat anyway. You want a web, not a pinwheel. The trick — and it shouldn’t be a hard trick — is to make your multiple women important enough to the story that they aren’t kept in separate narrative compartments, only occasionally visited by the hero.

Which brings us to #3: do the women talk about something other than a man? Here we finally get to something more like a subtle point. It isn’t that women should never talk about men; it’s that they should have other things they talk about too. (Remember, women are people.) Too many female characters in this kind of story are defined by their relationships to men: they’re some guy’s love interest or wife or sister or daughter or mother or enemy. They have no real existence beyond that relationship, and therefore nothing else to talk about.

This is called bad characterization. Have you ever read a book with a female protagonist, where her love interest is treated like a satellite orbiting her star? Pretty pathetic, isn’t it? It stays pathetic when the genders swap. The women should contribute something other than T&A (or motherly love, or whatever) to the story. Then they’ll have something to talk about.

Passing all three stages of the Bechdel Test, of course, is no guarantee that you’re in the green. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time clears these hurdles with miles to spare, but his characterization of women still gets up my nose. That’s all upper-level coursework, though, while this is Female Characters 101. What depresses me is how many authors still fail it.