The Bechdel Test, Bechdel-Wallace Test, or the Mo Movie Measure, is a sort of litmus test for female presence in movies and TV. The test is named for Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, who made it known to the world with this strip.Most people who talk about Schrodinger's Cat do so with the understanding that the "experiment" is a thought experiment only. The concept of the Schrodinger's Cat is used to illustrate in the mind an aspect of quantum physics, namely how (if I understand correctly) an event at a purely quantum level could have a practical effect on the physical world. There's no real value, however, in going out and getting a cat and a box to put it in -- the "experiment" in question is in the mind, and not in the box.
In order to pass, the film or show must meet the following criteria:
1. it includes at least two women* (some make the addendum that the women must be named characters)...
2. who have at least one conversation...
3. about something other than a man or men.
-- TV Tropes
I may not understand the Schrodinger's Cat experiment perfectly (I'm not, alas, a quantum physicist), but I do understand the Bechdel test. This is another test whose value is largely in the mind and in understanding the larger implications, and yet it's frequently misunderstood when brought up in conversation and particularly in reference to specific works. The test itself is fairly simple: does the work in question have two female characters who have a conversation with each other about something other than a man? Yes or no?
There's wrangling over the details, of course. Do the two female characters need to have names or a minimum of screen presence? Does the conversation need to be a back-and-forth or will a single line from one female character directed to another female character do the trick? Can the topic be a man, if the man is being discussed in a professional (i.e., not relational) capacity? If a single unnamed female cop asks a single unnamed female desk clerk, "Have you seen this man?" in the course of a criminal investigation and otherwise there are no female characters for the rest of the movie, is that "good enough" to pass the test?
There are fights over these questions. Serious ones. Speaking as a member of both the Firefly and the Star Trek: Voyager fandoms, there can be seriously hurt feelings and angry recriminations when the Bechdel test is brought up. Short version for the uninitiated: Voyager had a long history of sexually exploiting its female characters and focusing everything through Male Gaze lenses, but over the long running series, there were still many conversations between the female characters on the nature of humanity, the burden of responsibility, and the importance of finely ground organically grown coffee. Firefly, on the other hand, is generally seen as a more feminist-friendly work, but the series ran for a very short time and the Bechdel examples are fewer and farther between. It is impossible to bring this up online without hurting feelings. And, in fact, the whole thing usually degenerates into a few people explaining that the Bechdel test is not a measure-o'-feminism and a lot of people responding then what is it good for?! and then everyone walks away frustrated and unsatisfied.
It's true: the Bechdel test isn't a measure of feminism in a work. It's not a measure of whether or not a work is good. It's only very rarely even used as a reason to see or avoid a movie, and when it is, it's a question of personal taste and choice on the part of the viewer. So what is the test good for? Most people, myself included, use the Bechdel test as a thought experiment only. The question isn't "is this particular movie worth watching". The question isn't even really "does this particular movie pass the test", although that consideration is part of the bigger question. No, the real question the Bechdel test makes us consider is "why is it so hard to come up with a list of examples that pass the Bechdel test?"
Go back to the Firefly example above. Name me a scene where two women have a conversation that isn't about a man. Well, you'll probably reach for the Kaylee/Inara pampering scene where Inara brushes out Kaylee's hair in her shuttle. Name me a second one. Well, you'll dig down and pull out Kaylee asking Inara how many of her male clients wanted to take her away from her life as a Companion. We'll let you have that one, even though it's sort of about men, because I'm nothing if not reasonable. Name me a third one. Well... didn't Inara have a female client in one episode? We'll count that, even though it's somewhat overlaid with male gaze which is even lampshaded by Jayne's announced intentions... and even though most of what Inara and her client talk about are, in fact, men. Name me a fourth one. Um. Okay, surely the gals must have had some light banter around the dinner table at some point, and wasn't there that one scene where River states to Kaylee that she is badass? Not really a conversation, but we'll count it. Name me a fifth one. A sixth. A seventh. How many can you give me? Not ten, I'll bet.
Now name me thirty scenes in Firefly that feature two men having a conversation that isn't about a woman. I'll bet you can do that in ten minutes with plenty of scenes to spare. The men discuss reavers, the Alliance, the ship, the state of the finances, and the likelihood of the ambush they're flying into frequently and often. They have side discussions about wealth and privilege and religion and politics and guns. They discuss the moral implications of their thieving lifestyle, and they wrangle over how their lives will be affected if they give away money they can't afford and make enemies they don't need in order to help people they don't know. They discuss their loyalties to one another, and where those boundaries lie. They even talk about silly hats and hilarious bar ballads.
None of this means that Firefly is a bad show; I love Firefly. None of it means it's an anti-feminist show: the women are three-dimensional characters in their own right, and they're nuanced and complicated and thoroughly interesting to me. (YMMV, of course.) No, the value of the Bechdel test here isn't to trash Firefly or make it out to be a bad show because it's failed to give the female characters a voice.
Instead, the value of the Bechdel test here is to get the viewer thinking about the ways our society views women and the ways it views men. If your women on screen only interact with one another in stereotypical "feminine" ways -- in this case, largely talking about and growing interpersonal relationships -- then as a writer, you've failed to recognize and reflect the reality that women frequently and daily have conversations with each other about regular stuff. We talk about our jobs. We share our aches and pains. We discuss movies and TV shows and food and books. We exist as regular people, just as regular as the men around us.
The Bechdel test is a question of presence. Reading through the listings on the Bechdel Movie List, one is struck by how many films fail at the first point by only having one (or zero!) named female characters. Those tests that do pass, frequently hinge on split-second 'conversations' -- "Can I use the bathroom?", in one instance, and "Angel, no," in another -- that have to be diligently dug from the memories of the viewers reporting back from from the theaters. The take-away here isn't that there are a lot of bad movies out there; the take-away is that it's really dang hard to find the examples necessary to satisfy this simple test.
Presence of women in movies is important. In a world where women make up roughly half the population, it's been shown time and again that we're underrepresented in movies. There are three male characters to every one female character in movies. In group scenes with large crowds, the representation drops to one out of five. If women aren't visible and aren't vocal in movies, this aggregate under-representation underscores an ongoing belief in our unimportance. The Bechdel test illustrates that perfectly, not by picking out "bad movies" in particular, but by illustrating the incredibly unbalanced ratio of men to women in movies in general.
Take the same Bechdel test, and make it a question of race instead of gender. You'll have the same problems, with many of the same movies. It's not much easier to find scenes of non-white people having conversations about things other than white people; and -- just as with the original recipe Bechdel test -- the most obvious aversions occur in movies where the entire cast is made up of the group in question. It would seem that women have the best chance at having a voice when all the men have been excised from the movie, and that non-white characters have the best chance at having a voice when all the non-white characters have been removed from the cast. What can we make of this?
The "Reverse Bechdel test" -- in which the viewer is invited to find examples of two men having a conversation about something other than a woman -- is interesting because of its rarity. The test is usually only 'failed' if either all (or all-but-one) characters are female. These movies exist, it's true, but they're generally marketed almost exclusively to women; rarely is the summer blockbuster movie cast with zero male characters and expected to do well at the box office with men and women alike as excited viewers. It would seem that having a 1:5 ratio of men to women in a movie is generally expected to have similar ratios in the audience, but having a 5:1 ratio in favor of men isn't likely to hurt sales too much.
And this, in the end, is perhaps the real value of the Bechdel test: the solidification of the lowest possible expectations. The Bechdel test doesn't demand an equal ratio of female characters to male. It doesn't look for equal amounts of screen time or character importance or impact on the plot. It starts with the very basic question: of all the many, many characters in this movie -- ten, or fifteen, or twenty, or more -- are at least two of those characters female? And in this first step, an astonishing number of movies fail. And if we adjust for race and ignore gender, we still see a surprising number of movies that fail. What can we make of this?
Well, one possibility is that the roles are being written as white male characters who need white male actors. Fair enough. If you're writing a screenplay for an Apollo 13 remake, I guess you can't stock the space shuttle with a Chinese woman, a black man, and a Native American transgendered person. That wouldn't be historically accurate. But, here's the thing, almost none of the movies I watched this year dealt with historical figures who had to be X gender and Y race or else be Historically Inaccurate. And 90% of the movies I watched this year could have been cast entirely from random selection of race and gender for 90% of the roles. And yet... for some reason... they weren't.
I can't tell you why that is, because there are a lot of possible reasons at play here. Maybe writers tend to be predominantly white males who therefore predominantly write white male characters. Maybe casting directors tend to be predominantly white males who therefore predominantly cast white male actors in parts -- or perhaps they predominantly over-value the white male dollar at the box office and cast according to the assumption that white male audiences want white male actors. Maybe directors tend to cut parts written for non-white non-male characters as being less valuable to the overall piece than the parts written for the white male characters. Maybe a lot of things.
What I can say is that this sort of thing is sharply outlined by thought experiments like the Bechdel test. What I can say is that it takes something like the Bechdel test to get people to stop talking individual movies -- which largely boil down to preference, interpretation, and fan wars -- and to start talking cultural trends. What I can say is that this conversation is precisely why we need a Bechdel test, why we need lots of Bechdel tests, for gender and race and sexual orientation and a variety of other measures. The Bechdel test sharply outlines what our society presents as normative, as the "default" form a character does and should take.
That is what the Bechdel test is for. Not for the one-off artistic efforts, but for the aggregate effect as a whole on minority voices in our culture.