The Bechdel test is a simple critic’s device which manages to call out fiction for lack of developed and fair female character representation.
It is a rule that questions whether a piece has an appropriate portrayal of women and, as you can imagine, the pass rate isn’t outstanding.
It’s not the only test out there; in fact, there is a whole range of these which are applied to society to measure fairness.
Let’s have a look at a few. We’ll start with the Bechdel Test, to get you up to scratch.
A straightforward measure of women’s role in literature and films. It asks whether there is a scene or time when two women talk about something other than a man. Sounds easy enough to pass, right?
Well, it turns out that around half of films fail this test.
While the test does have its flaws and opponents, including from notable feminists, it acts as a good rule of thumb, even if it may not suit being applied to every type of film.
Ava DuVernay, who directed Selma had this term coined in her honour for her part in promoting film diversity in Hollywood.
This test requires that black or minority actors in a film must have fully developed characters, which fully realised lives and desires.
While not always the best source for day-to-day definition, Urban Dictionary sums up the term “token black guy” in a way that demonstrates the media’s need for the test:
Any fictional character of African-American descent that has been inconsequently inserted into the plot a movie or TV show for the purposes of creating an image of commercially safe, politically correct, and insipid racial harmony. In eras gone by the token black guys would be the first characters to be killed off.
The term is deeply ridiculed in South Park with the only black child-character being called Token Black.
Similar to above, this test determines the representation of black women specifically.
The test requires a film to have a black woman not only in a position of power but also in a healthy relationship.
In 2016, only 5 of the top 50 films passed this test.
Named after the science journalist Ann Finkbeiner, this test works to ensure women scientists are represented fairly in articles.
Directly inspired by the Bechdel test, it is a checklist designed to celebrate the scientific skills of a woman, rather than focussing on irrelevant aspects of their life.
To pass, you must not include:
- That she is a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her childcare arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she is a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”
So what do they mean?
These tests are here as guidelines to strive for.
There are so many films which have failed them needlessly due to unfair characterisation, and this needs to stop.
Many people will argue that these tests can never apply to everything, and they are probably right.
A war film, for example, may, for historical accuracy, not require a female or ethnic minority character.
In this case, trying to insert one in to pass a test would ironically go against the spirit of the tests and result in a redundant character for the sake of it.
This does not mean we shouldn’t pay attention to the tests though, far from it.
Perhaps what they do best is make you take a moment to pause and consider your own nurtured prejudices that you would otherwise, not think twice about.