The Bechdel Test in Popular Media

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “The Bechdel Test” uttered over the last few years, as the concept in feminist critical theory has received mainstream attention.  But where does the test come from?  The Bechdel Test, originating from a comic strip written by Alison Bechdel in 1985, was initially designed to evaluate films based on their portrayal of women.  Are the women (if any) in a particular film multidimensional characters with significant roles in the plot? The test operates under the assumption that mainstream contemporary filmmakers (who statistically tend to be male) generally create films that do not portray women fairly or accurately.  Essentially, with the following simple criteria, one would be able to quickly determine whether or not a film passes this gender bias test:

1.  Does the film have at least two women in it?
2.  Do the two women talk to each other?
3.  Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

Now, of course, the Bechdel Test is a quick and dirty trick, and by no means does it embody the depth and nuance of true feminist criticism.  Still, it does bring up an interesting topic in the conversation in a way that’s both thoughtful and accessible.  In the last few years, the Bechdel Test has seen a resurgence in popularity as bloggers, critics, audiences, and readers have begun to apply the test to not only films, but to books, video games, and other types of popular media.

So what’s the verdict?

Well, it’s ongoing.  And evolving.  But for the most part, much of what we read, watch, and play today fails the Bechdel Test.  However, it is getting better.  And if the following infographic from the global social news site Vocativ.com is any indication, audiences tend to favor films that pass the Bechdel test.

Now how about the Bechdel test as it applies to books, specifically young adult fiction?  A simple Google search reveals numerous lists on blogs and sites such as Goodreads.com naming novels that pass the Bechdel Test.  Many of these books tend to be young adult fiction, as the genre is known for its abundance of strong female characters.  Additionally, many popular YA authors are female, which arguably helps to eliminate some of the gender bias that plagues the male-dominated film industry.  As audiences gravitate toward films that portray women in a positive light, readers of all ages have similarly flocked to young adult fiction.  Popular series such as Divergent and The Hunger Games pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.  Even series with male protagonists pass the Bechdel Test, such as the Percy Jackson and Harry Potter series.  All of the titles I’ve mentioned have also been made into films that have helped make up the small (but growing!) percentage of films that have managed to pass the gender bias test*.

*The film adaptation of Divergent will not be released until March, but as long as it doesn’t deviate too far from its source material, it should pass.

Going over some of the YA books I’ve read over the past year through a Bechdel Test lens, I noticed some interesting trends.  Many of the books that passed the test were in the realm of speculative fiction genres and subgenres, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, and dystopian.  Some books in these genres that leaned heavily on the romance aspects of their stories either failed or barely passed.  A lot of realistic fiction failed, particular romances and books with male protagonists.  Realistic fiction books about families and friendships tended to fair better. 

I will not be compiling a list of books that failed the Bechdel test, however I would like to highlight a few of my favorites that passed:

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare
The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan

So the next time you're at the movies or reading a book, maybe ask those three simple questions to see if what you're watching or reading passes the Bechdel Test.

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