The Bechdel Test: Is there a Gender Bias In Media?

by Liz Bureman | 26 comments

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I watched a video the other day about the portrayal of women in media in 2013, and it started out by celebrating some fantastic victories. The second Hunger Games film was one of the highest-grossing opening weekends of all time, and the main character is an independent female. The Netflix series Orange is the New Black, about life in a women’s prison, was a colossal hit.

But then it was quickly followed by a reality check of how women were objectified in print ads, commercials, and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video. The segment on the degradation of women was depressingly more than three times more extensive than the segment on positive portrayal. With that as inspiration, I’d like to introduce you to the Bechdel Test.

Katniss Cover

What Is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test, which got its name from the work of comic strip artist Alison Bechdel, is a sort of gauge for female presence in fiction, but (and I should point this out early) it is not by itself indicative of a work that has feminist themes or a positive portrayal of women.

The test has three qualifiers. In order to pass, the work in question should (1) include at least two named/significant women who (2) have at least one conversation (3) about something other than a man/men.

Try applying this test to modern works of media; you’d be surprised at how many works don’t pass.

Are Female Characters Being Developed?

Again, the Bechdel Test is not an indicator of how much a work promotes a positive image of women. A book or movie can pass the Bechdel Test and still be ridiculously degrading to women, and on the other side of the coin, a work can fail the Bechdel Test and still have feminist themes in it. The test is mostly used to reveal just how much of our fiction, whether it be print or film, is written with a male perspective or worldview in mind.

As more women gain prominence in our fictional media world, as authors or directors, the Bechdel Test becomes an increasingly more interesting gauge of where the cultural pulse is beating, at least in the US. Interestingly, in November 2013, Sweden introduced a Bechdel Test rating for films so moviegoers can see if the movie they want to see over the holiday season with their family passes or fails. The test is a simple way to see how well female characters in film are developed, but again, it's a very low bar.

Are there enough female perspectives in media today?


Take fifteen minutes and write a winter scene that passes the Bechdel test. Remember, it must feature two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. Post your practice in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow writers.

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.


  1. themagicviolinist

    LOVE that video! I’ve watched it twice now, once by myself and once when I showed my parents. They loved it, too. I only recently learned about the Bechdel test. I think that’s awesome!

  2. David Saleeba

    “When do you think you’ll be done with the meeting?” It was a fair enough question that Vivian asked.

    “I don’t know, Mom. I’ll be done when I’m done.” Claire was sick and tired of the fair-enough questions.

    “Well, there’s no need to be angry with me, dear. I just needed to know, so that I can have everything ready. What with it being a holiday, and you being tied down with—“

    “Stop! I knew it would be about my job. I knew it! You haven’t let me have a moment’s peace about this since I took it.”

    “Now, Claire… I wasn’t trying to offend. I know you have your ambitions, silly as they may be, but you do have to pretend to have a family life also, dear.”

    “Mother, I do not want to go through this again. I know that for you these things are important and they are with me, too. But I am not in a position just to blow off a meeting to do dinner this year. Not with the promotion, at least.”

    This was all too familiar to Vivian. She heard this after Claire’s undergraduate
    degree, going for the MBA. Then at the entry level position she took that barely paid the bills, let alone the student loans. “Well, I suppose it will be this
    way for a while, then. And then if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to get another promotion, the family traditions will have to stand on the sidelines as little Claire moves forward being the good little company girl.”

    “I am done with this conversation. Done! Mother, you just don’t understand my situation. Maybe it’s because you’re too old-school to get it. I am finally doing what I’ve spent so long trying to do, and if you can’t see that… then maybe your little traditions can just be yours.”

    Claire hung up, wishing that it wasn’t just with a touch screen, but one of the older phones that really made it feel like you were hanging up when you slammed it into the cradle.

  3. Karoline Kingley

    I think the third qualifier for the Bechdel test is the most interesting and (arguably) the most valuable. After all, how accurate is it if you create stories starring prominent females, yet there are incapable of talking about anything other than men? Or similarly, incapable of wearing anything that doesn’t distract from their face? Very interesting.

  4. Margie

    I’ve applied the Bechdel test to everything I watch, and it is astonishing how true it is. Even when strong female leads are portrayed on TV, they are talking about men and their relationships with men. Thanks for the video, i hadn’t seen it. Thanks for this great post! More people need to be aware of this disservice to women in the media and writing.

  5. Ron Estrada

    Is this for a grade? I admit, I had to cut out one line when I realized they mentioned a man. Here’s my homework:

    Juli knelt by the fire, the snow pushing up her thighs, the cold piercing her only pair of denim jeans like a thousand little needles. They should move south. Isn’t that what the Native Americans did? And her little tribe wasn’t so different. Except, of course, some of them still had working iPods. Just no heat.
    Serena appeared next to her, giving her a start.

    Juli glared up at her. “Can’t you make more noise when you walk up behind me?”

    Serena smiled. Serena could probably smile while strapped to a tree, blindfolded, with three Feds sighting down their rifles at her. She was annoying that way. “Didn’t want to disturb you, honey. You looked so peaceful.”

    “Peaceful.” Juli grunted. “Is that another word for frostbitten?”

    Serena knelt in the snow next to her. The white flakes seemed to flash whiter against her dark skin just before they melted into tears. “Hypothermia would be more likely.”

    “Well thank you Doctor Young. I think–” Juli stopped herself. Serena was a doctor, before the Crash. Long before. Juli kept forgetting that. But she never knew Serena back then, even though they lived in the same city. The only way the child of a whore would see a doctor would be if she’d been involved in a car accident. Highly unlikely when Juli’s mother didn’t even have a car. In fact, Juli had been her only worldly possession of any value. Enough value that she could trade her for a three month supply of meth.

    Juli shook these unpleasant memories from her head, letting them fall with the snowflakes into the flames. If only it were that easy. If only she really could burn those memories like so many scraps of paper. She sighed. “Sorry.”

    Serena patted her leg. “It’s alright honey. You got us this far. You’ll get us to spring. Maybe we’ll all be a lot thinner, but we’ll make it. Been meaning to lose a few pounds anyway.”

    That made Juli smile. If Serena were any skinnier she’d have to staple her trousers onto her hips. If they had staples. “We’ll head south.” Just like that. Another decision. Surely she was the youngest officer in this make-believe army of rebels. At this rate, she’d be president of their new country by the time she was twenty. She laughed.

    “Hmmm?” Serena stared at her, one eyebrow raised.

    Juli shook her head. “Nothing…just thinking about the next president.”

    Serena nodded. “President Juli Knox.”

    There she goes again! How did she get into people’s heads like that? But Juli smiled anyway. “President Juli Knox of the United States of Snowville.” She giggled.

    Serena joined her. Their laughter filled the camp and shook the snow from the boughs overhead.

    • karla

      Hey, Ron, I started to read your comment by mistake (I didn’t want to read what anyone else had written before I posted my own!), but I was so hooked by your story I just couldn’t help but continue reading. This story is already beautiful, and I can certainly see where your going more or less.

      I know you wrote this as an exercise, but if this is a part of a Work-in-progress, I have some things for you to look out for:

      (1) Clarify Juli’s age, and the age difference in comparison to Serena.

      (2) At first, I thought Serena was her lover, but I think you meant the “Honey” to come off as maternal rather than romantic.

      (3) I was a bit confused when Juli flashback. ESTABLISH that her mother DID trade her for meth sooner–I thought she was saying her mom was the kind of mother who COULD have sold her off, but after a few more sentences, I realized she HAD sold her rather than it being a speculation/exaggeration for how bad her mother was.

      (4) You already used the Native Americans, maybe it can be a running metaphor in your piece.

      Beautiful work, Ron! I hope you continue with this–best of luck! 🙂

    • Ron Estrada

      Thanks, Karla! These are two characters in my current WIP, but if I used a scene like this it would come in a later book. Great points. If I need another crit partner, I’ll look you up!

    • catmorrell

      Wow, This is really good. Thank you. I wasn’t confused about any of it and would read the whole book just from this introduction. I like your characters.

  6. Sarah Hood

    Funny…I was about to post a section of my main WIP…then I realized that the entire subject of the characters’ conversation is a man. In fact, the whole story pretty much fails the test. There are exactly three women of significance, and two of them are minor characters (the third is the protagonist). The protagonist does talk with each of the minor characters at least once, but probably not much more, and a man is the primary subject. Of course, that man is the villain the protagonist is trying to defy, and there aren’t a lot of major female characters because they’re aren’t a lot of major characters at all.
    My point is, I agree that the Bechdel test is a good tool for writers…I also agree it’s not a good indicator of whether women are portrayed positively. There are some genres and stories that by their very nature contain more men than women…others that contain more women than men. I don’t see anything wrong with that. If a writer only adds more women characters because he doesn’t want to be seen as sexist, he runs the risk of turning out a bunch of cardboard-cutout clichés rather than strong, complex, believable characters.
    In short, the quality of the character–man or woman–is what’s most important, not the quantity or the topic of their conversations.

    • epbure

      For sure! One of my favorite examples of a work that fails the Bechdel test but still has empowering themes for women is Mulan. The whole movie revolves around a woman who pushes back on society’s expectation of her, and fights to save her country, but the only conversations that she has with other women revolve around the ideas of matchmaking and marriage. While the film fails the Bechdel test, it stars a female character who kicks ass and saves China, which I hardly think is a bad thing. Great points!

  7. Jay Warner

    “Is there any way…” she mumbled into her handkerchief, trying to keep the smell from permeating her nostrils. “I’m going to throw up if we have to stay here much longer.” Ellen held the dainty piece of linen over her nose as though it was an oxygen mask and she was drawing her last breath.

    Daisy frowned. She was concentrating on putting her foot on the shovel just so, and pushing through the rich, dark loam. Just moments before, Daisy had cleared a meticulous spot in the woods, pointed and bent to it, moved the piles of decaying leaves with her hands, releasing the stench that Ellen objected to with such vehemence. But this was the spot, Daisy was sure of it, and she would not be deterred.

    Ellen paced, wanting to leave, afraid to look, but drawn in as if a line extended from her eyes to the point of the shovel. Could it really be?

    And then Daisy flipped up a shovelful of the earthy, composting pile, dislodging the thin white rib bone of their mother.

    “You ought not to mess with things, Daisy. Leave them the way they ought to lie.”

    “Don’t you want to know the truth? She’s been out here all these years and we
    didn’t even know it. Don’t you want to know how she died? Why she’s buried here and not in a cemetery?”

    “No, Daisy, I don’t”. Ellen watched Daisy dig with more vigor now that she had found something. “Maybe it isn’t her after all. Maybe it’s just our old dog Petey
    or something.” But she knew in her heart that the only thing buried under that
    tree was Georgia Mafallin, their mother.

    She glanced nervously back at the house some 500 yards in the distance
    across a well-kept lawn. The woods where they stood now ringed the lawn like a protective circle. If they stepped out of the shadows they would be standing a stone’s throw from the rose garden that Mr. Tipple had built from nothing.

    “Daisy, stop.” Ellen pleaded. “Let’s go inside.”

    “And leave her here? Just when we are about to discover the secret we’ve had since childhood? Just when we are about to learn everything we ever wanted to know? Don’t you want to know how Mother got here?”

    • CrisMichaels

      I wanna know! 🙂 This is a great scene.

    • Jay Warner

      Thanks! I had fun writing it.

  8. Missaralee

    “Margie” I said, walking up behind the older woman. “I need to talk to you.” She was hunched over her prize, a can of gas she’d snagged at the last gas station we pillaged for supplies. Her salt and pepper hair hung limp and greasy around her shoulders, permeated with the stink of fuel and wood smoke. Like the rest of us, she hadn’t showered in weeks, but she didn’t seem any worse for it. She had this same air of dishevelment when she stepped off that luxury cruise liner three weeks ago.

    “Well, Little Lady” she said taking a sniff of gas, “I’m at your leisure, so yack away.”

    “My name’s Vic, not Little Lady, not Precious, not Angel, not Darling. Just Vic.”

    “Well, I’m glad we’ve got that sorted, Sugar. Is that all?” She looked up, her black eyes fixed on mine. She wiped the back of her hand across her nose and pursed her lips.

    “You were a machinist, weren’t you?” She turned her back to me, her attention once again fixed on the gas can.

    “I am a machinist. Just because the world goes and ends, doesn’t mean you stop being who you are. Just look at you, Duckie, still an imperious pain in the neck Princess riding coat tails and ordering folk around.”

    “Can you tell us anything about the drone Crusoe shot down?” I was getting impatient. Her continued use of pet names had my fist balled up and ready to wallop her right in the jaw.

    “I’d say that thing is made of metal. Made in a factory and judging by the fact that it can fly and tracked us halfway across the state, probably has circuits and some kind of levitation or hovercraft tech on board. Will that be all?”

    “That doesn’t tell me anything. All that is pretty obvious.”

    “I’d say it’s obvious. What may not be so obvious to you lot is that a machinist is not an engineer. I built and maintenanced mechanical components for factories and manufacturers. I never built robots, never used computers and never did learn how to balance a check book or tweet or play with apps. Ask the whelp, he’s Gen Y, I’m sure he can hack robots and tell you all about circuits and high tech junk.”

    “Wonderful, we let you tag along for no reason, then.”

    “Not for no reason. Don’t I add a little something to the scenery” she said, primping her hair in pantomime. I had to smile, she certainly added something to the air.

  9. Alex

    I find that a good control for the Bechdel test is to turn it around and see if the story fits the criteria for men in the story. If it does, but doesn’t for women, maybe take another look at things. If it doesn’t work for either, you probably don’t have too much to worry about. I write short stories and tend to find that I struggle to have enough characters for the test to be applicable.

    Anyway, bear with me on this practice!


    Mum was in the kitchen, reading the paper. I breathed deeply. I had to tell her at some point. I’d been psyching myself up for this for an hour now. How to break the news? How to tell her?

    “Mum,” I said.

    Mum put down the paper and looked at her. “Yes Karen?” she said, smiling.

    “I have something to tell you,” I said. My heart was beating so hard she thought it was going to burst out of her chest.

    “Okay. Why don’t you sit down?”

    I sat. And didn’t speak.

    “What is it dear?” Mum asked.

    Slowly. Bit my bit. That was the way to do it. There was an easy bit and a hard bit. Let’s do the easy bit first.

    “Mum…” only relatively easy. “I think I’m in love.”

    “Oh honey, that’s lovely,” she beamed. “Who’s the lucky man?”

    “Just someone from school.”

    “Anyone I’d know? Is it that David boy? I always thought you two would be great together.”

    Seriously? I thought, but didn’t say. “No, Mum, it’s not Dave.” I let the great opportunity roll by. “It’s someone you know, though.”

    “So how long have you two been dating?”

    “A couple of months now.”

    “And you’ve only just brought it up?”

    “It’s wasn’t all the serious at first” I lied. Mum looked at me with raised eyebrows.

    “It is now though?”

    “Yeah. At least I think so.”

    “Well I’m happy for you. I do wish you’d tell us more of this sort of thing though. You’re so private about things.”

    “Thanks, Mum, that means a lot. Sorry for not saying earlier.” I got up to leave. It wasn’t that plan, but my courage was running out. I could break the news slowly, over a couple of days maybe, no need to do it all at once.

    “Hang on there young lady.” Mum said. “You’re not getting away that easily. You have to at least give me a name.”

    I sat down. She was right, and even if she wasn’t, she wasn’t the kind of person to let something like this go. I had to tell her.

    I didn’t know why this was so hard. She knew exactly how her mum would react. She’d smile and say she was happy for me. And she’d mean it too. So why was this so hard? Why couldn’t I just say it? Maybe it was because it was the first time that I’d actually admitted this to anyone out loud.

    “Well? Who is it? It’s not Harry, is it? You know I don’t like that boy. Come on, What’s his name?” Mum said, smilingly playfully at me.

    “Her name’s Rachel.”

  10. CrisMichaels

    This was enlightening, because I’m also working on a story that horribly fails the test. The main character is a woman dealing with a bad thing that happens to “her man.” It’s pretty much all about the effect this bad thing has on her, so not much will be said between any two women that isn’t regarding him.

    Thank you for sharing the video – it sums up what’s been really bothering me this year about the media.


    Ani clutched the black iron handle on the door to the matron’s office chamber. The smooth hide cloak sagged on Ani’s shoulders, and with her free hand she pulled it tight to block out the chill. She breathed deep, turned the latch, and stepped inside. Akeya sat pin straight behind the oaken work table, staring into Ani’s eyes as if the gods had preannounced her entrance.

    “Sit,” Akeya said plainly, still without turning her gaze. A velvet wrap sat balanced atop her head like a fat coiled serpent. Her chin seemed to rest on a high shelf of air.

    Ani sat in the oversized birch chair facing the matron. Its surface had been warmed by a cracking fire in the stove.

    “We have seen that you are behind in your studies.” With pale, twig-like fingers, Akeya brushed aside a small pile of crisp leaves and a squat crystal powder jar centered on the table. She folded her hands on the smoothly hewn surface and returned her attention to Ani’s face.

    The cloak slipped again. Ani pulled it tight, this time for comfort rather than warmth. “Yes.” Ani felt her own chin rise as she spoke. “It is not acceptable to myself, either, Matron.”

    “And how do you propose to resolve it?”

    Ani blinked. She knew the expected answer, the only acceptable one. But her time was now stretched too thin; she could not devote more hours to her alchemy studies before season’s end.

    “I propose to devise a plan, Matron, which I will present to you within a week’s time.”

    “Unacceptable.” The two women sat in silence, eyes fixed on one another. “As you are aware, Ani, others wait to take your place in the program.”

    “Then I have an alternative proposal.” Ani dropped her gaze, but caught herself and quickly looked up. “Present me with the quarter exam early. In one week’s time. I will complete it to show my improvement.”

    The corners of Akeya’s lips twitched. She breathed deeply and leaned back in her seat. The coiled headpiece refused to tip. “In four days time. The evening of the achadieas lecture. You will arrive two hours early and complete the exam independently. There will be no review, and you must rely on your own study of the books for the final three sectades of the Division.”


    “If you pass you will stay for the next Division. If you fail you will relinquish.”

    “Yes.” Ani tensed, preparing to rise.

    Akeya tilted her head. “I pray that you do not waste our time, Ani.”

  11. Janey Egerton

    I’m not posting a practice today because my WIP already complies with the test. In fact, its current version wouldn’t pass the inverted Bechdel test (like the Bechdel test, but for male characters) 😉
    That bit about the Swedish rating movies after the Bechdel test surprised me. Only two females who have ONE conversation? Talk about low benchmarks!
    By the way, to the fortunate among you who happen to speak German, I highly recommend “Frauenroman” (Women Novel) by Catrin Alpach (as far as I know, there’s no English translation yet). It’s a very entertaining short novel about a young female writer who, after struggling for years, finally becomes famous when she publishes a novel that contains only female characters. Now her editor wants her to write a sequel, and that’s not so easy… Frauenroman itself contains (nearly) only female characters. Very meta!

  12. Marilyn Ostermiller

    Three generations of women rode companionably in the SUV. The driver was the daughter of the woman in the passenger seat and mother to 11-year-old Isabelle, whom they had just picked up from swim team practice.
    As Germaine piloted the vehicle home through a particularly dense bumper-to-bumper patch of rush hour traffic, Isabelle announced from the back seat, without prelude, “I know there is no Santa.”
    Seconds pass.
    “What do you mean there is no Santa? Where did you get that idea? Of course there is a Santa Clause” Germaine responds, while thinking to herself, “It’s about time, but maybe I’m not ready to give up on Santa.”
    “Well, I’ve been thinking and last year the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning were wrapped in the same pattern of gift paper that we have around the house,” Isabelle responded.
    “Well, that was surely just a coincidence,” Germaine countered, wondering inwardly why she didn’t just ‘fess up, kill off the fat man and be done with the charade. Her son, Matthew, had outed his parents as Santa when he was only eight years old, but thoughtfully agreed to keep up the pretense for Isabelle, who was only five at the time. That was six years ago.
    At last Isabelle’s grandma turns to her daughter and says, “It’s time already. You make too much of a big deal about Santa gifts. Now you can just get her one present and be done with it.”

  13. R.w. Foster

    I’ve always been confused by that test. In particular, the last question. Does the work fail if they mention a guy at all in the whole work? What if they’re criminals talking about ripping him off? Or, what if one is trying to help the other deal with her grief over losing her brother?

    • epbure

      Technically, as long as there is one conversation between two women that does not mention a man, the work passes the test. Other conversations between women in that same work can mention a man, but as long as there is one that doesn’t, it passes.

      I definitely think that the test is good as a gauge of how women are represented in fiction, but it’s not to be meant as a measure of the overall quality of a work. It’s just an interesting way to observe how culture approaches the roles of women vs. men in fiction. Good observations!

    • R.w. Foster

      Another question: Does a work pass the test if it stars a woman who kicks ass, isn’t defined by her relationship to a man, but she still talks about males a lot, either because she’s talking about capturing them (she’s a cop), or she’s juggling two (she’s not wanting to settle down with one, or the other), or even one’s kind of an ass, but she respects him (her superior)?

    • Molly Moon

      If she doesn’t have a conversation with a named woman that has nothing to do with any man, then the work fails. The rules aren’t supposed to trick you. It’s really straightforward. That’s why people who talk about it always try to emphasize that the Bechtel test is not the Official Test of Cinematic Feminism, it’s just an interesting tidbit of information.

    • R.w. Foster

      I never said they were trying to trick me. Forgive me if that’s the impression I gave. I’m trying to understand it better. Hence my questions. So, for me, it’s not that straightforward. Sorry for being rather slow.

  14. catmorrell

    No story here today, but I do want to talk about the test. Sometimes I think we tend to overlook the hidden strengths in quiet women. Aunt Bea is case in point. She seemed shy and retiring. She made mistakes, but Andy made bigger mistakes. The point being they worked together to resolve the misunderstandings. Helen Crump was another strong female character and she was smart too. With that said there were a ton of “flawed” male characters on the Andy Griffith show that helped to make it delightful. Compare this show to Charlie’s Angels which I loved in the 70s and I will take Mayberry any day now. The Angels were tough accomplished women, bossed around by a man they never met while wearing high heels chasing the bad guys. Much more sexist in my opinion. In my older age I want Aunt Bea’s and Helen’s wisdom, grace and strength.

    • Adelaide Shaw

      I agree with you about the older tv shows where women, even if the main emphasis in the show was on a man, were caring, sensible and wise. The Waltons is another show which had a strong female character. .

  15. Brianna Worlds

    “Are you *sure* you want to do that?” Jaylen yelled up the side of the building, her eyes fixed on the body of her friend, Rey, as she scaled the wall. “It looks kind of dangerous–”
    “Oh, quit your worrying, Neuf,” Rey snapped, swinging nimbly onto a window ledge. Jaylen cringed at the narrowness of it, how easy it would be to fall if she lost her balance. “I’ll be fine.”
    Punctuated by the occasional grunt, Rey continued her perilous journey up the flat side of the luxury hotel, her life hanging on a ledge of concrete. Okay, that didn’t seem quite so dangerous as a thread of string, but it’s a very small ledge of concrete.
    “Are you sure? I’m not so sure,” Jaylen persisted, her brow furrowing in concern.
    “Just *shut-up*!” Rey hissed loudly. “I’m trying to concentrate. If I fall and die, it’s all your fault.”
    Now scowling, Jaylen retreated into silence, still anxiously watching for a moment of lost control when her friend would slip and fall and plummet to her death.


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