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.
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.
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.