Applying the Bechdel Test

Many of you are probably familiar with the Bechdel Test, named after Alison Bechdel, and originally posited by Liz Wallace.  The test simply asks whether a movie meets the following criteria:

(1) It has at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

The rule works with written fiction too, and can be applied to more than just gender.  For example, The Stepsister Scheme passes the test with flying colors, but if you ask whether there are at least two nonwhite characters who talk to each other … well, no.  Likewise, it fails if you apply it to visibly lesbian/gay characters.

Red Hood’s Revenge, on the other hand, passes all three of those permutations of the test.  Yay, I win at Bechdel, right?

Now let’s time how long it takes someone to point out that the series fails the test miserably when applied to men.  There are more than two male characters, but I don’t know that they ever talk to one another, and if so, I doubt it’s about anything except our heroines.


So does this mean I should add a pair of male sidekicks?  Maybe goblin males, who can chat about the finer points of barbequeued knight?  The armor holds in the juices … okay, actually that sounds like fun.  But I’m gonna say no.

The point isn’t that a “good” story must be like Noah’s ark, having at least two of every character variant.  To me, the test is a way to illustrate how few stories actually have multiple female characters, and if so, they’re often present simply as “accessories” to our male heroes.

I don’t worry that my books fail the test when applied to men, mostly because I can’t remember the last book I read that didn’t pass the “Male Bechdel Test” … but I could give you a long list of books that fail when applied to women, to LGBT characters, to nonwhite characters…

It’s an awareness thing.  It’s something I think we need to be more conscious of, both as readers and as writers.  Stepsister Scheme has only a single non-white human character.  Was that a deliberate choice, or did I simply use white as the (lazy) default?

Or take the zombie story I just sold, for example — those characters were white because I had a week to write the story, and I didn’t bother to think about it.  I just defaulted to white.  (Okay, more of a grayish tinge actually, but still.)

Was I wrong to make them white?  Should I have made them black or Native American or Inuit or something else?  Not necessarily … there might be valid reasons why most of the zombies in that situation and location would be white.  But as the writer, that should have been a conscious decision on my part, not a default.

Discussion is welcome, as always.