What is the Bechdel Test (and Other Tests), as it Pertains to Writing?

Mako Mori, via Pacific Rim.

Mako Mori, via Pacific Rim.

I was doing research over at Red Sofa Literary, and under one of the literary agent’s (Laura Zats) scifi/fantasy reading requirements, I read “must pass either the Mako Mori or Bechdel tests.” I know who Mako Mori is, given I have an anime/manga obsessed friend who absolutely loved Pacific Rim (she’s one of two protagonists in the film), but I didn’t know she had a test to go along with her character. I’ve never heard of Bechdel, so I decided to dig deeper.

Research on Wikipedia (I know! Super-high tech research engine) shows they are “feminist” tests in movies. What does this mean?

(Love the song)

The Bechdel test, which was established thirty years ago, establishes rule for watching a “good” feminist movie: 1) it requires two women to exist in the movie who talk to each other about something other than men. This is a painful thing for me to read. And what’s even more painful? Hollywood doesn’t do anything to counteract this rule. In fact, very few movies exist out there that actually have this in the movie.

The “uproar” came with Pacific Rim, where it technically doesn’t adhere to the rule, but does more for feminism in a different way: “The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.” Yes, every aspect of her life is governed by a protective man, from her rescue at a young age to her rescue at the end of the movie. But she was treated as if she’s more than a plot point, or story tool.

I’m thoroughly fascinated by this, because I didn’t know it had to be labeled to be understood. I’m a strong proponent for feminism in literature, and gender/role equality. While I’m a white male with a considerable amount of privilege while growing up, I’ve always had a strong respect for the other gender, and for cultural expansion. Women are equal to men. Period.

And to expand, the Russo test has similar requirements for LGBT groups: One character identifiably LGBT, must not be defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, and must be tied to the plot where her removal has a considerable effect on the story.

Which is why these “tests” are so fascinating to me. I’ve never heard of them, and they’re used to see if a book (or more often, Hollywood movie), focuses enough on feminism.

For Ms. Zats to write this in her expectations shows how disgustingly behind America is on equality. But that isn’t the focus of this post. The focus is, more readers and writers should know about this glaring issue.

It created a short-term soul search for me: what of my writing? Does Soren portray the women around him as existing for his cause? Do they talk about anyone else? Are they there as love interests only? Fortunately, the answers are no, yes, and no. Which isn’t to say I’m unscathed: I shouldn’t have had to go into that soul search in the first place. It should be clear, 100%, that women exist, doing their own things, living their own lives, and interacting with my mind-befuddled MC.

So are these tests 100% correct in establishing feminist ideas in a book/movie? No. You can easily have a gender-balanced story/movie without a conversation between two women about something other than men. Or you can have a gender-unbalanced movie with twenty conversations between women about something other than men. Gender equality has a lot more going on than that.

We want more independent women portrayed in our movies and books. Period.

And the opposite is true, too. This is what’s killing me about it, because it’s glaringly accurate: an otherwise strong female Protag quite often spends an inordinate amount of time talking about men, or finding a husband, or whatever. A strong female Protag often defers to the man. Why? If my scrawny MC Soren can handle the brute fingers of exceedingly strong demons, so too could a woman. (In fact, his story is entirely based off a woman.) And yes, he’s saved by a woman.

It just hit me in the face is all. I’m currently writing Nautilus, about a 12 year old white girl taken from her home (for good reasons), and growing up in a female-run society where she is in the minority, because of her culture. I started writing on this two years ago, because I feel passionately about these things, and I love the energy found within.

I’m extending this as a possible tool in any writer’s book-of-tricks: are there women who don’t depend on the men in the story? Do they need to be saved? Why? Do they exist outside of the man’s world? Do they have goals beyond settling down with a man, or being awed by a man?

It’s really, really nice to see people who want to read about equality, inherent respect, and balance. It’s refreshing. Thank you, Laura Zats. I appreciate you.


2 thoughts on “What is the Bechdel Test (and Other Tests), as it Pertains to Writing?

  1. Oh, the Bechdel test.

    You would be amazed by the things that fail the Bechdel test. It’s nauseating, actually.

    I feel the same way you do–of course I do, I’m a woman. I frequently think about things other than finding a husband–such things as ‘paying the rent’, ‘going to work’, and ‘fixing the clog in the sink’, which are things pretty much every woman thinks about once in a while, but which, given Hollywood, you wouldn’t guess women think about at all. Actually, I’d say the thought of ‘finding a husband’, as thought I were dumpster diving for particularly qualitative Husbandly canned goods, has never occurred to me independent of discussions similar to this one. I support and love my boyfriend. I sometimes take his advice and listen to him (sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I don’t, and wish I had.) I sometimes cook him dinner. Sometimes, he even stands up for me, and I’m grateful for it.

    But sometimes, he cooks me dinner. Sometimes, his advice is bad. Sometimes, I stand up for HIM.

    Women aren’t things. Women are people, and when there’s a relationship of any sort between two people, there’s give and take. I get tired of seeing women portrayed as either property, or, inversely, some sort of onscreen embodiment of feminism (real women, being people, are neither).

    I’ll be honest: I appreciate what the Bechdel test attempts to achieve, but I don’t think every written story has to pass the Bechdel test to portray women in a positive light. A movie, of course, is slightly different, since a movie is naturally usually more omniscient in narrative nature. If a story is written in 3rd person limited or 1st person, from a man’s point of view, it’s understandable that you might not get to see two women talking together without a) a man in the conversation, or b) the conversation being about your viewpoint character. This has nothing to do with feminism, and everything to do with the fact that your viewpoint character is a male, and therefore inserts a manly presence in every scene. I have 1st person stories that don’t pass this test, and it has nothing to do with my lack of feminine spirit. (Aurian and Jin is totally not one of these, because JIN. Come on.)

    Fantasy fiction tends to be particularly bad for this. It’s amazing how many sword-wielding and strangely beautiful heroines turn to helpless rescue-able putty when they meet ‘The One’.

    Love this post, mate. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: WRITING WEDNESDAY: Literary Po-Po | Piss, Coffee, and Vinegar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s