My novel has approximately a dozen women in it, but they don’t tend to talk to each other. Most of them are separated geographically or philosophically and sitting down for a chat does not seem something they would do as they are busy doing other things.

I have two scenes; in one a kidnapper is asking advice from a teenage girl who has a boyfriend on how to attract the notice of the MC - probably fails the test, but essential scene.

The second scene is one where two lifelong friends are watching their sons compete and are discussing an impending foreclosure and then one misconstrues the intent of the other, who was watching her brother, as something potentially romantic. No romantic interest was involved, but the friend has just assessed qualities in the MC she needs for a guardian for her son.

Would that scene fail the Bechdel test?

The Bechdel Test has three rules:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

Some people who try to apply it use "man" in the romantic sense, but it doesn't have to be.

So if your scene has the two women as named characters talking about a foreclosure, it passes.

The idea is not to tick off a list of checkboxes, but to make you consider the work as a whole: Do the female characters function without male character intervention? Are the female characters interesting on their own? Do they have independent personalities, thoughts, lives, plot arcs? If you removed the male characters, would the female characters still have stuff to do?

Those questions are more important than "Do I have enough lines in this paragraph of these two characters talking about non-romantic stuff to qualify for passing this test?" If your female characters ONLY ever interact because they are talking about relationships with men, that's the problem the Bechdel test is trying to highlight. Women do stuff which has nothing to do with men at all.

In both scenes, this seems like for women, all roads lead to romance with men; that this is the only thing they are good for. Or in the second scene, the only reason these women are together in the first place is related to child-care.

You do not need women in a story to talk to each other in order to make them actual human beings. You just need them doing something that has nothing to do with sex, romance, dating, or in general mating, reproduction or child care.

Why can't the two women be at a political rally or something (not for anybody related to them)? Why can't they be at lunch discussing a new business project? Why can't the friends be an architect and an attorney?

I'm not saying women never engage in any of their stereotyped female roles, the world is filled with real soccer-moms and housewives, and women that love to shop and talk fashion, and do all the grocery shopping.

But if you want to pass the Bechdel Test (or if you want to write a realistic book, period) then your characters -- including both male and female, black and white, gay and straight, adults and children -- will not fit neatly into their stereotyped roles. They will have other unique interests that are not part of their stereotype, and will have conversations with other people about those interests, and take actions to pursue their interests. If you need an excuse for friends to have a conversation, give them some mutual interest in a topic or activity enjoyed by both men and women.

Typically conversations in a novel (or movie) exist to impart some kind of information or an idea to another character, sometimes they provide inspiration on how to tackle a problem. Keep your focus on that, and avoid cliché settings to get this done. Break free of the stereotype, or even use an anti-stereotype. It may take imagination, but that's the job of a writer.

The Bechdel Test (which was originally about movies, not books, not that I know which your work is) is meant to apply to the work as a whole. It's not about individual scenes.

Look at your work as a whole. Are female (and/or other non-male) characters well represented, in a variety of positions as appropriate for the setting, and central (not just background or eye-candy)?

It sounds like you have a good amount of gender diversity among characters but I wonder why all the women are separated from each other. If they're "busy with other things," why don't any of those other things involve other women? None of them have female partners? Or co-workers? Or children? Or mothers/sisters/cousins? None of them have conversations with women they meet in their ordinary (or perhaps not so ordinary) lives?

Your scenes do not fail the test, because the test is about the book as a whole. Your first scene doesn't help the work pass and the second scene might or might not, depending on what else they talk about (yes, that impending foreclosure does count).

Keep in mind that Allison Bechdel devised this test in a humorous way (she's a cartoonist). But it's grown into something serious, a way to expose societal norms. The reality is that a large percentage of movies (and some books) fail this very simple, almost no-brainer, test. And few people even realize it. The test shows us just how imbalanced our society's view of gender is.

And don't forget about other types of diversity. For example: https://www.good.is/articles/duvernay-test-like-the-bechdel-test

So yes, aim to pass. But, really, aim higher.

  • The setting includes different nations. I have one woman in Istanbul who manages to get her younger brother to stop the erroneous assassination of her husband. I have characters in Madrid, some in France and more than a few in the US. Some that are not geographically separated are on different sides of the law. Having lunch with each other would either be ironic or just weird. I have a pilot who flies from location to location, but when on the job, she stays with the jet. I have female drivers, but they don’t exactly stop for long as they are going somewhere rapidly. – Rasdashan Nov 7 at 13:35
  • 2
    Sounds like a very interesting work! But we already know you have characters who hang out doing mundane things. I'm just saying watch out for the common thing where you might have diverse characters but the ones who don't represent the mainstream are isolated from each other and only interact with mainstream characters. Sounds like this is not what you're doing, but it is something a lot of people fall into the trap of. Especially when the diversity is a disability (just to name an example). – Cyn Nov 7 at 19:35
  • 1
    "fail this very simple, almost no-brainer, test." Yeah, and there are also a lot of overtly sexist movies that pass it. Treating the Bechdel-Test as anything but a humorous hint is ridiculous. [It is really good hint though, and really served it's purpose of starting up the debate, it's just that far too many people, including @Rasdashan take it as a rule, which it just isnt fit for] – Hobbamok Nov 8 at 12:12

First, the point of the Bechdel test is not to pass it but that so many works fail it. It is deliberately set as a low bar. All it takes is two women talking together about something other than men.

You said:

The setting includes different nations. I have one woman in Istanbul who manages to get her younger brother to stop the erroneous assassination of her husband. I have characters in Madrid, some in France and more than a few in the US. Some that are not geographically separated are on different sides of the law. Having lunch with each other would either be ironic or just weird. I have a pilot who flies from location to location, but when on the job, she stays with the jet. I have female drivers, but they don’t exactly stop for long as they are going somewhere rapidly.

It seems like the female pilot could do one of

  1. Carry a female passenger.
  2. Transfer a package to a female driver.
  3. Talk to a female member of her crew.
  4. Talk to a female airport traffic controller on the radio.

Some of those may not fit your story. It really depends on the size of the plane. The last one should work regardless. The first two work best with small planes. The third is for a larger plane.

So long as it's not a man, they could talk about almost anything.

  • The weather.
  • A women's football (soccer in the US) team.
  • A women's basketball team.
  • The package that is being transferred. Don't mention if the sender or recipient is a man in that conversation. It's OK if the reader knows that or will learn that so long as it is not mentioned by either woman in that conversation.
  • The flight schedule or other details of the aircraft's operation.
  • Flight control. Be careful to avoid talking about men. Talking about planes is fine, even if they happen to be piloted by men so long as it is not mentioned in the conversation.

When I say not to mention that people are men, it should not be obvious from context either. The Chippendales plane cannot be gender-neutralized. If one of the women is dating someone, it can only be gender-neutralized by making her date another woman. And one could argue that talking about even a lesbian relationship is a Bechdel fail, as talking about romantic relationships is a "feminine" thing to do.

Talking about a foreclosure is fine. But if the conversation also includes something interpreted as romance, then that will neutralize the scene from a Bechdel perspective. The scene should run from start to finish without going to romance. Also, they're there watching their sons compete, so that fails the Bechdel test (daughters would have been fine).

That said, you don't need every scene to pass the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test passes if a single scene goes from start to finish with two women talking together about something other than men.

The greater problem that I see here is the relative lack of agency of the single female character you mention affecting the plot. Why is the Istanbul woman getting her brother to stop her husband's assassination? Why doesn't she do it herself? Why not her sister? Making it the brother means that it is one man saving another man. If she did it herself or even with the help of a sister, then that would be a woman saving a man. Your female characters should be able to resolve their issues without going to a man for help. That's not part of the Bechdel test, but it is a more serious issue in my opinion.

  • Simply because her brother, mistakenly believing her a victim of spousal abuse, hired the assassin and is the only person who can stop it. She manipulates him and certainly does have agency, just does not have the skills or access her hacker brother does. The assassin is a friend of his – Rasdashan Nov 8 at 15:15
  • 3
    I think you miss a fundamental aspect of Bechdel – the original comic shows two women on a date. The goal is not to "de-feminize" female characters but to un-center maleness (as the only existing subject matter). Unsurprisingly, lesbians are just fine with women having romantic relationships, but they get bored when every female character's conversation is about some guy. Bechdel wasn't throwing down a "feminist" gauntlet about equality, she was making a much simpler case which men use all the time: "what's in it for me?" – wetcircuit Nov 8 at 15:26
  • 2
    @wetcircuit +1 for being the only person here who understands the comic strip. – Gorchestopher H Nov 8 at 18:35
  • If I have a female assassin talking to a female driver about the upcoming assassination of a man, that fails because they are talking about work which happens to be killing a guy? Utterly absurd – Rasdashan Nov 8 at 19:43
  • @Rasdashan Take a look at wetcircuit's comment. What are you trying to accomplish? It's likely that you shouldn't be concerned with the Bechdel Test at all. – Gorchestopher H Nov 9 at 2:37

Your Answer

 

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.