The Bechdel-Wallace Test in 2021
Written by Lynn Nichols
Examining the history and nuances of an iconic pop culture metric
Modern film criticism often involves analysis of diversity and representation in the cast and plot. In these progressive discussions, most of us have heard of the Bechdel-Wallace test, more commonly known as the Bechdel test. The Bechdel-Wallace test is the most well-known method of evaluating the way women are depicted in a film. As we continue to use it as the standard for feminist analysis, we should take the time to revisit the origins and impact of the Bechdel-Wallace test from the 1980s to the present.
The test is widely credited to Alison Bechdel, the cartoonist known for her graphic novel “Fun Home.” The idea behind the test was described in Bechdel’s famous comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” in print from 1983–2008. This conversation that would become the Bechdel test was first printed in an early installment from 1985 titled “The Rule.” Two characters walk through a movie theater and discuss their taste in film. One explains that she will only watch a movie if its script can fulfill “three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” When her friend observes that that sounds “pretty strict,” the first woman agrees, and remarks half-jokingly that she hasn’t been able to watch a movie since “Alien” (released 1979).
As feminists continued to discuss the strip through the years, many added the stipulation to rule number two that the two female characters must also have names. This version is reflected in the criteria for bechdeltest.com, an active database where users grade films according to the three requirements. As a quick glance at the recent pass/fail lists will show, surprisingly many contemporary films fall short of those standards more than thirty years later. According to the analysis and reviews at bechdeltest.com and mediaversityreviews.com, one third of the Best Picture nominees from the 2020 Academy Awards outright failed the test, while another third passed on narrow technicalities. Only “Jojo Rabbit,” “Little Women” and winner “Parasite” definitively passed with complex conversations between plot-significant, clearly named female characters.
The Bechdel test has taken on a life of its own in pop culture, which has led to some distance from Alison Bechdel’s original intentions. In a 2015 interview with NPR, she discussed the inspiration for “The Rule” and credited the idea to her friend Liz Wallace. She continued that she would be “very happy” if the film fans and critics who use her test would call it the Bechdel-Wallace test instead. As Megan Garber wrote for The Atlantic, a test meant to highlight the importance of conversations between women should “recognize that dialogue” between Bechdel and Wallace in its name.
What Bechdel conveys in the strip is that these standards ought to be the bare minimum, but so many films can’t even go that far.
When we apply the Bechdel-Wallace test in film analysis, we must also keep in mind what exactly it is measuring. Some viewers and critics celebrate films that pass the test by using phrases like “passes the Bechdel test with flying colors,” essentially praising films as feminist because they meet the three requirements, but that misses the original point. The characters in “The Rule” are not discussing the films that they enjoy, nor the films that they find meaningful, but rather the films that are worth seeing in the first place. Considering its original context within a lesbian-centered comic strip, “The Rule” speaks to the alienation that women who love women experience when they don’t see any developed relationships between women in entertainment media. What Bechdel conveys in the strip is that these standards ought to be the bare minimum, but so many films can’t even go that far.
In recent years, many critics have elaborated on the dangers of assuming that the Bechdel-Wallace test indicates whether a film is feminist. Films may pass the test for superficial reasons without actually centering women in the story. A conversation between friends about what to eat for dinner is enough to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. But if later in the film, one of these female characters dies to advance the male lead’s story arc, the other one marries the lead, and there are no other named women with speaking roles, we should still question whether it is an inclusive, feminist film. Furthermore, as Anna Waletzko points out in an article for HuffPost, a film can depict a woman’s experiences and development in rich detail but still fail the test: if there are only two characters in the entire film, for example, and the other is a man. Used on its own, the Bechdel-Wallace test does not account for intersectionality either. A film could pass the test and center women in the plot, but still fail to represent women from diverse racial, cultural and class backgrounds.
Recently, the Bechdel-Wallace test has inspired discourse about other metrics to evaluate the role of gender in film. In 2017, FiveThirtyEight compiled a list of alternative tests created by and named for women in the film industry. One by director and producer Kate Rees Davies requires simply that the film production team have two women in every department. Meanwhile, director Lena Waithe’s test asks whether the film depicts a Black female character in both a position of power and a healthy relationship. In the test by screenwriter Noga Landau, a film fails if a central female character dies, becomes pregnant or causes a problem in the story arc of a male lead. Finally, director Rachel Feldman proposes a scoring system in which a film earns points for meeting criteria such as a female director, or a crew made up of at least 50 percent women. Of the top 50 releases from 2016, no one film could pass all 13 applied tests.
When we consider all of the possible tests and scores, it becomes clear that no one test can measure a definitive best way to include women in film. That is how we should approach the original from “The Rule,” too. The ideas of Alison Bechdel and Liz Wallace cannot singlehandedly end all of the misogyny and inequity in the film industry. But their work is still meaningful because it introduces a framework for thinking critically about representation and inclusion. “The Rule” is valuable commentary on outdated ideas about a woman’s place in the narrative. The Bechdel-Wallace test challenges us to consider our media from every angle and ask ourselves: who is included in the conversation?