The Bechdel Test for Women in the Age of Irony

In 1985, the comic writer Alison Bechdel wrote an edition of her strip Dykes to Watch Out For, in which a character declares that in order for a movie to be worth watching it has to suit three criteria. (1) It has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man. What has since become known as “The Bechdel Test” is sometimes used in cultural and film studies as a simple starting point for feminist analysis. Once I started paying attention to this test, it was disheartening to notice how few films and other works pass these three qualifications. Why aren’t women more fully represented in films, novels and television? In the case of The Bechdel Test, why aren’t women minimally represented in more texts? Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency writes, “It’s quite extraordinary actually how many movies don’t pass this test cause it’s not even a sign of whether it’s a feminist movie or whether it’s a good movie just that there is female presence in it and that they actually are engaging about things other than men.” It should go without saying that it would be difficult to find a film that would fail the test if the sexes were reversed.

Jennifer Kessler, former screenwriter and founder of The Hathor Legacy, a site devoted to women in film and television, argues that in order to achieve success in the industry, film writers are actually pressured to write films that do not pass The Bechdel Test, for fear of “losing the audience.” Financial concerns rule Hollywood, and movies which deviate from the traditional mold are suspect. This sets up a continuous problem for filmmakers in which the status quo is maintained. Women continue to take a backseat to men in character representation. Kessler, who left the industry writes, “I concluded Hollywood was dominated by perpetual pre-adolescent boys making the movies they wanted to see, and using the ‘target audience’ – a construct based on partial truths and twisted math – to perpetuate their own desires.” She concluded that she would find more success in attempting to change the system from without.

Neda Ulaby argues for NPR that it is important for audiences to see women engaged on screen on a wide range of topics, not just in the usual conversation about the main, usually male, character. She argues that the twenty-six year old strip “still resonates because it articulates something often missing in popular culture. Not the number of women we see on screen, but the depths of their stories and the range of their concerns.” She argues that The Bechdel Test retains its popularity because women continue to feel that they are not represented on screen. She adds “the shows that fail might surprise you.”

The Bechdel Test will continue to be a useful tool as long as women remain underrepresented in film and other types of stories. In my program at The Evergreen State College entitled, “The Age of Irony,” we spent time examining wars and social movements of the 20th Century in the United States. We also worked to apply concepts of cultural criticism to a number of films and novels of this time period. I decided to examine twelve of these works used by the program, making use of The Bechdel Test as a starting point for feminist analysis. Letter grades were assigned so that I could elaborate a bit beyond a simple pass/fail assessment.

My Man Godfrey
This 1936 film opens with a scene in which two sisters, Cornelia and Irene, are engaged in a scavenger hunt, looking for a “forgotten man.” Immediately it is clear that there is a rivalry between the two, a classic film trope which limits the opportunity for women characters to engage on more than a superficial level. The film passes The Test as Irene and mother Angelica have a brief encounter over Angelica’s goat, with the scene immediately cut to a shot of Angelica’s husband referring to her as a “dizzy old gal.” Throughout the film, however, nearly every other conversation any two women engage in is about Godfrey. The women tend to be vain, lacking in substance and childlike in demeanor, especially Godfrey’s love interest Irene. Godfrey tries to school Irene in “proper” behavior, and even refers to her as a “little girl.” There are a number of women in this film, including maid Molly, who is one of the most level-headed characters, intelligent and amusing without the flightiness of Irene or the prissiness of Cornelia. All of the women seem smitten in some way or another with Godfrey, who is the central figure and hero of the story. The film satirizes the frivolity of the upper class while reinforcing the notion that social mobility is within reach. Overall grade: C-

The Great Gatsby
This 1925 classic novel narrowly passes The Bechdel Test in an early scene in which Daisy and Jordan laze on the couch. They have a brief exchange as Nick enters the room, Jordan complaining to Daisy of boredom. Later in the novel the two grumble about the heat. While Daisy features prominently in the story, the reader learns very little about her as a person. She serves as an object of desire for Gatsby, who wishes to possess her and her desirable class status. He describes her to Nick, “Her voice is full of money.” Fitzgerald works to create a picture of the elite social set living on East Egg wherein materialism, emptiness and indifference are the norm, but the women characters seem particularly flat. Tom takes a fatherly role in his relationship to Daisy, brushing aside her infidelity. On Jordan, Nick declares, “Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply.” This suggests that women are childlike in their motivations, and require protection from men. A minor nod to the feminist movement occurs when Tom says of Daisy, “I may be old-fashioned in my ideas, but women run around too much these days to suit me.” The novel clearly centers on the activities, feelings and motivations of the male characters, and there is little to relate to in the women represented, who mainly serve as background. Overall grade: D+

The novel Babbitt contains some important ideas countering mainstream American concepts of its time surrounding class, politics and upward social mobility which was such an enchanting ideal of the 1920s. Unfortunately, it utterly fails The Bechdel Test. The main women characters in the novel include Babbitt’s wife Myra, “as sexless as an anemic nun,” who “…took care of the house and didn’t bother the males by thinking.” Other notable characters include Babbitt’s daughter Verona, who attends the University and is a bit of a non-conformist, but intellectually shallow, and his friend Paul’s wife Zilla, who is the standard nagging wife. Babbitt has an ongoing fantasy of a fairy girl who is pretty and uncomplicated. She is positioned in the novel oddly as a catalyst for Babbitt to explore the other avenues that might be open to him in lieu of remaining in the middle-class trap he has set for himself. Overall Grade: F

American Beauty
The story in American Beauty centers on the character of Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man struggling with the same kind of materially fulfilling yet empty life that George Babbitt finds himself living. The three prominent female characters include Carolyn, Lester’s wife, Jane, his daughter, and her friend Angela, the object of his sexual fascination. Each of the three women characters work to support the narrative supplied by Lester, illustrating his unhappy marriage, his inability to relate to his daughter, and his gross obsession with her insecure, attention-seeking friend Angela. There is a great deal of tension between Carolyn and her daughter. In one scene, Carolyn slaps Jane and yells, “You ungrateful little brat. Just look at everything you have.” Most of the interaction between Jane and Angela has to do with Jane’s developing relationship with her neighbor, Ricky, or with Lester. There is a fair amount of character development for the women in the film, although the story itself centers on Lester’s thoughts, feelings and experiences. Angela presents herself initially as a sexually precocious young girl, actively pursuing a relationship with Lester. In the end, it is Lester who puts an end to their sexual encounter, as he seems to come to a realization of sorts. Overall grade: C+

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit
This 1956 film is centered on the character of Tom, who struggles to define himself after the war, adjusting to civilian life. The film fails The Bechdel Test, as there is no interaction in the film among the women characters, but the characters themselves are interesting to examine. Betsy, Tom’s wife, is clearly frustrated by her role as housewife. She heavily manipulates Tom in his career in a desperate attempt to have influence over the course of her own life. She equates material success with fun and happiness, and expects to see Tom in full pursuit of increased wealth for the family. She tells Tom, “You can get a raise if you want it…if you have the nerve to hold out for it.” At the workplace, women serve as decoration. Tom is told, “We always give the new man the prettiest secretary.” Susan, the boss’ daughter, enjoys the material benefits bestowed upon her while telling her father, “It’s really stupid the way you live, working all the time.” She is “not interested in money,” but is anxious to marry an older man in order to avoid working or attending college. Tom’s lover during the war, Maria, is beautiful and impoverished. Married Tom tells her, “I want to leave my entire estate to you.” When Tom confesses his affair to Betsy years later, she is concerned about her ability to measure up to his lover. “Did she have a better figure than me?” She asks, “You weren’t always worrying about money with her, were you?” Later, she is repentant, saying, “Hit me right across the head if I ever say anything to hurt you again.” After Tom and Betsy decide to financially support Tom’s son with Maria together, Tom declares to Betsy, “I worship you.” Overall grade: F

Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel fails The Bechdel Test, and contains problematic depictions of women. Billy has a difficult time relating to his family, and is disconnected from his life. He is resentful of his daughter Barbara, who tries to help him to function. He opines, “All this responsibility at such an early age made her a bitchy flibbertigibbet.” He is equally disconnected from his “ugly” wife Valencia, who “was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating.” She wants to lose weight for Billy, who is wholly indifferent to her affections. Instead, he develops a fascination with adult movie star Montana Wildhack. She is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians for Billy’s amusement. Initially she is terrorized, but eventually, inexplicably, comes to “love and trust” him. Early in the novel Werner, Billy and Derby come upon a group of teen-aged refugees in an exposed shower. “The girls screamed. They covered themselves with their hands and turned their backs and so on, and made themselves utterly beautiful.” The three seem to be delighted by their nudity and titillated by their fear. Vonnegut dedicates his novel in part to the non-fictional character of Mary O’Hare, who is concerned that his Dresden novel will amount to the glorification of war. “You were just babies then!” He takes her words to heart, subtitling Slaughterhouse-Five The Children’s Crusade. The novel fails to fully develop any of its female characters, detailing their often unflattering physical descriptions, and at no time do any two women converse, about a man or otherwise. Overall Grade: F

In the Heat of the Night
The 1967 film In the Heat of the Night fails to pass The Bechdel Test. The women characters include Mrs. Colbert who insists that Virgil remain on her husband’s murder case, noting the incompetence of Gillespie and the Sparta police department. Mama Caleba makes a brief appearance as a woman planning to assist Delores in obtaining an abortion. The character of Delores is a young teen, presented early in the film, her nudity barely concealed by the window frame as the character of Sam peers in on her lasciviously from his police car. Delores seeks male attention through her sexuality. The women characters are poorly developed, and serve to support the main story line which is dominated by men. Overall Grade: F

Another Country
James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another Country is a powerful commentary on race, gender and sexuality. It passes The Bechdel Test, although it is primarily a novel about its male characters. Rufus, who dies early in the novel, is present throughout it as his close friends and sister Ida try to make sense of his suicide. Rufus enacts his intense self hatred upon his girlfriend Leona, humiliating and abusing her. The few interactions between the female characters are dominated by their feelings about men. Leona and Cass have a brief exchange in which Cass tells Leona, “Next time, we’ll go off and have a drink by ourselves someplace, without all these men.” Unfortunately, the reader does not witness this conversation. Cass tells her husband Richard when he declares, “I don’t believe all this female intuition shit. It’s something women have dreamed up,” “You can say that–and in such a tone! But I can’t say that–what men have ‘dreamed up’ is all there is, the world they’ve dreamed up is the world.” Richard laughs her off, “what a funny girl you are. You’ve got a bad case of penis envy.” Later, Ida and Cass enter into a conversation about Vivaldo, in which Ida tells Cass, “Come on, Cass, honey, we going to get down to the knitty-gritty this afternoon.” The real “knitty-gritty” is the inner workings of the men in their lives. When Cass and Vivaldo meet privately for a drink, Vivaldo says, “Men have to think about so many things. Women only have to think about men.” Cass responds, “If men don’t know what’s happening, what they’re doing, where they’re going — what are women to do? If Richard doesn’t know what kind of world he wants, how am I to help him make it? What am I to tell our sons?”

The only significant interaction between two female characters in the novel is one between Ida and Cass in which they have a powerful exchange about their relationships, and about race. The two have a difficult time connecting as Cass, like her husband, has experienced white privilege and is able to confront it through her developing friendship with Ida. Ida tells Cass, “There’s no way in the world for you to find out what it’s like to be a black girl in this world.” Ida is treated poorly by the men in her life, and uses her sexuality in order to secure her career as a performer. Richard, too, is abusive toward Cass when he discovers her affair, slapping her hard enough to draw blood. Overall grade: C+

Dr. Strangelove
This 1964 satirical film fails The Bechdel Test. The single female character is that of Miss Scott, the bikini-clad secretary of General Turgidson. In an early scene, the only time in which a woman appears in the film, Miss Scott strikes a number of pin-up style poses as she relays information to boss and lover Turgidson. Later she phones him in the war room to express her insecurities about their relationship. The B-52 pilots peruse Playboy magazine (containing a shot of the actress playing Miss Scott) while on duty, and “Top Secret” documents are contained in a safe whose interior is decorated, high school locker-style, with girly magazine photos. Dr. Strangelove uses irony to draw attention to stereotypes of masculinity, the character of Turgidson, his name, and his relationship to women is one overt example. Nevertheless, Miss Scott is presented as a decorative object for the enjoyment of the audience, and that is her primary purpose. Overall grade: F

Brave New World
Huxley’s 1932 work of dystopian fiction, Brave New World passes The Bechdel Test. The characters of Lenina and Fanny have a few interactions about the experiences of women living in 632 A.F. Most of their conversations focus on male characters, as they are expected to copulate frequently, and not to linger too long over any one in particular. The two discuss the “Pregnancy Substitute,” which all women are expected to undergo in lieu of childbearing. They make use of the “vibro-vacuum machine,” and other rituals to maintain their attractiveness. Lenina conforms to society, embracing and internalizing the expectations put out for her. She is frequently described as “pneumatic,” suggesting a perky and accommodating figure. Bernard takes offense when Henry reduces Lenina to a sexual object. “Talking about her as though she were a bit of meat. Have her here, have her there. Like mutton. Degrading her to so much mutton.” Linda, who has not been subjected to artificial beauty treatments on the reservation, is considered ghastly in appearance, and therefore worthless. While the major philosophical explorations in the novel are focused on the male characters, Huxley presents a solid critique of the way women are socialized and made into commodities in the brave new world. Overall grade: B-

Mildred Pierce
This 1945 film nicely passes the Bechdel Test, containing a number of well-developed female characters. The story centers on the character of Mildred, who is forced to leave her role as housewife when her philandering husband abandons the family. Mildred finds work as a waitress, eventually opening her own restaurant business, securing substantial wealth for herself and her daughter Veda. Veda is spoiled and cruel to Mildred, finding it “degrading” that she should have to work, telling her, “You’ll never be anything but a common frump.” Veda is delighted by Mildred’s boyfriend Monte, who has the name and class standing which she aspires to. Unfortunately, Monte is broke and the two conspire to take advantage of Mildred’s wealth. Other notable characters include Mildred’s trusted friend Ida, younger daughter Kay, and maid Lottie.

Ink-stained Amazon writes for Bitch Media that Mildred Pierce has been the subject of much feminist analysis due to its “gender subversive female protagonist.” Mildred is transformed into a formidable business woman, but suffers as her daughter grows into a contemptible young adult. She measures her true success by her ability to garner love and respect from Veda. While the novel Mildred Pierce is set during The Great Depression, relating the struggle of Americans to retain class standing under economic strain, Warner Bros. chose to delay the release of the film version until the end of the war in 1945, as women were being encouraged to leave the work force. In a somewhat awkward ending, Mildred is shown appearing to reunite with former husband Bert as Veda is imprisoned. Amazon suggests that the timing of the release “would show women that if they didn’t leave the careers they had assumed while the boys were at war, and continued to shower their children with lavish gifts, no good would come of it.” While not a wholly feminist film, Mildred Pierce does have a strong female protagonist, and is a fascinating reflection of its time in regard to issues of gender, race and class. Overall grade: B+

A Feather on the Breath of God
The unnamed female narrator of A Feather on the Breath of God looks upon the lives of her immigrant parents and that of her own, reflecting among other things upon cultural identity, femininity and sexuality. Through her relationships with friends and family, the character of the narrator is revealed to the reader, her struggles to find her own sense of self, and experience of “the female condition.” The novel well passes The Bechdel Test, relating interactions between women on intimate issues such as abortion, class, and sex appeal, revealing the inner complexities of the women characters and giving readers access to their experiences. The male characters of her father and later her lover are examined through the eyes of the narrator, a unique and valuable feature in a work of fiction. The author artfully exposes the experience of the ballet dancer in the novel, the struggle to maintain the ultra-feminine ideal represented by the ballerina, while suffering through damaging eating rituals and bodily mutilation which Nunez aptly relates to foot binding. The narrator shares her experiences of the ballet, “Ballet a woman’s world? But it was men who invented ballet–and the ballerina. It is men who put her feet in those shoes, and who take the food out of her mouth.” Overall grade: A

An analysis of these twelve novels and films from The Age of Irony reveals that the majority of the works do not contain a significant female presence. If averaged together, the letter grade for all twelve texts is a D, based upon five failing grades, one D, three Cs, two Bs and only one A. The letter grades were subjective, but generally a C was assigned for passing, and additional points were added or taken away to indicate the strength of female characters or troubling instances of stereotyping or overt sexism. The strongest work for female presence was A Feather on the Breath of God. Nunez specifically alludes to the experience of being a woman, and navigating a male-dominated world. The characters, the plot, the interaction are all developed through the lens of a female character.

It is important for all of us to have the opportunity to relate to the characters we see on screen and in print. Even though women make up slightly more than half of the population, film in particular tends to be dominated overwhelmingly by men. Women are often relegated to the role of the sexual object, (Miss Scott) the nag, (Zilla, Betsy), the young seductress (Veda, Delores). Men tend to be the central characters, driving the action, revealing their inner struggles, feelings and motivations. Women are taught to identify with men while reading novels and watching films, while stories which feature women are dismissively referred to as “chick flicks” or “chick lit.” Men are less likely to identify with women when there are many representations of male characters to relate to.

Measures similar to The Bechdel Test have been used to examine other forms of representations including race and sexual orientation. Simple awareness of these kinds of measures is a good way to begin analyzing how ideas about gender, race, class or sexuality are reinforced by media. The character from Bechdel’s comic used the test to determine whether or not she would bother to view a film at all. Twenty-some years later, it would be wonderful if she were offered more to choose from.

Works Cited

American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. 1999. DVD.
Baldwin, James. Another Country. New York: Dial, 1962. Print.
“The ‘Bechdel Rule,’ Defining Pop-Culture Character : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. Web. 03 May 2011.
“The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies.” Feminist Frequency. Web. 03 May 2011.
Bechdel Test Movie List. Web. 03 May 2011.
Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Prod. Stanley Kubrick, Victor Lyndon, and Ken Adam. By Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George, Gilbert Taylor, Anthony Harvey, and Laurie Johnson. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, and James Earl Jones. BLC, 1963.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
In the Heat of the Night. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. 1967. DVD.
Lewis, Sinclair, and Kenneth Krauss. Babbitt. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.
The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Dir. Nunnally Johnson. Perf. Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones. Twentieth Century Fox, 1956. DVD.
Mildred Pierce. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. Joan Crawford. Warner Bros., 1945. DVD.
My Man Godfrey. Dir. Cava Gregory La. By Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch. Universal Productions, Inc., 1936. DVD.
Nunez, Sigrid. A Feather on the Breath of God: a Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five, Or, The Children’s Crusade: a Duty-dance with Death. New York: Dial, 2009. Print.
“Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not to Pass the Bechdel Test — The Hathor Legacy.” The Hathor Legacy — Breaking down Gender Roles, One Role at a Time. Web. 03 May 2011.