Meeting the Bechdel Test
I first came across the Bechdel Test on Charles Stross‘s blog when he was discussing its importance for pushing gender equality in fiction. However what has prompted this post is this article on Rochelle Dean’s blog about her current work in progress. Since becoming aware of the Bechdel test I have consciously tried to meet the spirit of it in all the stuff I write, and as much as I can the actual conditions too.
The Bechdel Test
There are three rules to the test:
- There are at least two named female characters in the story
- The women have a conversation with each other
- The conversation should not be about a man
The Spirit of the Bechdel Test
What I think is most important though is meeting the spirit of the test, which as I understand is that there should be real characters of both genders that aren’t just there to be the love interest of another character. This is something well worth doing, not only does it promote gender equality (and you could also work in colour and other points of discrimination) but it also makes for more interesting characters that have real differences from each other.
The most problematical situations are where you have first person narration by a male character. It is almost impossible to easily meet the criteria, the best you can hope for is a three way conversation but even that is problematical because you really need to write it with the male narrator watching rather than participating. A solution could be switching POV characters between male and female. This works best in longer stories where the split point of view doesn’t disrupt the flow.
Short stories are also hard, especially the very short. Even with a female protagonist/POV it can sometimes be difficult (e.g. in a single scene two character piece).
How have I done?
In no particular order, here are some of my pieces of fiction (not all of which have been published) and how they meet the rules and the spirit of the Bechdel Test.
The first draft of this near future novel meets all three of the tests, there is a female protagonist (Pandora) and two female supporting characters (Cat & Rosie). It uses switching POV alternating between a male character and Pandora. In its current iteration Pandora has the larger role of the two and she can properly be shown as the main character. There are several scenes where Pandora has conversations with one or more of the other female characters, only one of which is about a man. You can read a couple on this blog and tell me in the comments if you think this meets both the letter and the spirit of the Bechdel Test. Scene 08 – Plans being an example of this. PASS
This one is a clear fail in its current version, it is a single character POV. There is only one named female character and she doesn’t get to have a conversation with any other female. Certainly none of the conversations are about men, its a military SciFi story. I certainly could write it with a better gender mix which would help. It is one of the first things I published and pre-dates my knowledge of the test, and also my creative writing course. I do want to re-write it and publish an updated version that would work better. FAIL
Planting the Past
Planting the Past is short piece I wrote early in my creative writing course. It has a female POV and the only two characters in it are a husband and wife. So it fails on that score. This story isn’t really long enough to be capable of re-writing to meet the criteria, it’s not really a whole story just a single scene. Perhaps if it was expanded more could be done. I could almost see it as the opening scene of a longer work, and it did inspire Hunting Nazis (see below). FAIL
Hunting Nazis is unpublished, I thought I might submit it for proper publication somewhere although I’ve not yet got round to it. I did publish the commentary. It is a sort of urban fantasy/horror told from a female POV. It is sort of X-Files meets the SOE, Dot was an SOE agent in WW2 and she has teamed up with Reggie (the husband and wife from Planting the Past) and they are tying up loose ends of Nazi occultism from the war. This piece is set in a Berlin club and some nearby bunkers. I managed to squeeze in a couple of other female characters and a conversation in the toilets trying to gather information. It is a bare pass though (I was pushed for word count, and this bit was heavily trimmed). PASS
Rounds was my piece for the fiction assignment on A215. It features a female protagonist and she has several conversations with other characters in the course of the story, the named characters are three female to two male and the conversations are 4-2 in favour of the women. None of the conversations is about men (although one of the conversations does involve brokering a date in return for a favour). I’d certainly rate this is a good pass, especially since I deliberately wrote it to pass the Bechdel test (as well as the assignment criteria). PASS
An unpublished (and not quite finished) military science fiction piece set several hundred years in the future. The main character is a female naval officer and the named characters are an even mix of genders. There is at least one conversation in the current draft between her and her Aunt (a senior political figure in the Admiralty) about a special mission that most definitely isn’t about a man. When finished it will be a really easy pass as half of the conversations in it will feature at least two women, and it isn’t going to feature them worrying about men! PASS
Daprav is really the name of the state in a fantasy world where I ran a D&D campaign a decade ago. However I have started to write a story based on the campaign. The characters come from the players, who were a mixed bunch of students mostly, with a couple of older guys helping it along (me being one of them, I was 29 which is ancient in undergraduate terms). Three out of the seven primary character group are female, and like Perfects it uses switching POV. This means that there is plenty of scope for it passing the Bechdel Test. As planned it will do exactly that, however I’ve not yet written the dialogue in any of the scenes where female characters have conversations (but they do have an outline showing what the scene is about, and most of them feature discussions about things other than men). PASS
Do you think my assessments are fair? If not why not? let me know in the comments.
Excellent analysis! I love what you have to say about the spirit of the test. It’s true that short stories are so hard to get to pass, especially when narrated by a male. The alternating POVs won’t work for my story, but I’ve found my ways around it. I think your analysis of your own stories is fair, too.
I think your analysis of your stories is not fair but excellent!