The Lesbian Roots of the Bechdel Test

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Since we’re in the thick of awards season, now is the time that we start to hear a lot about the roles women played (or didn’t play) in the TV and films of the past year. Numerous discussions take place as to whether women were represented fairly in media or given equitable screen time. Too often, the answer to both of those questions is no. Women’s stories are not told at proportional rates to men’s, and when they are on our screens they are frequently portrayed as oversexualized, one-dimensional, or stereotypical.

The Bechdel test is often brought into online discussions of whether a movie or TV show represents women fairly. The test has only three requirements:

  1. Are there two women with names in the movie?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

Though very simple, scores of movies do not pass this simple test, including some of our most popular and culturally important films, such as Star Wars, The Avengers, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The idea that women are still depicted so narrowly in our media is demoralizing.

It’s at this point that feminist discussions push back against the Bechdel test. Common criticisms are that it’s not rigorous enough—two women who talk to each other about something besides a love interest is an extremely low bar. Shouldn’t we expect more from feminist media? Another critique is that some movies that don’t pass this test still have feminist values and strong female characters—a popular example is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, which features action hero Mako Mori.

The Bechdel test was created in 1985 by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, creator of the lesbian comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and author of the comic memoir Fun Home.

These critiques, while understandable, betray a complete lack of understanding of the Bechdel test’s intentions. The Bechdel test was created in 1985 by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, creator of the lesbian comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and author of the comic memoir Fun Home.

The test originates from a strip in Dykes to Watch Out For named “The Rule,” where two characters are talking to each other at a movie theater. One woman asks the other if she wants to see a movie, and the other says she only watches movies if they meet a certain criteria, then outlines the components of the test. She then says she hasn’t seen a movie in the theaters since Alien—“because the two women talk to each other about the monster.” Bechdel said that she did not come up with the test herself, but borrowed it from her friend Liz Wallace (who is mentioned on the marquee of the first panel), and says that she prefers for it to be called the Bechdel-Wallace test.

Bechdel’s comic strip is about the lesbian experience, and the Bechdel-Wallace test is a reflection of that. The test is not meant to be a be-all-end-all litmus test of what is and isn’t feminist, it reflects how much depictions of women in media are centered around men. This is detrimental to all women, but specifically erases lesbian narratives.

Lesbian existence centers women and the relationships women have with each other. When relationships between women are not depicted on screen—whether platonic, romantic, or sexual—it erases the reality that women’s lives do not need to revolve around men. The fact that so much media about women’s existences focuses on their proximity to men is uniquely alienating to lesbians.

The Bechdel-Wallace test exploded in popularity in the early 2000s, and quickly became divorced from its lesbian context. Today, many people who reference the test have likely never read Dykes to Watch Out For or even heard of the original comic. It’s important that lesbians have language to talk about our specific relationship to mainstream culture, and when we lose sight of our history it becomes harder for us to share our experiences. Lesbian representation is part of women’s representation, and a discussion of women’s representation in media needs to include a discussion of how lesbians are portrayed or excluded from popular culture.

It’s important that lesbians have language to talk about our specific relationship to mainstream culture, and when we lose sight of our history it becomes harder for us to share our experiences. Lesbian representation is part of women’s representation, and a discussion of women’s representation in media needs to include a discussion of how lesbians are portrayed or excluded from popular culture.

This year, a number of promising lesbian films are on the horizon. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on a young-adult novel about a young lesbian sent to a conversion camp, stars Chloe Grace Moretz and just premiered at Sundance. Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, is about an Orthodox Jewish woman who starts a relationship with another woman and will have a U.S. release in April 2018. Vita and Virginia, starring Gemma Arterton, is an upcoming biopic about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

These are all positive steps towards the realistic portrayal of lesbian life and love on the big screen. Moving forward, let’s strife to fulfill both the letter and the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace test.

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