Women have long been portrayed as props to the plotlines of their male counterparts, often existing only to further a plot that has nothing to do with the woman herself. The sexist image of women in media ranges across genres—from action, where a woman solely functions as arm candy for her boyfriend in “Transformers,” to comedy, featuring a lackey who is the biggest idiot to hit the screen, yet is still oversexualized.
In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel decided that someone needed to point out the lack of developed female characters in media, so she published a scarcely-known comic strip called “The Rule.” This comic strip led to the creation of the widely-known Bechdel Test. I say widely known, but a shocking amount of my peers look at me with blank faces when I bring up the test in conversation or don’t fully understand the requirements and their nuances.
The original requirements to pass this test were simple: A work of fiction has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other, and their conversation has to be about something other than a man. In the past 30 years, the test has evolved, adding the requirement that the two women are also required to have names. Bechdel’s goal with this comic was to take a jab at male-centric media, but it was quickly adopted and normalized as the go-to method for analyzing the portrayal of female characters in works of fiction.
Despite its popularity, the test is still widely dismissed as an effective indicator of whether or not female characters are adequately represented. You cannot excel at this test; it is simply pass or no pass. Ayn Frazee (she/her), a Teacher Librarian at Franklin High School, said, “It’s pretty black and white. It’s pretty binary, it either does pass or it doesn’t pass, there’s no shade of gray in there.” Many works of feminist fiction with amazing female characters fail the test, and yet it is not rare for mysoginistic works to pass within slim margins, barely meeting the requirements. The 1993 film “Jurassic Park” technically passes, but the two female characters with names exchange a total of two lines of dialogue throughout the entire film.
Some surprising works of fiction that fail the Bechdel Test are books like: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children,” and “Shatter Me” (my favorite book). Films including “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” “The Princess Bride,” and “Sing 2” all fail the test.
Rosita from the “Sing” duology is a prime example of what Fanny Ortega (she/her), an English teacher at Franklin, said about how women are represented in media. “[Female character arcs are] mostly tied to motherhood or not being a mother … [or] choosing a career over being a partner or a wife.” Rosita was so focused on being a mother and only a mother for the majority of the “Sing” movies that she ended up having to sacrifice her happiness on the regular. It is female characters like this that inspired the Bechdel Test. Measures of representation, like the Bechdel test, are essential to ensure that women are portrayed as more than a wife or a mother, but as their own complex character with a personality outside of the nuclear family archetype.
The original Bechdel Test isn’t the only test used to measure representation in media. Like Ortega says, “You as a person are very dynamic and have very many sides to you, and so that needs to be represented.” It is for this reason that many “spin-off” tests have been created that are inspired by the Bechdel Test. They range from a more in-depth assessment of female characters, to the Race Bechdel Test, to a test that ensures that Queer characters are actual characters, and not just thrown in for meaningless representation.
The Bechdel test shouldn’t be the only standard that the general public uses to hold media creators accountable. “[It] needs to be a part of a broader constellation of tools that we’re using to evaluate media,” says Frazee. Women are not the only group of people who are underrepresented in media, so it is necessary to advocate for more representation of under-represented groups. “We need to do better. Media needs to do better, books, movies, TV needs to do better about femme representation and high quality interactions [between female characters],” says Frazee.
Media is what we raise our kids on, so if they grow up seeing inadequate media representation of their peers, they will think that is the norm, and the cycle will continue on in the same pattern. We need to stop looking at effective representation like a binary, like it’s black and white; we need to start finding those shades of gray.