Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Bechdel Test

We've been having a fascinating conversation on Twitter, and I'd like to ask you a question.

I'm sure most of you know the Bechdel Test, presented originally in comic form.

Basically, the one character states that she will only see a movie if it has three criteria:
1) It must have at least two women in it...
2) ...who talk to each other...
3) ...about something besides a man.

It's been used for a few years as a tool for analyzing the treatment of women in stories. It's not a hard and fast rule, as some excellent work fails, all heterosexual romance fails..etc... but some really horrible work passes.

Anyway, there's a film critic who thinks she's found a "way around the Bechdel Test" with a lesbian relationship, and those of us who think like me--that the observation was in just how female characters revolve around male characters--giggled at this. Clearly, I though, she has spectacularly missed the point of the original comic.

But then I discovered that a number of rather intelligent people have been interpreting it to be about love lives, and therefore would fail a story in which the only female-female discussion is a lesbian talking about her girlfriend with another female character.

Now, we're talking about a conversation piece that started as a joke in a comic 25 years ago. You can't exactly say there's a set of hard and fast rules here, but now I'm wondering what the prevailing opinion is. For simplicity, I'm going to present this with a story scenario such as we would run across in our comics.

Scenario: Kate Kane and Stephanie Brown run into each other on the rooftops of Gotham City and Kate tells Stephanie about her history with another hero. This is hero either Renee Montoya or Bruce Wayne. Which subject leads to this comic passing the Bechdel Test?

Click here to answer the poll please


  1. The problem is I need to know if this a scene in a Bruce Wayne Batman comic, a Stephanie Brown Batgirl Comic, a Kate Kane Batwoman Comic, or a Renee Montoya Question Comic...

  2. Pedro -- You're in a DC company crossover special. Go.

  3. For me, the first one is a pass, the second one is LIKELY a fail, but. . .I mean, I think I need context. What entails 'talking about something besides a man'? Is the point of the story to reveal something about Kate or to demonstrate that everything in Gotham revolves around Bruce? If they talk about the weather for two lines and then about Bruce, does that save it?

    I think this exercise shows how arbitrary and cookie-cutter applications of the Rule can be, but since I think the point of it is about women interacting with women, I would say that if Steph and Kate's conversation is about anything that's NOT Bruce, in a meaningful way (even if there's some Bruce talk in there), it's a pass.

  4. I completely agree with your posts (and tweets) regarding the failings when the test is applied as if it were a scientific construct. To that end, do we have to throw in the complicating caveat that essentially Kate is dressed up like Bruce and thus she is an extension of a patriarchal mentor? Then things get super weird.

  5. By the letter of the rule It would be that Renee causes it to pass, Bruce, to fail.

    If the point is that there is at least one female character not defined by a relationship to someone greater than her. It passes with Renee due to her being that fully formed character.

    But if she is merely an off-camera supporting role by which the two speaking characters are defined by, then it fails the spirit of the test.

    The possession on a Y chromosome of the third party isn't the point. The possession of an independent identity of a prominent female character is.

    Since we are talking about BAT-Woman and BAT-Girl. One would suspect that neither would qualify. But Stephanie stands as a strong character in her own right due to her years as Spoiler. Kate... not so much yet.

  6. Caroline: Yeah, this Rule is useful as a conversation starter, but the number of permutations are why I don't put too much stock in it as the cornerstone of an argument. I think the realization in the original comic itself--that little shock when you realize the character has a point beyond just a joke--is much more effective than seeing everyone sit down and start applying the rule to whatever's hot at the moment. Eventually, it loses it's initial punch and you have to go onto much more complex analysis, and for me it lost that punch a few years ago.

    Cap'n -- Oooh, that is a pretty neat chain of thought. And Kate, at her core, is the female counterpart to Bruce. They have the same vital character traits.

    Shawn: 1) Kate Kane vs. Stephanie Brown was not the point of the post, and no, I do not want to get into that.

    2) I'm not wanting get into that in these comments, but I am totally what-the-fucking at the statement that Kate's not a strong character even without the comparison to a character that I really don't like or respect at all.

    3) Your comment is coming off as an obvious attempt to portray yourself as more authoritative and intelligent than the rest of us. It makes me want to be really mean to you. I mean... Congratulations, you noticed I chose two women who are derivative characters of Batman in this example. You also know what a Y-chromosome is, and are presenting that knowledge as if I should be impressed with it. Am I reading this wrong, because something in the phrasing makes me wanna roast you.

    4) Seriously. "Not as much yet" What the fuck? Did you even read Elegy?

  7. What's the point of not talking about a man? Not characterizing the women in terms of a more prominent male figure or not characterizing them as only being there for a romantic attachment?

    Maybe the underlying question is, "Are there two women who are characterized beyond merely 'being women'"?