NovelPad

The Bechdel Test Applied to Literature

Hannah Lee Kidder
NovelPad Author

What is the Bechdel test?

The Bechdel test, originally conceived by writer and illustrator Allison Bechdel, is a standard for evaluating gender representation in films. The rules are as follows:
  • The film must feature at least two named female characters, who
  • Have a conversation with each other that is not about men and
  • Lasts for longer than 60 seconds.
This might sound like an incredibly low bar to hop, but you might be surprised if you’ve never watched movies with this in mind, particularly if you watch movies made ten years ago and beyond.

Can the Bechdel test apply to books?

Yes, the Bechdel test can be applied to books as a tool to evaluate representation. In a book, this might look slightly different from the list of rules for film.
  • The book must feature at least two named female characters
  • These characters must have a conversation that is not about men
  • 60 seconds of film translates to about 150 written words, which is almost nothing in a novel. Let’s discuss it below.
While this is a rather "box-ticky" and technical assessment, let’s chat about what this might look like translated from film to literature.
The average runtime of a film is 98 minutes, making the one-minute requirement for the Bechdel test a teeny bit more than 1% of the screen time.
The average novel is around 90,000 words, making the equivalent percentage of the Bechdel "screen time" 900 words.
This means almost nothing! :) But yes, the general idea of the Bechdel test can certainly be applied to any form of media with characters.

How to apply the Bechdel test in your books

If you'd like to give your own writing a Bechdel once-over, here are three things to watch for:
1. Identify two NAMED female characters. Does your book have at least two female characters with identifiable roles in the story? Background characters, minor characters, and "set dressing" do not count.
2. Look for female-female conversations. Do your female characters interact with each other? Do they engage in a conversation directly?
3. Assess the conversational content. Does their discussion revolve around a topic other than men/their relationship with men?
Note: Alison Bechdel came up with these criteria in 1985. If she'd done it today, we'd likely use the terms "non-male characters," rather than limiting it to females.

Bechdel Test Controversy

Some critics find the Bechdel test to be too "box-ticky," forcing narrative art to conform to "feminist dogma," which I personally find a little dramatic. The test was never meant to foist hard rules on media—it was simply conceived as a social barometer.
Another note is that the Bechdel test (and derivatives) doesn’t capture all aspects of gender inclusivity or quality of storytelling. Simply passing any of these tests doesn’t mean you’ve portrayed a marginalized group well—they can just be a good thing to think about and notice.

Derivative Tests

Some derivatives of this test include the "reverse Bechdel test," which applies to male characters. When applied to a 2022 study of popular films from the last four decades, 95% of films passed the reverse Bechdel test, compared to 58% for the original Bechdel test. So, shocker, this iteration is useless.
Other derivatives include the "Mako Mori test," named after the one significant woman character in Pacific Rim (2013). This one looks at whether or not the female character has her own character arc outside of a man’s story.
Kelly Sue DeConnick, a comic book writer, coined the phrase "sexy lamp test," which asks if you can replace a female character with a sexy lamp and the story still works.

the sexy lamp test
And further, these ideas have been applied to the representation of groups like the LGBTQ+ (Vita Russo test). Do the LGBTQ+ characters have their own arcs and desires beyond the cishet characters?
One measurement is a film that is not about race having at least two non-white characters in the main cast. Other writers (like Nikesh Shukla) added to this idea by specifying that they must talk to each other for more than five collective minutes about something other than race, and minority characters being fleshed out with their own character arcs unrelated to a white character.
And finally, the question you're all here for:

Does Shrek pass the Bechdel test?

Shrek does not pass the Bechdel test. Fiona is a compelling and entertaining female character with agency, drive, and her own desires, but she doesn't speak to another woman character! Womp womp.
As you can see, we invent these social barometers to engage with media in a more insightful and curious way, but they aren’t necessarily hard-set rules for every situation. Write with intention and awareness, and make an effort to connect with people who can give you feedback on your book’s representation. Happy writing!
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