The Bechdel Test: the Right Question for the Unpublished Author?

The WFWA newsletter has provided fodder for a post once again. This time it started with a blog from Writer Unboxed related to gender bias in publishing. I know many are tired of this subject, but this post by Julia Munroe Martin was slightly different and included a link to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. As many articles on this subject mention, this one discussed the Bechdel test. This test is normally applied to movies, with the basic requirements to pass being at least two named female speaking parts where the characters talk to each other about something other than the males in the movie.


Thanks to Aleska D and FreeDigital

As noted, this test is mostly applied to movies, but comments on Munroe Martin’s post suggest applying it to books as well. Some suggested applying it to their own manuscripts. In a book is it “fair” to say that the test is passed if there are two female characters who talk about anything other than men for as little as two sentences? Does it have to be more of a sustained exchange? Do different genres have different likelihoods of meeting this requirement, or is it mostly realistic fiction that should be put to this test? I’m going to start paying more attention as I read and maybe produce a blog on this topic down the road.

For the time being, I’m immersed in critiquing manuscripts. Three of these are from my WFWA critique group, and others are from my mixed local writing group. I’ve read much of the work of one of my partners, and I have little doubt that if put under scrutiny her work would pass, since her characters, both male and female, are trying to solve problems not related to sex or gender but to life, death, and ghosts. A number of the manuscripts I’m reading are historical fiction. One involves a woman realizing she is a lesbian. This is set in the world of rodeo and other topics come up naturally. Another involves an English woman and her maid traveling out West to meet the lady’s husband. These two do talk about their travel and danger. A third is about a young wife and her engineer husband. My recollection is that she exchanges a few lines with a sister when they are children, but I don’t recall her as yet speaking with any other women. A romantic suspense has not as yet introduced the female lead and has been two men talking. In fairness I’ve read sixty or fewer pages of each of these and the tenor of the story very well may change and include other issues.

The last short story submitted by the male of the group involved a family of husband, wife, and two children. The mother and daughter might have had a brief exchange, but this story probably would not lend itself to this kind of analysis due to the tight knit group of characters. Possibly short stories are too brief and feature few enough characters that this test would seldom be passed.

How do my own manuscripts hold up? In the one I’ve submitted to my online group, one of the questions I’m trying to address is friendship. The main character asks others what components they feel are necessary for friendship. This alone should pass the Bechdel test. The problem I’m encountering, though, is that I’m told this exchange is either boring or seems like it doesn’t fit. The question that might be posited by my critiquers is, does this advance the plot?

I read sections of another completed manuscript and it might have problems meeting the test even though there are at least four important female characters. The plot of this particular book involves unplanned pregnancy, affairs, and jealousy, and  revolves around the male lead. My two lead female characters are together only briefly, leaving them little time for interaction. The female protagonist does discuss their relationship with her mother. The two also talk about the protagonist’s children, but is this enough to pass the test?

Could it be that “women’s fiction” needs a slightly different test than the one applied to movies?


Side note: when looking for pictures of women talking, most were of either children or sexy, partially clothed women.

How would you rate your writings as far as the Bechdel test? Do you think it is a fair way to look at books, or should some other criteria be used? What might you recommend as more fair? And last, do you find conversations not necessarily connected to the plot, but part of character development, uninteresting or unnecessary?

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  1. #1 by Marianne Knowles on October 20, 2014 - 2:12 pm

    I’ve known about the Bechdel test for awhile now, but hadn’t thought to apply it to my own writing. So here goes: I write for kids, and there is little to no romance. For reasons I have not yet fathomed, although I’m female, most of my MCs are male and the stories are in first person. So, not enough female dialogue to pass the test.

  2. #2 by c2london on October 20, 2014 - 6:09 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Marianne. Seems to me the prevalence of male MCs in kids’ books was discussed in the comments for the blog I referenced. It makes sense to have male MC since that seems to engage more kids, but will the view of and outlook of little girls ever change?

  3. #3 by cryptictown on October 22, 2014 - 10:55 pm

    It’s interesting that your search for women talking pulled up sexpot images. Eyeroll. And not surprising. Yes, as you noted above, I think my work passes, although my women do discuss men, they also discuss a lot of other things, and my female characters are interested in more than men. But for “women’s fiction”, what criteria would you suggest? That it passes if they discuss the men, but in a critical, realistic way? I sort of like that.

  4. #4 by c2london on October 23, 2014 - 12:29 pm

    Actually, I was thinking that they would normally discuss other things in women’s fiction. Maybe not much in romance, but in WF, I think they’d be discussing their mothers, sisters, friends, children, possibly work, cooking, etc. Now I’m wondering how often characters talk to each other in books at all, especially those written in the first person. I think in my manuscripts the characters talk to themselves quite a bit.

    Possibly the point of the test is to show that there aren’t many women characters of consequence in most mainstream products (or at least movies.) Many of them inhabit a “role” as in ex-wife, or even if there is say, a computer programmer role filled by a woman, it would make little difference if that role were a male or female role since it is just that, a role, not a true character.

    I did watch a movie last night (Chef) and it was kind of glaring that the women in the movie never talked to anyone but the MC, but of course, they were peripheral since it was a story more about the chef and his son.

    I think the women in WF, or any novel, should discuss something entirely other than men, something that will add to their character development and possibly help make the story more than a mere relationship story.

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