The Bechdel-Wallace Test, and How We Apply It

After a year of the Telefeminism Project being online, we decided it was time to delve a little more into how we apply the Bechdel Test to shows, because it might not always make perfect sense.

Bechdel Rule: 1) At least two women 2) who talk to each other about 3) something other than a man

As we’ve previously discussed, the Bechdel Test comes from the original comic, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” by Alison Bechdel (1985), and was inspired by Bechdel’s friend, Liz Wallace. Alison has stated that she would prefer the name of the test honor Wallace’s contribution and thus advocates calling it the “Bechdel-Wallace Test.” Generally, we will refer to it as “The Bechdel Test” in order to minimize confusion, but we do acknowledge that it should formally be known as “Bechdel-Wallace.” Most applications use the added requirement that both women must be named.

We therefore call it a “soft pass” if the women are not named, as opposed to a “hard pass” if they are both named. We also require that more than one woman has a speaking part, despite the fact that the original rule cuts off criteria #1 at “at least two women.”

Because of our focus on hard data, it’s important that we have very clear, consistent criteria on which to base our assessments. Because the Bechdel Test is not a scientific tool, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. When it comes to our work, though, and to data in general, room for interpretation is not an option.

If you think about the test criteria, and about how you’d apply it to something you’re watching, you might realize that a few questions come up, like:

  • How do you decide what “two women” means? Does a conversation between three people count if two of them are women? What if it’s a big group of people? Do the women have to address one another specifically?
  • What is considered “talking” for a scene to pass the test? Does it have to be a whole conversation?
  • What is considered “talking about men,” for that matter? What if two women talk about their jobs and then change subjects? What if they’re talking about their bosses, and one of the bosses is a man?

To that end, and to ensure that there’s minimal errors, we apply the following criteria:

  • A spoken exchange constitutes “talking” if there is a back-and-forth dynamic of (generally) more than one line per character. For example, if Character A asks Character B if she would like a cup of coffee, and Character B replies “yes,” this does not count, as there has been no exchange.
  • A conversation may be about a man/men even if he is not mentioned directly. For example, if Character A is a lawyer cross-examining Character B, a witness, about a crime and that crime was committed by a man, any information exchanged between the two in the proceedings of the trial is still related to the man. If Characters A and B later see each other in a social setting and discuss what Character B had for lunch, the conversation is not related to the man, even if they both ate lunch at the courthouse. If Characters A and B are both doctors and are discussing a male patient, the information exchanged is related to the man. If the conversation turns to the best treatment method for the patient, that would pass the test, as the conversation is related to medicine.
  • If an exchange takes place between a group of colleagues or friends of mixed genders, and two women contribute to the conversation, that does not constitute a conversation between women, even if there is a stretch of dialogue in which only women speak. The women must be talking directly to one another in the absence of a man.
  • A topic “other than a man” can be anything, so long as it does not relate back to a man. It can be a conversation about the two women having the conversation, about sandwiches, about the weather, about puppies, etc.

This might seem like unreasonably strict criteria…which is why we use the same criteria to evaluate every episode on the inverse Bechdel Test:

1) At least two men 2) who talk to each other about 3) something other than a woman

And because the overwhelming majority of TV episodes (the lowest pass rate for a season of TV we’ve evaluated is an 80% pass rate on this measure) pass that test, there’s absolutely no reason that they shouldn’t pass the standard Bechdel Test.

If you still have questions, you can always send a message to us on Twitter or in the comments section here.

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