Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Bechdel Test

Here, in a nutshell, is the Bechdell test: 

The Bechdel test is applied to movies, which are then graded accordingly. Many fail. 

There are variations as well. There may be more than two women. They may talk about things other than a man. But those things may be weddings and babies. So that's a fail as well. 

The test can be applied to literature as well as movies, of course, although the scope is slightly different. I can think of a lot of YA or NA books that feature female lead characters. That should be an automatic pass, right? Except how often do those characters still obsess about boys? 

And make no mistake that this only happens in romance. Take The Hunger Games. Katniss was starting a revolution, but still dealing with that tricky love triangle thing as well. And in no way do I intend this as a criticism of The Hunger Games, because I loved those books, and I love that romance took a back seat to the action. But weirdly, most of the online discussions about the book centred around which boy Katniss would end up with. 

And maybe that's because of the target audience. 

And maybe that's because the result was a given -- we didn't know how she'd do it, but we knew she'd be victorious against the Capitol -- and therefore readers enjoyed speculating more about the romance. 

And maybe it's because, for whatever reason, it feels like every YA book that comes out  has to have a damn love triangle. 

Which, to hijack another geometrical term, almost brings us full circle. With so many YA books out there with female lead characters, are we going to need a Bechel test for male characters soon? 

1. Are there are least two boys? 
2. Do they do anything except compete for the heroine's affections? 
3. Could they be replaced with cardboard cut outs and nobody would notice? 

At the moment, I can't think of too many YA books where the gazetted love interest is actually allowed to develop as a character, whether male or female. If you guys have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them. 

And I'm not anti-romance in YA. I'm just anti-Romance-is-EVERYTHING!!!! I want characters who live and breathe, and are motivated by more than the fluttery feelings in their stomachs. 

Note: a variation of the Bechdel test is the Russo test, which examines similar issues for LGBT characters. 


  1. A good plot is necessary. Angst gets boring, as we all know youth will grow out of it. (at least most, some men and women exhibit the Peter Pan or Tinkerbell syndrome all their lives).

    Depth usually requires a lot more characterization.

    1. Agreed! More characterisation for all characters would be a good thing.

  2. The problem though is that as much as a larger range of interests for women's fiction may seem a good idea, if it doesn't sell that serves little purpose, and the bottom line is that romance sells. When straight up muscled men ripping bodices on the cover becomes corny and embarrassing, it just gets a make over to edgy goth chicks fighting vampires or athletic action chicks impressing men with their shooting skills. I do think there are women who look for more than a plain girl with multiple hot men fighting over her, but not enough to be financially viable, apparently.


    1. Absolutely. It's all about what sells. I do wonder though how to break the cycle. Is it the publishers who insist that a story needs a romance, or is it the buyers, who expect it because that's all that's out there? It's probably wishful thinking on my part to have more YA books that don't equate teenage angst with the dreaded love triangle. As though teenagers have nothing more to worry about!

  3. I may have heard of this test once before, but it's a good reminder. I did have a beta reader comment that they would like to see my main character have a female friend to talk to. She has one in the beginning, sort of, but then she's off busy doing other things during big chunks of the novel. Otherwise my MC is mostly hanging out with guys (only one is a love interest). But I have to say, I'm pretty sure I drew her that way because that's how my own life has gone mostly. I've always been easier friends with men than women in real life. Hmmm...may have to go invent an imaginary friend for my imaginary character.

    Oh, and I was always team Gale. :P

    1. Your MC is a woman in a man's world, so as long as she's not talking about babies and marriage all the time (and I doubt it!) than she's already passed the test!

      I honestly wasn't team anyone for The Hunger Games. I just wanted more action!

  4. I'm anti-romance-is-everything too, mostly because I am cold and dead inside :P

    The majority of my favourite films fail the Bechdel Test, which is sad... but in no way takes away from my enjoyment. I think it's really good to be aware of this but not to let it take over your life completely. Your YA reworking is very appropriate too ;)

    1. Oh, I absolutely agree! If you start writing to criteria other than your own, then you'll just end up with a mess. I think it's mostly important to not have any token characters. If you're going to throw a girl or an LGBT character into the mix, then at least make sure that the character is well developed. Otherwise what's the point?

      I am also cold and dead inside. Fun, isn't it? :)

  5. I think books are better at passing the Bechdel test than movies. Perhaps there should be an additional criteria for YA where the characters have to have interactions that aren't about who the heroine is going to pick, and where she has to do something completely independent of the male characters.

    1. So, so sick of female characters whose biggest decision is which boy to be with! You know what? Try them both out, and screw what anyone says :)

    2. I love it when you quote Mother Teresa. :-)

  6. I think I'll just go weep in the corner. 'Cause I have not just one triangle, but two! I'm not sure if they make a star or just a big fat square of a cliche.

    But yeah, I agree. I haven't read much YA, but one of the few female characters who wasn't all gaga over guys was Hermoine. And for movies, "Julie and Julia" passes the test. They're in love with cooking, and their husbands play supporting roles.

  7. Hermione stands out so much because of that, doesn't she? Which is sad, really.

    And I wouldn't worry about your love star, or hexagon, or whatever it is. I've seen your writing, so I have absolute faith that those characters are all well-rounded and complex.

    I never did find out why Arnie was back in Maine, BTW. (Hint hint!)



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