A reader writes:
I’d like to respond to the reader who wrote in with this criticism of the Bechdel Test. It’s not designed to be a screenwriting guide, or to suggest that all movies that don’t pass the test are unfairly sexist. It’s designed to show how disquieting the proportion of films that don’t pass it is. If the number of films in that video that pass the test were closer to 50%, it wouldn’t be making much of a point. It’s not meant to encourage screenwriters to add arbitrary scenes into movies to pass the test; it’s to encourage screenwriters to write more films about women in the first place, precisely what your reader claims to want.
I agree with the commenter that the Bechdel Test is problematic. Consider this scenario:
Two neurosurgeons who are also female are collaborating on a complicated case. The patient is male. The conversation they have about the treatment particulars technically fails the Bechdel Test.
Despite this issue, I still think the test can identify problems in writing female characters. The real problem it shines a light on, however, is that we don’t have enough protagonists who are female and the few we do have operate in a very narrow field of character types. An even more valuable tool to me as a writer is to flip the gender or ethnicity of my characters and see what’s left of their conflict in the story. If not much is left, then that can be a problem depending on the point of the story. Inevitably, flipping a character’s gender or ethnicity can show us how the default is to have characters who are white, male and straight.
Casting Helen Mirren as The Doctor would shake the franchise up in a good way, just as casting Judy Dench as M in the 007 movies did. I’m disappointed in how the casting was handled for Dench’s replacement. Sure, go back to M being male, but then make the new Q female. (However, note that they did cast Moneypenny as a black female.)
For a great example on how shaking up traditional expectations on gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation can create a great cast of characters, see Syfy’s Warehouse 13. It’s ensemble cast includes quite a range of characters from a young female computer hacker (and Runaways fan) to a Russian Jew to a gay Buddhist ATF officer to an older Black female in charge of everyone. Oh, and in this show H.G. Wells was female writing under a male pseudonym.
It can also be enlightening to look at the “reverse Bechdel test,” in which you look at the number of times men talk with each other about something other than a woman. A friend of mine has been tracking this in some movies and TV episodes - here.
Of course, that doesn’t quite address what your screenwriter correspondent was saying; he (I’m guessing he’s male) was claiming that secondary characters in movies always talk about the protagonist, and that the protagonist is too-often male. The reverse Bechdel test doesn’t take that theory into account. But it’s nonetheless true that secondary male characters in movies and TV shows do very frequently talk about things other than the protagonist – and it’s also true that there’s almost always more than one male character in any given movie or show.
That reader follows up with more links:
Here is a Bechdel test movie list.
Here are ten famous films that surprisingly fail the Bechdel Test (note that Run Lola Run features a female protagonist but she never talks with other women)
Here are some examples of things real women talk about, other than men.
Here are some suggestions on writing good female characters, especially in comics.
Here are some problems I saw with female characters in stories submitted to my magazine.
Here are more of my thoughts on female characters.