Failing the Bechdel Test

A few years back, I finished writing a screenplay, a supernatural thriller called Ice. I teased it into the world, it was met with indifference, and I put it back in its virtual file, the way one does.

In the intervening years, a boisterous conversation about gender depiction—how women are portrayed in film—made me aware of the issue. There’s a writers’ site I love, that regularly reminds me that this is important.

But more than anything, what has plunked this issue into my head is the hilarious Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test, devised many years ago by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, asks three questions of a movie:

1) Does it have more than one named female character?

2) Do those characters talk to each other?

3) If so, is it about something other than a guy?

Do a quick mental check of your three favorite movies. The odds are that two out of the three don’t pass.

When it was time to do another draft of Ice, I decided to look at it through the lens of gender depiction.

I opened the file and started to read, then started to shiver. It was late at night, quiet enough that I could hear the sound of all the flesh crawling off my body.

In the first scene, a disposable female character gets horribly attacked. Later, we learn that a female character has had sex for money. (In my defense, the character who gets attacked is the same character who later sells her body, which gives her depth.)

I was more likely to describe the women by their level of attractiveness. I never said of a guy that he was “well-muscled but not in a way that says too much time at the gym.”

Ice failed the Bechdel test.

Toward the end of the previous draft, I’d become aware that I had a woman problem. I’d fixed it by giving the insignificant female characters names; Checkout Girl became Sophie. Also, I’d changed every tiny male role to a tiny female role. This had no discernible effect except to make Boulder, where the script is set, feel like Amazonia.

As a young writer I was trained to avoid verbal clichés. I would never write “throw in the towel” or “vested interest, ” phrases that click an off-switch in the reader’s mind. But no one trained me to look for the gender cliché’s that dot the script, camouflaged by own conditioning.

As an experiment, I changed the protagonist of Ice to a woman. Reflexively, I made the character five years younger, then caught myself. The simple gender swap rippled in ways that I didn’t expect; it exposed other automatic choices that I was able to fix. Not intuitive but true, the plot improved.

The best tests teach us. They measure knowledge but they also instruct. My favorite thing about the Bechdel test is that I’m is allowed to retake it.


2 thoughts on “Failing the Bechdel Test

  1. Thanks for writing this – and for examining your own prejudices in public. Glad you were willing to retake the test!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s