In Alison Bechdel’s 1985 cartoon, “The Rule,” part of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, two women visit a movie theatre and debate what they should watch that evening. One of the women has a specific rule when it comes to the films that she likes to watch: 1) it must contain at least two female characters; 2) who talk to each other; 3) about something other than a man. These principles seem like a bare minimum—to pass the test, two women can have a conversation onscreen about literally anything. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, and it doesn’t have to be an in-depth discussion of particle physics or financial investments or a philosophical debate about the full works of Friedrich Nietzsche. If two women have a ten-second conversation in a movie about what brand of toothpaste is best, the film passes the test. However, in “The Rule,” the two women ultimately find no movie that meets these very basic criteria, and they decide to return home to eat popcorn there instead.
What started as a brief comment in a comic strip has grown to hold much more weight over the years. These criteria, now known popularly as the Bechdel Test, are often used as an assessment of the active presence of women in film or how “female-friendly” a picture is. An online user database, bechdeltest.com, has applied the test to 6,369 (primarily Hollywood blockbuster) movies, of which only 57.7% pass. 10.3% of the films considered fail the test so completely that there are not even two female characters in the film, and in many of the rest of them, women never have a conversation with each other that isn’t part of a romantic or supporting plot line to a male character. Applying the test to Hollywood films of 2015 produces similar results: of the eight films that were recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with nominations for “Best Picture” of 2015, only four actually pass the test.
What is important to remember, however, is that while the Bechdel Test does raise questions about the lack of female representation onscreen, it is not always a fool-proof way to assess the strength or development of individual female characters. Many films that do pass the test do so with a brief conversation between two characters that are hardly developed and promptly forgotten, or may pass the test while still portraying a world with a negative or derogatory attitude towards women in other ways. Last year’s Fifty Shades of Grey, while depicting a possessive and controlling relationship between the two protagonists, technically passes the Bechdel Test because of a brief conversation the female protagonist has with her roommate about a broken laptop. Similarly, films may fail the test, but still provide diverse and interesting female characters. While Dory from Pixar’s Finding Nemo is an adventurous, talkative, and spunky little fish, there doesn’t seem to be a single other female fish in the ocean for her to interact with, and the movie consequently fails the test.
Instead, the Bechdel Test can be used to signal a slightly more specific problem with the portrayal of women in film: a lack of female companionship and friendship on our screens. Dory may be an important and central character in Finding Nemo, but she lacks a girlfriend to tell about her adventures or even just to goof around and make whale noises with—though maybe we can hope for these things in Finding Dory. Over and over again, women are cast in blockbuster movies as support to male characters: friends, mothers, wives, romantic interests. They are seen in competition with each other. They are seen as catty and dramatic, or as vehicles for the other to discuss their love life. But so rarely do we get to see genuine friendship and support between women, something that has been so central to my own life.
Interestingly, recent television shows seem to have been much more attentive to these female relationships than Hollywood films, and many more inspiring relationships can be found on the smaller screen. Almost every girl I know aspires to have a relationship with her own mother that mirrors the connection and communication of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore’s in Gilmore Girls. Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana are not only independent, hilarious, and lively individuals, but they are also nearly inseparable friends. While they are eccentric characters in often exaggerated situations, they still remain far more relatable than so many of the women on our screens for just being real humans: they go to brunch together, they get high, they complain about their jobs, roommates, coworkers. They discuss their own goals and desires, but also have spirited debates about Phish albums and Crocs. And when one of them is in need, the other is there immediately: Abbi literally carrying Ilana out of a restaurant after she swells up due to a shellfish allergy, Ilana pushing Abbi to go beyond her comfort zone and take new risks. Even HBO’s Girls, in which the leading women don’t even really seem to like each other anymore, has a touching moment in the Season 5 premiere in which Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, finally sets aside her own hesitations and fears over her friend Marnie’s decision to marry, showing her best friend her total support in her choices when she most needs it.
The more television I watch, the more I enjoy these female friendships: How I Met Your Mother’s Lily and Robin, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie and Ann (and even April), Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Buffy and Willow, even the real-life friendship between Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, to name only a few. And the more I crave it in shows that lack or sometimes dismiss these friendships: I would love to see a best friend to lie on the floor and feed Mindy Kaling donuts during her dramatic outbursts in The Mindy Project, or more plotlines with Jess and Cece in New Girl. These friendships are interesting, varied, and important parts of these individuals’ lives, allowing them to find connections and companionship with other women.
Instead of using the Bechdel Test as a general way to measure individual female involvement onscreen, more focus can be placed on the specifics of the way these women interact. The Bechdel Test can be used a little bit more specifically to focus on the nature of these relationships between women: a signal that women can interact in support of one another, as opposed to in competition with each other, and do more than function in support of men. And having two women who talk to each other about something other than a man can be used as a gesture towards important platonic relationships, featuring more frequently and prominently onscreen as an indication that a relationship does not have to be romantic to be meaningful and important.