The Bechdel Test, or how I learned to stop worrying about it and love character development

So, what is the Bechdel Test, and why does it seem to be so surprisingly difficult to pass such an apparently simple set of criteria?

The Bechdel Test is a straightforward method to determine whether a work of fiction—such as a movie, book, video game, or other piece of media—can meet absolute bare minimum feminist standards. The concept is that if you can’t even pass such an easy test, you really can’t be trying that hard.

The test comprises three criteria:

  1. There must be at least two or more women (no men)
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man.

Huh. Well, that really does sound easy, doesn’t it? So why do so many works fail the Bechdel Test? Is it some conspiracy against women? Is it some awful sexist portrayal in which women are only entrusted to talk about boys and have no valuable thoughts in their head otherwise? Is it due to female characters with speaking parts being so low in number that they rarely even pass the first rule?

The answer is a lot more complex than the question itself, as with pretty much anything that involves human interaction. There are, in fact, some minor sexist undertones to the problem, but probably not the ones you’d expect, and oddly enough, feminist ideology is actually at fault for several of the underlying problems, so let’s explore this for a bit.

What is a man? Nothing but a pile of secrets! Wait, hrm. No. Well, maybe. Still, the question we have to ask before we begin is what’s the difference between a man and a woman when it comes to fiction?

Obviously, there’s a difference, real or imagined; otherwise, the test wouldn’t be problematic in the first place.

For this, we need to understand that there are a few key things about human psychology that affect the thought process behind how we view men and women.

Women are, by their very nature, deemed to be valuable. A woman is important, special, something of value without needing to be anything more than a woman. She need not be especially intelligent, charming, or even particularly useful to fulfill the role of “nice to have around.” A woman can be an arrogant, stuck-up waste of flesh, but as long as she’s a woman, that’s good enough.

Men, in contrast, are worthless in and of themselves unless they prove themselves to be somehow valuable. A man must actually do something. You respect women for being women, but men need to earn that respect. They have to somehow help the collective, or a woman, or otherwise be handy to have around in a mechanical sense. A man who can’t slay a dragon is not a man at all.

Due to this dichotomy, we have a problem already. People tend to strive to prove themselves only when there’s a need to prove themselves. This goes for all of humanity in general, with one’s gender irrelevant to the discussion—people get up off their butts and get stuff done when it’s required for survival or love. Without hoops to jump through, we, as a species, tend to quickly grow lethargic and stop putting much effort into anything.

As such, we have our first issue: the objectification of women. Men do stuff; women simply are. Not because women are incapable of doing stuff, but they just don’t have any need to do stuff to be a woman, while the same is not true for men. This is a case where positive discrimination can have negative connotations—as long as women are deemed to be more valuable than men, women will never be as valuable by their deeds because they simply don’t have that gun against their back for failure to be useful.

Equality has to start from the ground up: equality in value and equality in responsibility. So as long as a man has more responsibility and less value, he will forever be forced to be “better” than a woman, whether he wants to or not, in order to be deemed worth keeping around. It doesn’t help that double standards such as this are insulting to everyone, as both men and women suffer when this kind of thing is enforced by society. Just keep in mind, it doesn’t stem from a hatred of women—it stems from trying to put women on a pedestal and failing to consider the indirect consequences tied to that action.

So what does this have to do with the Bechdel Test? Quite simply, it funnels back to character design and motivations.

If you have a female character, you have to provide some awfully compelling reasons (note the plural) for her to do pretty much anything. With a male character, it’s simple—he wants to be valued, either by a woman, or by society, or by other men. This is the easiest out there is because it means a male character can always be thrown together in record time. Just give him a group that looks down on him for not being manly enough and, ta-da, you now have a male character who can move the plot forward.

For a female character, it’s a lot more difficult from the start since if she’s going to do anything, you can’t just have a group that wants to oust her from society for the sake of being useless—that would be deemed sexist. A woman who is useless? Throw her out! Wait … no, that’s violence against women! Yeah, so you can’t do that. This means that writing a female character involves a more complex backstory to make her do pretty much anything. As such, this pretty much rules female characters out almost entirely from being a background character.

Toss in that violence against women is deemed evil, while violence against men is perfectly acceptable, and you basically have written women out of 90% of the possible roles they could fill already. With that in mind, suddenly we see how easy it is to fail the Bechdel Test; most movies can’t even get past the first rule of having two or more women with speaking parts, and if they do toss in a female with a speaking part, it’s often just a background character who gives a generic report or informs someone of something, yet she doesn’t say anything that a man couldn’t say, nor does she actually influence the plot in any relevant way.

Ah, and you thought it was over there? No. No, no, no. I’m afraid not. The rabbit hole goes much deeper, unfortunately.

If it were just a matter of female characters being more difficult to write and requiring more time for backstory, it would still mean most quality written works would have lots of well-written female characters as they’d be a great incentive for the writer not to rely on lazy writing techniques like they can with male characters. So … why, then, are female characters still so sparse in general, even among well-written works?

Well, there’s a few more issues at fault here, some of them we’ve lightly touched on already, some we haven’t.

For instance, the whole “women are special for being women” thing rears its ugly head yet again, and we find that making a unique male character is actually pretty easy—give him a whacky personality, tons of flaws, just dress him up with absurd attire, it’s all good. Men absolutely have to strive to stand out from the crowd, so making a male character who is unique is pretty easy since men will tend toward extremes, even risky ones that people would think are strange or stupid, much more readily. Bad attention is still attention, after all.

Let’s take an example: Alex Louis Armstrong from the famed Fullmetal Alchemist. He’s got an absurdly large mustache, muscles all over, and prances about in a silly manner with sparkles and glitter. Seriously, I’m not joking here. He stands out as a character not only because his character has been passed down the Armstrong family line for generations but also because he takes his masculinity to absurd levels of silliness and it works.

Now, let’s consider the reversal: a female character who has large breasts, a voluptuous body, and is a grease monkey. In this case (not Winry Rockbell, as she’s actually well written and isn’t a supermodel), it’s cry after cry of objectification and sexism; she can’t take her body to ludicrous levels without being considered only an object, even if she has a traditionally masculine role to offset it.

With male characters, you can do so much more with them. A man can be defined as any male who provides a useful service to society. Giant minotaur? No problem as long as you’re friendly! What about a female minotaur? We-ell, no. Unfortunately, she’s now deemed ugly, unless she’s vastly more anthropomorphic than the male variant, as was found back in the World of Warcraft beta over a decade ago, when both male and female players insisted they didn’t want Tauren women to look so bestial. Turns out even women don’t like playing ugly female characters and don’t associate monsters with being female.

Women in the media are a bit limited; sure, they get more options for clothing and how to pretty themselves up, but in the end they’re limited to types of prettiness since they have to maintain the aspect of womanhood—a woman must look, sound, and act like a woman to be deemed a woman. Pvt. Vasquez in Aliens? Not a woman. Sure, she had breasts and made some gender-based jokes, but she’s considered too butch to count as feminine and therefore the rules for men apply instead of the rules for women. The strong, independent woman isn’t what people want, not even feminists, or they’d be praising her constantly over Ellen Ripley, who was largely useless except for when her motherly instinct kicked in. Ripley tried to be useful a few times but was largely viewed as “I guess you can, if you want, but you don’t have to. You’re valuable without being useful,” except by the soldiers who viewed her as exactly that—useless until she provided some useful information. Jenette Vasquez, however, was “one of the guys” precisely because she was useful all the time and acted with the male mindset of having something to prove.

Regardless, I digress; we have more to cover. Much more.

Sexism is a problem, even when it’s positive, as we’ve already seen. “You wouldn’t hit a girl, would you?” is a major issue in particular.

Consider the idea of harming a woman for a moment … now consider the idea of harming a man. It’s not the same, is it? Harming anyone should be abhorrent, yet that’s not what we see in practice. A woman being harmed is supposedly far worse, and even the feminists can agree with me on this because they’re the ones screaming that it’s okay for a woman to hit a man but not for a man to defend himself from a woman who’s attacking him.

Indeed, check any media and you’ll see this played out time and again. You don’t get a horror movie because a man was hurt. It’s no big deal, so who cares? It’s horror because a woman was hurt. This is how we know the villain is evil as well: he hurt a woman. How dare he.

In fact, let’s consider the mere concept of killing a woman. You will never see this unless:

  1. It is a horror movie (killing a man is not horrible enough to make it a
    horror movie).

  2. She is shown not to be a “real woman,” thereby undoing her special
    right as a woman to protection. That is, she is an alien (e.g., Aliens,
    Blade Runner), she has all the negative characteristics of a man
    (Aliens), or she is an out-and-out protagonist who is clearly crazy and
    a murderer (e.g., Misery, Fatal Attraction).

  3. She threatens the life of an innocent woman (Shining Through, Fatal
    Attraction, and Total Recall).

  4. She has been seen in no more than three scenes (we have not gotten
    to know her—she is not a “real woman” to us).

  5. The rest of the movie is focused on avenging her death (Death Wish),
    making it, in essence, a morality film showing us that a woman killed
    leads to a man killed.

The above list is word for word from a class headed by a female scriptwriter and is quite literally the rules that writers use in the industry on how to handle female characters’ deaths.

The fact of the matter is that you can’t hurt a woman, nor can you kill her. If you do, you must adhere to strict limitations as to what is acceptable; otherwise, it’s viewed as cruelty and sexism toward women. Which is odd, because treating a woman like a man is equality—yet it’s cited as sexism. Go figure.

Even Anita Sarkeesian is quite adamant about these things, pointing out that women are not allowed to be harmed in any way, shape, or form in video games or it’s sexist. Sure, going into a restaurant and murdering the all-male staff is fine, but kill a stripper and you’ll get penalized for it.

Unfortunately, this “harm” is so broadly defined that it covers too much to do much of anything with a female character. You can’t even criticize a female character or you’re demeaning a woman and treating her as stupid, and therefore are being sexist. You can’t have her face the consequences of poor decisions or actions, nor can you really hurt her in general.

Here’s a little secret to writing—conflict exists in virtually all forms of storytelling, with the four standard types classified as Man against Man, Man against Society, Man against Nature, and Man against Self. You may notice that little stipulation about it being Man in conflict—the reason for this is that conflict isn’t there for the purpose of there being conflict, it’s just the surface element that is used to push the real purpose behind it forward: suffering.

In all storytelling, everything in the story must have a purpose: every description, every action, every element. There is always a purpose. In the case of conflict, the purpose is not to have an action scene but rather to wound the protagonist.

Why wound the protagonist? It’s the easiest and, arguably, the only method of character growth. A character who is harmed must strive to better oneself, to overcome the pain, or to solve the problem. Without harming a character physically, emotionally, psychologically, or in some other manner, that character is unable to grow and become better than they are. This is exactly why Mary Sue–style characters are so bloody boring; they never face a challenge, they’re never on the losing side, never the underdog—they never have to fight for survival, nor do they suffer. The audience never generates any sort of sympathy for them.

This is a large part of why, for example, you’ll notice that Superman is not the core of any Superman movie, comic, or other media centered around him. He can’t be hurt. He’s essentially perfect. As such, the point isn’t that conflict exists in relation to Superman himself but rather that conflict matters to those around Superman. Everything that happens that’s of interest happens to the characters surrounding Superman; he’s a setting, a backdrop, a framework for the narrative, but he isn’t the true protagonist.

To generate character development, you absolutely have to harm the character, and conflict is the most common method. With a female character, since you’re not allowed to harm them, you can’t make them grow or better themselves in the vast majority of situations. You can’t cut off a woman’s hand for being a thief, then expect the audience to be okay about that as they would about a man receiving the same treatment. You can’t injure her, hurt her, harm her, or kill her. She’s limited by our protection of women, and as such, she’s largely useless as a protagonist or antagonist since she not only has no motivation to do anything, but you also can’t give her a motivation to do anything.

If you look at this in practice, you get movies like Frozen, in which the protagonist, Elsa, doesn’t really learn anything, never really grows, and never really suffers. She freezes her entire kingdom, nearly kills her sister, and generally does a lot of terrible things, yet these are never allowed to truly harm her. She becomes withdrawn, yet fails to really take responsibility for her actions.

Which segues into yet another issue—responsibility.

Women in the media are not allowed to take responsibility for their actions, even if they want to. It’s always someone else’s fault, always some other issue causing them to act a certain way, always some external force acting upon them.

A woman is pure, without evil, unless evil is introduced to her artificially, or at least this is the narrative that has been forced upon us, and one that writers are forced to work with. You can’t make a woman suffer the consequences for her actions or take responsibility for things she did wrong as something that was her choice. If she screws up, it’s only because external factors forced her to.

Unfortunately, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben had it wrong—it’s not “with great power comes great responsibility,” but rather the reverse. By accepting great responsibility, you gain great power. When you say that you could have done something different, you accept the power to make that choice differently the next time.

If a woman is raped, she’s told that she could do nothing to have changed it, and she has zero responsibility for the situation leading up to such. In reality, all this does is shelter her from her true capacity for power—to make a decision that could protect her in the future. This overprotection from responsibility prevents her from ever truly growing as an individual; the conflict occurs, but the character growth (even if it’s in reality) fails to be gained, defeating the purpose of the conflict in the first place in a work of fiction.

A character absolutely must be capable of saying they screwed up and accepting the consequences for such if they are to be useful as a primary character in a storyline, regardless of medium. Without this capacity, the character simply can’t be a protagonist. And without the ability to hang the burden of responsibility around their neck, they can’t be the antagonist.

As such, the vast majority of female main characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are largely weakly written characters with no real purpose or value to the storyline. When excuses have to be made up for their failings, they fail to be valuable in telling the story and cease to be worth writing about at all.

And therein lies the true problem of the Bechdel Test—any half-decent script must have all its elements exist as an intentional addition with a purpose behind such. This means you can’t just have two random female characters who have no value to the plot having a conversation that doesn’t relate to the plot; otherwise, it’s simply bad writing and will fall to the editing floor because it’s pointless.

Therefore, the plot must be referenced, and as we’ve just covered, female characters, due to the limitations of such, make for remarkably poor protagonists and antagonists, so you’re going to have either a male or a monster, which is assumed to be male by default. As such, the vast bulk of conversations about the plot almost invariably must include reference to either the protagonist or the antagonist, and by which action causes the work to fail the Bechdel Test.

In fact, the very things that are harmful to men are also the very things that make them stronger: pain, suffering, being ostracized from a group, having no innate value, being required to prove themselves, being expendable … the list goes on and on. Yet these all lead to the same path: strife generates character development. It doesn’t necessitate positive character development, but it does ensure that some sort of character development is at least possible. Someone who is comfortable with their position in life will never rise to the challenge if there is no challenge to rise to, so they have to actively put themselves into risky positions so as to artificially generate that challenge.

Regardless, what this means is that female characters are heavily crippled just as actual women are by our overprotective society. Until a woman, or a female character, has the chance to seriously harm herself, she can never truly become more than she currently is, much less become an important part of the plot. Plot is what moves the story forward, it’s the march of change, the journey from one state to another, and without harm or threat of harm as a catalyst for change, there can be only stagnation.

So interestingly enough, what will make more movies and video games pass the Bechdel Test is… equality. Actual equality. Treating women as poorly as men are treated and telling them to woman up is what forces them to do their best, and pulling away all the safety nets to save them is what ensures that most will succeed—they can’t afford to fail. The downside is … some will be lost in the process. Some will fail, and some will fall, and they will make quite the unpleasant “splat” as they greet the concrete below. Until we’re willing to let women fail, in reality and in fictional media, we simply won’t see the Bechdel Test passed with any sort of consistency.

Because of this, there are remarkably few ways to successfully pass the Bechdel Test due to the nature of what we deem to be acceptable culturally. Most of those methods involve cop-outs, such as writing a scene that has no place of value in the script as it doesn’t have any relevance to the plot; having an arbitrarily decided upon all-female cast that largely fails for the reasons above; or ignoring the cultural rules and creating a truly strong, empowered female character—the kind that feminists would absolutely abhor with the burning passion of one thousand suns because she would get the absolute crap kicked out of her and would actually confess to screwing up so as to cause the beatdown in the first place.

So, oddly enough, the ideal method of passing the Bechdel Test with good writing … is to write a cast of characters that the very people who complain about things not passing the Bechdel Test would be screaming about being sexist because the alternative options simply lead to bad writing.

And now you know why the Bechdel Test is so hard to pass. It’s not culturally acceptable to pass it unless you resort to bad writing techniques to bypass the positive discrimination in favour of women that prevents them from being able to be employed as useful characters in the plot. In fact, the only way to pass it with even vaguely competent writing is to add things that are considered sexist or misogynistic, which defeats the whole purpose of passing it, so it’s not like there’s any real incentive to want to pass it in the first place since it’s not going to actually make anyone happy anyway.

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