The Bechdel Test is a benchmark for films developed by Alison Bechdel in 1985. For a film to pass the Bechdel test it must contain a scene where two women are talking to each other about anything except men. The conversation can be about anything, even stereotypical subjects – anything except men.
I extend the Bechdel Test to my fiction writing. In my short story ‘Brick Heart’ Annie and Ettie talk to each other about belonging and home. In SmartYellow, Edith and Joyce exchange letters about society, and Katrina talks to Stella about how she came to live on the estate.
I do this not because I believe that it’s wrong for women to talk about men in fiction, but because I am concerned about the way gender is represented. Women do talk about subjects other than their relationships. Not that film or writing that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test is bad or wrong, it’s just representing women in a different way.
Looking a little deeper into Alison Bechdel’s test, she follows up with a statement that in many works of fiction women are still delimited by something, even if it isn’t a relationship with a man.
But isn’t this what fiction is often about? The portrayal of a struggle that is overcome? Isn’t this the quest narrative? While I feel it is important to show that women are present and represent half of the population and are rounded people whose sole interests are not men, shying away from writing delimited women would diffuse the opportunity to create a ‘that woman is like me’ moment in storytelling, and it is often that identification that creates the fusion between reader and story.
Then there is the question of subtext. If a film or story had two women talking about their abusive relationships with men, but the subtext was their potential escape from this oppression, would this pass the Bechdel Test?
The truth is that women are still delimited and oppressed. Boundaries are defined everywhere, and the fact that the Bechdel Test even exists is proof of this. The real challenge for writers and filmmakers is to show the reality for oppressed women as a reflection of the lived experience, and show that it is possible to overcome this by negotiating a complex set of boundaries that include confidence, self awareness and fear.
This wouldn’t be called a test or a syndrome, it would be called freedom and equality.