The Rule, by Alison Bechdel

Why the Bechdel-Wallace Test Is Not The Last Word In “Feminist” Films

Our interactions in daily life stem from visual perceptions – our culture reflects, and is reflected by, the style of conversation and situational formula that is depicted on screen. Images constantly surround us, and is elementary to normalizing behaviours and attitudes in society. The depiction of a woman with personal agency, or a gay couple behaving in non-stereotyped roles, helps create a visual interaction that a person emulates and performs in real-life situations.

Consequently, tests determining the scope of interaction and behavior between two characters help in reaching a more nuanced understanding of the ideas prevalent in a society, as well as the potential impact it may have on the society. A classic example of such a test is the Bechdel-Wallace Test or the Mo Movie Test, a test designed by Liz Wallace, which became widely known after Alison Bechdel featured it in the comic ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’. The criterion that the test requires is ostensibly simple:

  1. The movie (or media) has at least two female characters (corollaries suggest they must be named);
  2. Who talk to each other;
  3. About something other than a man (later additions suggest that this conversation must last over 60 seconds).

The Bechdel Test, at an un-analyzed level, seems like it challenges the presence of stock female characters who exist in order to aid in the development of stronger male characters, or who only exist in relation to the male character. In fact, as is noted in Huffington Post, “The Bechdel Test is more important than most of us realize and, in fact, it has launched a dialogue about not only the lack of females in movies, but also the racial disparities we often see in cinema.” This pattern of thought creates an illusion of the Bechdel Test being a gauge of feminism (of sorts).

I say ‘illusion’ because movies that pass the Bechdel Test do not necessarily indicate that the representation of female characters in them is in any way non-stereotyped, nor does it include films with strong female leads in non-stereotyped roles. Boyhood and Legally Blonde pass the Bechdel Test, even though the former does not lay too much emphasis on its female characters and the latter passes only because it features two women discussing their dogs. On the other hand, movies like Gravity and Run Lola Run feature strong female leads, but nevertheless fail the test because at no point do the leads have a full conversation with two women. The Bechdel Test is, therefore, in no way an absolute measure of feminism.

An argument in support of the Bechdel Test is that it is not used as a gauge for individual works, but the rising trend amongst the films. However, as noted before, movies that pass the Bechdel Test may not even indicate that the conversation between the women is in any way emancipating, and conversations with men do not automatically inhibit the emancipating nature of the film. However, the test itself has become almost a household name in determining how ‘woman-friendly’ a film is.

The efficacy of the Bechdel test is therefore questionable, and can pale in front of more pertinent tests, such as the Mako Mari test. The Mako Mori test (inspired by the minimal, yet extremely emancipating role of Rinko Kikuchi inPacific Rim), has criteria that can be classified as relatively ‘feminist’. It requires

  • at least one female character;
  • who gets her own narrative arc;
  • that is not about supporting a man’s story.

While a better bar than the Bechdel test, the Mako Mari Test also does not automatically validate a movie as ‘feminist’ – on deeper consideration, the fact that the bar set for such a classification is so low, indicates in itself the limited roles that female characters play on screen. This leads us to the all-important question: why is it so difficult to establish a sense of gender equality in our movies?


Article by Stuti Pachisia

Edited by Siddesh Gooptu 

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