Putting YA to the (Bechdel) Test

The Bechdel Test is a very simple litmus test to measure the presence of female characters in media. Originally developed by Liz Wallace, it’s named after Alison Bechdel, who made it widely known through her comic Dykes to Watch Out For.  To pass the test, your pop culture media must have:

  1. Two Named Female Characters
  2. Who Talk to Each Other
  3. About Something Other Than A Man

Sounds simple right? But, it’s astounding, and really, really depressing to realize how many movies and TV shows fail the test. If you limit yourself to only watching media that passes the Bechdel Test you are going to be missing out on a LOT of pop culture. Surprisingly, even movies that are based around a female lead (like Disney’s Mulan) or are loved for their strong female characters (like Marvel’s Avengers or Pacific Rim) can fail the test. And, no one is saying that movies that fail the test aren’t worth watching, or that a story is better just because it manages to pass the test.

What the Bechdel Test does is point out that there is a definite lack of gender equality in most of our pop culture media. Even in 2014, it can still be a struggle for Hollywood to realize that it is okay for there to be more than one girl in any given story, and that yes, girls do talk to each other, and sometimes they even have lives and concerns that don’t revolve around the nearest man.

And that’s a little sad, but at least we have books, right? Surely it must be easier to pass such a simple test in books…and especially in YA, right? Our fabulous Claire T. volunteered to find out:

Fangirl – So up first, I’m going to take on Rainbow Rowell. Well, not so much take her on, but proudly grab my copy off the shelf behind me thinking “Rainbow will DEFINITELY pass this test.” So here we go, we’ve got Cath and two other main female characters Wren and Reagan.

At first this is an obvious pass, because Wren and Cath have many conversations about their deadbeat mother, their struggling father and their not-so-smooth start to college life. But when you look at the character Reagan, who is admittedly my favorite character in this book, it gets a little murkier. Before the masses descend, yes, Cath and Reagan to have more than one conversation that do not center around Levi or Reagan’s spotty dating patterns. BUT! Reagan is the only female non-relative who Cath talks to, and Reagan is primarily a method for expanding Levi’s (utterly charming and completely wonderful) character, but there is a lot happening in this book, and I absolutely love it, and Reagan, Cath and Wren are all such complete, well-drawn characters, it’s hard to argue there is any flatness to these three women. As I expected/hoped, this passes in flying colors A.

My Life Next Door – Huntley Fitzpatrick wrote one of the defining YA Romance novels of 2013, and I fell hard for this one. From the gorgeous cover, to the gorgeous love interest – this book was the perfect summer read, but way more satisfying than just a summer fling. The romance feels true and lasting and I keep coming back to reread parts. But there is something noticeably missing – supporting female characters. Samantha has a sister who is present for I think two, extremely brief scenes. Her best friend, Nan, who turns out to be bitter and not actually a good friend at all, and then there is Jase’s sister Alice who seems to have the most potential. Even though Nan and Samantha do, technically have a couple of conversations that don’t involve boys, it’s barely a pass. For the Bechdel test, I give this one a B-.

Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour – So before we dive in here, I will acknowledge that picking a road-trip book is going to make this a tough one. Roger and Amy are the only two characters that feature prominently in this book, so the Bechdel test might seem slightly unfair. There are two other girls, Bronwyn and Julia, who do make an appearance (or two) but there are really no supporting female characters here. And Amy is going through a lot – evolving feelings for Roger (who she can’t escape), slowly starting to deal with her dad’s death (which she is hurtling towards for most of the book), and coming to grips with where she is now – she could really use a sister friend to chat with about life and the bigger issues. Morgan Matson is tackling a lot in this book, and she does it very deftly – but from a female support system, Amy just doesn’t seem to have anyone. I love this book, it’s on my list of all time faves, but for the Bechdel Test I’ve gotta give it an F.

This is really just a tip of the iceberg. I could have grabbed more than a dozen books off just the one shelf behind me at work (and I’ve got three full shelves in my office). Any book can be subjected to this test.

Do good books that don’t pass exist? Of course, and books that are terrible will pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. But as an author one of the goals should be to create a story and characters that feel true. We, as women (and really, humans), exist in a world that is complicated and full of lots of interesting people, challenges and subjects. As important as love is – finding it, falling into and out of it – our ability to be functioning human beings does not depend entirely on it. It’s important to have other interests, to exist beyond just the quest to find it and books should reflect it when they can.

So this is just one more thing to keep in mind whether you are writing something to post here or reading and commenting on manuscripts that have already been posted. We always want to hear from you, so sound off below – how do you feel about the Bechdel test? Does your favorite book pass? Does your manuscript?

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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