What has come to be known as the Bechdel Test first appeared in 1985, in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For. In order for a film or other work of fiction to pass the test, it must contain the following: (1) At least two female characters, preferably named, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man. Bechdel credits the idea to a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf, in particular the 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf notes of women in fiction that ‘almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men’.
It’s a surprisingly tall order (full disclosure: although some of my books pass with flying colours, at least one fails the test entirely, and I’m on fairly shaky ground with several of the others). According to the media industry press and websites such as the user-edited database www.bechdeltest.com, approximately 50% of all films meet all the requirements. I suspect, although I have no data to back this up, that the score for books would be about the same – or possibly lower, given the number of sci-fi titles in which entire worlds are entirely, bar one or perhaps two token women, populated by men. Advertising, by the way, does rather better, mainly thanks to what the sensitive souls in the industry refer to as ‘Two Cunts in a Kitchen’ – adverts in which two women squeal with delight over yoghurt, air freshener, shampoo and the like.
When I started to read grown-up books, I wondered why there weren’t (with some notable exceptions, of course) more women knocking around in the adult fictional universe. While I realised that, as in life, everyone exists in relation to someone else, I often thought it would be nice if more of these made-up female characters were a bit more than just ‘the mother’ or ‘the girlfriend’ or (God help us) ‘the femme fatale’. That’s why I was thrilled when I discovered Cagney & Lacey on TV – two recognisably three-dimensional women with realistic lives, serious jobs and a strong friendship. They talked to each other about lots of stuff (including men, obviously, although quite often this was because the men were suspects in a crime they were solving). There have been other female crime-solving duos since, but Cagney & Lacey are, and always will be, my favourite.
Of course, part of the reason that it’s comparatively difficult for a book, play or film to pass the Bechdel test is the sheer dearth of female characters. Actor Geena Davies has suggested a remedy for this: ‘before you cast something, just go through and do a gender check and change a bunch of first names to female. Voila!’ That would certainly be a start, although, to be fair, I think that crime fiction (but not including the kind of thrillers that have men running away from explosions on the cover) doesn’t actually do too badly in this regard, with female protagonists ranging from Miss Marple and Vera Stanhope to Clarice Starling and Modesty Blaise, and a fairly decent number of women amongst the subsidiary characters as well. However, a lot of the time they are talking either to men, or to other women about men – and I’m guessing that, taken as a whole, domestic noir novels would rack up fewer passes than female-led police procedurals.
Part 3 of the test is the most difficult. For those keen to write a realistic type of fiction (in as much as fiction ever can be realistic – but that, of course, is a whole different subject), the fact is that we are on a bit of a hiding to nothing here because it has not been determined how often real life passes the Bechdel test in its entirety. As a micro-experiment, I have, for the past fortnight, kept a log of the subject matter of all my conversations with other women, some of which have taken place in a work context, others not. Topics have ranged from crime fiction, literature in general and current issues to gardening, dogs and – yeah, I know – shoes. However, I estimate that at least 50% of the time the subject matter has been men, covering all bases from partners and male relatives through politicians, actors and writers to the chap who runs the corner shop and the noisy gits on the scaffolding next door. My life, has, of late, been fairly dramatic, and, were it told as a story, with all of the above boiled down for the exigencies of plot, it would be a resounding fail.
There’s a big question mark (in my mind, at least) over whether the author of a work of fiction should be subject to any sort of orthodoxy, and of course the Bechdel test is has its limitations, but it’s certainly given me something to think about – at least where writing is concerned. Life, I fear, will have to take care of itself.
Laura Wilson is the author of twelve acclaimed and award-winning psychological crime novels, the latest of which is The Wrong Girl (Quercus). She is the Guardian’s crime fiction reviewer, and she teaches on the Crime/Thriller Writing MA course at City University, London.