Why Bechdel Testing Your Novel Shows Business Savvy

It turns out Alison Bechdel gave creatives not only a recipe for becoming more enlightened human beings, but a way to be more business-savvy as well. The test bearing her name helps quantify the representation of women in film, novels, and other creative works.

Dykes to Watch Out For, the Comic Which Articulated the Bechdel Test

Dykes to Watch Out For, the Comic Which Articulated the Bechdel Test

Bechdel Test 101

So what is it? In case you can’t view the image above, in her comic Dykes To Watch Out For (1985), Bechdel presented a rule about only seeing movies which have:

  • At least two named women
  • Who talk to each other
  • About something other than a man

As you might imagine, the Bechdel Test gets mixed responses from cheering to sneering. Some see it as a helpful standard. Others see it as oppressive or limited.

I personally see the Bechdel as a bare minimum for creative works. Male-dominated stories are half-told stories (thank-you, most of the world’s history books; thank-you, scriptures–that’s right, I’m Christian and I still went there; thank you, much of classic literature and modern speculative literature). I know things are getting better but we definitely still have ground to cover here.

Even if your story’s main action features male characters, adding well-rounded female characters makes it an even more realistic and rich story, and what writer doesn’t want that? Show me any amazing story featuring mostly males and it would have been even more amazing with well-rounded female characters in there as well.

Movies that Pass the Bechdel Test Earn More

Writers are part of the entertainment industry as a whole so paying attention to film trends is just smart. That said, it doesn’t mean you should necessarily follow Hollywood.

Walt Hickey wrote an intriguing article on FiveThirtyEight called The Dollar and Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women wherein he outlines a study on erroneous beliefs about Bechdel-passing movies and box office earnings.

“We did a statistical analysis of films to test two claims: first, that films that pass the Bechdel test — featuring women in stronger roles — see a lower return on investment, and second, that they see lower gross profits. We found no evidence to support either claim.”

Wait. You mean, people respond to well-rounded characters? This is big.

Doesn’t Hollywood Know This?

They know. They just don’t care yet. In Metro’s The Bechdel test and why Hollywood is a man’s, man’s, man’s world, the demographics of film decision-makers was illustrated by Stuart Barr and Nikki Baughan this way:

The problem lies on the other side of the camera. According to research carried out by the University of Southern California, just one in six of the directors, writers and producers behind the 100 top-grossing movies at the US box office last year were female.

‘Women are under-represented in English language films, but it’s not surprising when you look at the dominance of men behind the camera,’ said film writer Stuart Barr, a contributor for movie websites Screenjabber and Chris And Phil Present.

Baughan added: ‘Male screenwriters write from their own perspective and experiences and that usually – though not always – results in female characters that are either absent or entirely unsatisfactory. It’s a sad fact that, for various reasons historical and financial, the mainstream film industry remains the enclave of the straight, white, middle-class male.’”

Which makes me wonder, when it comes to directors who make poor decisions regarding female characters, why am I handing over 2+ hours of my time and several dollars to sit immersed in their world view?

As a Writer, You Can Be Smarter…and Awesomer

I think it’s smart to not play the writing game entirely parallel to Hollywood’s behavior because they may have more money to speculate with than the average writer does. That’s the generous view. More forthrightly, allowing that the industry has exceptions, Hollywood is in general infiltrated by decision-makers with terribly limited perspectives and agendas.

Hickey explains so many interesting points that his full article is worth a read, but to sum up, he discusses a few possible reasons Hollywood isn’t buying in to the data, including disparity between the number of women and men in creative or investment roles on these films.

He points toward a recent animated blockbuster you are probably familiar with:

“The animated film, “Frozen,” passes the test since two central female characters, Anna and Elsa, discuss the isolationist policies of Arendelle, plans to build a snowman, and the time Elsa locked their civilization in an eternal winter.

In a larger sample of 1,794 movies released from 1970 to 2013, we found that only half had at least one scene in which women talked to each other about something other than a man.”

In reference to this, NYMag.com’s Kat Stoeffel pointed out how Movies that Pass the Bechdel Test Perform Better, including that Frozen has made more than 1 billion internationally (so did Iron Man 3).

For some perspective on how awesome this is, check out Ben Lane Hodson’s interesting writeup: International Box Office and What It Means for the Future of Books. Many on this list of international top performers pass the Bechdel Test (fails include The Hobbit and Man of Steel). 

While I Value the Bechdel Test…

While I see the Bechdel test as important for increasing consciousness, it’s not hard to see its limitations. Just to name a few:

  • I’ve always thought it should ask for a percentage of characters to be female, not just ‘2’.
  • Movies can still be outright sexist in themes and still pass it.
  • Presence and dialog among women are a good start but character development can still be lacking.

Still, the Bechdel has been an instrumental step in the right direction. On some level, what good does it do to point out that this bar is too low when our creative industries still haven’t cleared it, overall?

Change Can Take Time, But…

Here’s a secret. It doesn’t always have to! It could start with one female superhero movie, for example. I love how Sophia McDougall put it:

“My despair that the film industry believes the world is more ready for a film featuring a superhero who is a raccoon than it is for a film led by a superhero who is a woman is long and loud.”

When I get called out for caring so much about this kind of stuff, I want to say, “Right? Who thought someone in 2014 would still have to champion gender parity in our cultural narratives?”

It does get old, doesn’t it?!

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