Posted by: Sally Ingraham | March 10, 2013

Telling Tales of Women

The Bechdel test

Alison Bechdel established her Rule in 1985 in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For. I discovered it yesterday through the web videos of Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency). This video left my jaw hanging and my thoughts racing:

A large percent of the movies Anita features are ones that I like, have seen more than once, or are favorites. I had never approached them this way and felt bizarrely betrayed. Not that the lack of a healthy female presence in a movie automatically makes it a bad one (I’m not about to boycott The Princess Bride!)…but it is a curious and upsetting thing that SO MANY movies fail the test. Anita made an updated video, applying the test to the 2011 Academy Award nominees with pretty dismal, and thought-provoking results. There’s a lot of things to get worked up about when it comes to business as usual in Hollywood, of course, but the Bechdel test reveals a particularly striking issue, and one that I’m having trouble ignoring. I’m not going to be able to avoid applying the test to every movie I see from now on.

I watch a lot of movies and doing so has been one of my favorite things for as long as I can remember. I value films as an art form and a way of gaining perspective on important issues, as well as carrying on the storytelling tradition that is part of human nature. Another video from Anita about the place of women and their stories in movies makes some good points:

You will wear yourself out nitpicking over the subtle and not-so-subtle sexism in our culture, but I think it’s important to be aware of it. I have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of movies that probably should have upset me if I had stopped to think about it. I like to think that I do THINK about the movies I watch, books I read, and stories I internalize, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I’ve let myself get desensitized to some things. And that’s exactly why it’s important to be reminded of yet one more way that we are being undermined subconsciously (we as people, regardless of sex). The daily pummel of media that is just slightly off. See it enough and you STOP seeing it if you’re not careful, or worse, just accept it as the way things should be.

If you are in the mood to be further annoyed or even infuriated, (as well as charmed by Anita’s quirky and thoughtful commentary) be sure to check out more of her videos. Her Women vs. Tropes series is especially interesting, and gave me a good reminder of more things to be wary of in both my movie viewing, and my reading.

With all this in mind, as I was writing my post on books earlier today I was struck by how many were by female authors and featured interesting, strong, fully fleshed out female leads. Of the 14 books I touched on, 10 were by female authors, and 9 had main characters who were girls. In two of the books where the main character was male, there was a supporting cast that featured pretty cool ladies. In it’s own category lies One Hundred Years of Solitude, which deserves an entire separate post or three on the many female characters and the role of women in it… And I just might have to write them! Only Mimus and Fire on the Mountain were almost or entirely lacking in female characters.  I’m trying to recall if there were any particularly glaring tropes employed in this collection of books, and to their credit I can’t think of any at the moment.

Determining all that was very satisfying! I hope my reading habits this year continue on this vein. You are what you eat, after all, and I consume a lot of books and movies – I don’t want them to be subconsciously blinding me or dulling my senses toward things that are offensive or thought patterns that are dangerous. And if I do come across such things I want to be aware enough to shoot ’em with a silver bullet or put a stake through their heart before I get bitten and infected or wind up undead…!

Here are some women, real and otherwise, who are particularly awesome:

Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns (artwork by Simini Blocker)

Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns (artwork by Simini Blocker)

Maggie Stiefvater

Karou (and Brimestone) from Daughter of Smoke and Bone (artwork by Calivel)

Brenna Yovanoff

Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue – from the novels by Kristin Cashore (art by whomever runs ‘a lady, a monster, a queen’)

Diana Wynn Jones (aww…*sniff*) and Robin McKinley


  1. And then there’s The Waitress. Written and directed by a woman, starring more than two women who do talk to each about more than men, but not more than men and babies. Can we add babies to the list of offensives?

    • I knew you would bring that up! I haven’t watched that in a long time, but I remember it not bothering me quite as much as it did you. I wonder what Anita’s take in it would be. Maybe I’ll ask her. 🙂

  2. Well, for that matter, it is not all that easy to find a “healthy” male presence in a hollywood film these days. This is, I think, based on the fallacy that “healthy” folk don’t make good stories.

    • True enough. Another video that I watched was a response to Anita’s work by a relatively thoughtful young man who was partially attacking her opinions but also made some good points – one being that movies are full of pretty offensive male tropes and stereotypes too.

  3. […] * For details of the Bechdel Test and why I care, investigate here. […]

  4. I had never heard of Feminist bFrequency, but I will definitely be checking some of these videos out. I first encountered the idea of the Bechdel Test in a blog post of Jenny I think, and it is definitely interesting but also a very frustrating topic to think about, once you realise how often media fail the test.

    • Yes, I have found my head aching a lot recently from trying to think of movies that actually pass the test! And once I notice pattern it makes me sad – for instance, most episodes of Doctor Who, especially the Moffat stuff, don’t pass. Boo. 😦

  5. […] of stories and writers last winter. They have strong female leads (so they’re definitely telling tales of women) and they’re about women who fight – bonus! My expectations are still great though, so I […]

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