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Thought experiment
james_nicoll
There are lots of books and films that fail the Bechdel test:

1: It has to have at least two women in it,
2: Who talk to each other,
3: About something besides a man.


As discussed in other LJs and blogs, partly this is because film and TV writers are discouraged from writing material that passes it. Girls have cooties and viewers are assumed to be male, so unless the women are interacting with a guy there's no possible reason to have them in a story [1].

I'm sure the relevent link will turn up in comments.

Imagine the mirror image of the Bechdel test: Books and movies that have

1: At least two men,
2: Who talk to each other,
3: About something besides a woman.


These are pretty common. What I was wondering is if an author set out to deliberately write something that failed the mirror Bechdel test [2], would the readers notice?


1: Leaving aside porn.

2: I have a feeling there are some Archie comics that fail this test (Ones where the only men are Reggie, Archie and Jughead and all they talk about is Veronica and Betty).

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My immediate hunch is that anything failing the mirror or reverse Bechdel test will have a strong tendency toward Mary-Sue-ism.

I have friends who've occasionally mentioned this for at least a couple of years, but only as the Dykes To Watch Out For test. Suddenly everyone's switched to calling it the Bechdel test, something I'd never heard it called before. I would be quite interested in knowing what caused the change, but nobody seems to have any idea.

Alison Bechdel is the creator of Dykes To Watch Out For.

(Deleted comment)
What I was wondering is if an author set out to deliberately write something that failed the mirror Bechdel test, would the readers notice?

If it weren't noticeable, why would film and TV writers be discouraged from doing it?

Because they think it's noticable but are incorrect.

Many episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer would fail the reverse test.

Wouldn't a lot of books with multiple female protagonists -- Joy Luck Club, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Little Women -- fail the reverse test?

Little Women at least has male characters who talk to each other about things besides women. Usually Important Moral and Philosophical Topics, but hey.

I think I probably wouldn't notice it but I suspect there are people who would.

Imagine the mirror image of the Bechdel test: Books and movies that have

1: At least two men,
2: Who talk to each other,
3: About something besides a woman.

I would imagine 3. should "About a woman." if its going to be a true mirror.

How are you negating the conditions? Fewer than two men? Men that don't talk to each other? Men that only talk to each other about women? AND or OR?

It strikes me that applying the Bechdel test naively might give substantial false positives. If you have a movie with four main characters, and the sex of the characters is chosen at random, there's going to be a 31% chance that none or only one of them will be women. (The probability drops with larger casts.)

A better test -- necessarily of a group of movies -- might be comparing the tails of the distribution. A gender-blind group would have the same distribution (which might not be Bernoulli, for structural reasons). A gender-biased group would not.

the sex of the characters is chosen at random

How often does that happen?

Failing any one of the conditions would count so a story with fewer than two men would fail, and a story with more than two men who never talk to each other would fail and a story with more than two men who talk but only about women would fail.

Perhaps Thelma & Loise fails Bechdel [2].

This is an interesting point, since it would seem at first blush that T&L would pass without a thought. But I think you're right -- and yet we think of it as a buddy movie first and barely consider the men, some of whom are pivotal to the plot. Yet I'm not sure that's a bad thing. These women are making decisions about their lives--no one lives in a vacuum. In some ways, we might wonder if T&L gives the Bechtel test a line to live up to by presenting a situation that has some reality in it -- that none of our relationships or decisions exist in isolation.

Edited at 2008-08-30 05:49 pm (UTC)

Wouldn't anything with two gay males as main characters fail the reverse Bechdel test?

Edited at 2008-08-30 05:25 pm (UTC)

(Deleted comment)

Interesting. I have entire weeks where real life fails *both* tests.


I would, too, if I had to only count humans.

I would've thought that a lot of "chick lit" or romance novels fail the reverse test.

Off the top of my head, I think ALL of the ones I've read recently have sufficiently well-rounded male characters that they do find other things to talk about.

Any anime with an all- or mostly-female cast.

Seconding this - most Shojo is explictly designed to fail the Moe[1] Movie Measure, to the extent of containing heavy to industrial grade lesbianism.

[1] which is obviously the gender reversed Mo Movie Measure, and is not to be confused with the Moe Moe Movie Measure insert witty breast joke here.

unless the women are interacting with a guy there's no possible reason to have them in a story... Leaving aside porn.

Even there, most of the 'lesbian' porn I've run across might pass the test on technicalities but fails pretty dismally in spirit; the interaction tends to play heavily to Guy Behind The Fourth Wall.

Has there ever been a pornographic version of The Cask of Amontillado?


Hm. A movie with no scenes with men talking about anything but a woman... "All About Eve?"

I think one runs into the question of first-person narrative vs third-person narrative on this question.

If the work has a fallible first-person narrator, then it's much harder for it to include a conversation that doesn't involve the narrator. The narrator's gender ensures that it is likely to only pass one of the tests.

Conversely, if the work has an omniscient third-person narrator, then it's much easier to pass both tests. It's also much sadder when such a work fails either test, because usually they could have added some humanity or diversity and passed very easily.

Candidates for failing the reverse test

  • Andersen, Hans Christian: "The Little Mermaid"
    Of the male characters, I think that only the prince has a speaking role, and is only shown speaking to women.

  • Anderson, Poul: Virgin Planet
    I haven't read it for years, but as I recollect there is only one male character.

  • Le Guin, Ursula K.: The tombs of Atuan
    Set largely in a desert, female protagonist. Only 3 male characters have speaking parts (counting Tenar's father in the prologue, who appears in no scene with the others and discusses only his daughter with his wife in the scene in which he appears; the eunuch Manan, who is shown speaking only with Arha; and Sparrowhawk), and they do not speak with each other.

  • McCaffrey, Anne: Dragonsinger
    Doesn't quite flunk. Set entirely at the Harper Hall, and the female protagonist is being evaluated as a new student, so most male-male conversation that occurs in her presence is about her. The action all takes place within the span of a week. (The only male-male conversation that I recollect that flunks the work is the prentices' strategy session for making a little money at the gather, and a semi-conversation about fire lizard eggs that involves the protagonist.)

  • McIntyre, Vonda: Dreamsnake
    Set largely in and around a desert, female protagonist. There are male characters, but the only conversation between males that I recollect is an interrogation about a female victim of abuse.

  • Norton, Andre: Forerunner
    Female protagonist; set largely in a desert and a ruined city. The male lead speaks with her, but doesn't have much opportunity to speak with anyone else once the story gets going.

  • Norton, Andre: Forerunner Foray
    Female protagonist who works in the household of a high-status female criminal. Action takes place partly on a dead planet, looking for ruins. There are male characters but they aren't shown speaking with each other, pretty much; they're either talking with the boss or with the protagonist.

  • Norton, Andre: Ordeal in Otherwhere
    Female protagonist; most of the action occurs in the framework of the very female-dominant society of the wyverns of Warlock. The human males at the beginning of the story are bargaining over the protagonist's fate; a conversation between a male wyvern and the human male lead is all about females.

  • Sayers, Dorothy L.: Strong Poison
    Might fail on the strength of Lord Peter's conversation with Freddy about a male suspect's finances, or Lord Peter's last conversation with a male suspect (which involves whether he could have inherited anything from a female relative); otherwise the males are mostly speaking about the female accused of murder, or details of her case. (The trickier bits of the investigation are handled by two of Lord Peter's female assistants.)


Edited at 2009-02-18 03:21 am (UTC)

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