Creating characters that encompass the rich diversity of humanity is particularly pertinent to screenwriting, where representation really does matter. However, gender inclusivity in media has long been questionable at best. This is especially notable in Hollywood’s depictions of women, which have historically relied on sexist stereotypes and outdated narratives.
However, feminist media analysis has helped pave the way for more inclusive onscreen portrayals of gender. One version of this analysis is the Bechdel Test, which addresses unintentional bias and representational imbalance.
The Bechdel test is a measure of the representation of women in film and other forms of fiction. To pass, the work must feature at least two women who speak to each other about something other than a man. Some iterations of the Bechdel test require that the two women be named.
Origin of the Bechdel test
The Bechdel Test first appeared in a 1985 strip of “Dykes to Watch Out For,” a long-running comic by cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”). The comic depicts two queer women discussing movies; one remarks that she will only see a film if it meets a certain set of requirements involving female characters. Bechdel has said that her friend Liz Wallace came up with the idea, which was also inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf. (The author prefers to call it the Bechdel-Wallace Test for that reason.)
Though Bechdel described the test as “a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper,” it entered into the critical conversation decades later as a barometer to use when thinking about gender representation in media. In addition to film, the test can be applied to video games, television shows, plays, and literature.
“CODA” Courtesy Apple TV+
According to the original comic, the three rules are:
- The movie must have at least two women in it.
- The women must talk to each other.
- Their discussion must be about something other than a man.
Critics have revised and updated the Bechdel Test to suggest that the female characters should be named, say more than five words to each other, and share more than a minute of screentime. Still, the three original rules continue to be commonly used to test gender representation.
“Arrival” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Here are just a few movies that don’t pass the Bechdel Test:
- “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” (1961)
- The entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001–2003)
- “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2011)
- “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)
- “The Avengers” (2012)
- “Gravity” (2013)
- “Pacific Rim” (2013)
- “Arrival” (2016)
Many films fail. The test’s trivial nature is meant to highlight the sad state of portrayals of women in the media.
“Wonder Woman 1984” behind the scenes Courtesy Warner Bros.
Movies that pass the Bechdel Test include:
- “Kill Bill” Volumes 1 and 2 (2003–2004)
- “Frozen” (2013)
- “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
- “Hidden Figures” (2016)
- “Wonder Woman” (2017)
- “CODA” (2021)
Several unexpected movies also get a passing grade, including:
- “Weird Science” (1985)
- “Goodfellas” (1990)
- “Showgirls” (1995)
- “American Pie 2” (2001)
- “Twilight” (2008)
“Showgirls” Courtesy MGM
Arguably, the Bechdel Test is flawed. After all, some films pass the test but still feature questionable—or downright sexist—portrayals of women. The test itself is quite broad, since what counts as a conversation isn’t easy to define. A throwaway comment or derogatory line could effectively allow a movie to pass, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the project represents women well. Further, the Bechdel Test does not approach issues of intersectionality by interrogating race, sexuality, disability, or class.
But that doesn’t mean it should be discredited. Rather than taking a myopic view of the test as a comprehensive assessment of gender representation, it should be viewed as a low-barrier standard—more of a litmus test than a definitive ruling. It’s still a useful way to see if a script hits fundamental basics in its portrayal of women.
“Rap Sh!t” Credit: Alicia Vera/HBO Max
The Bechdel Test is just one means of assessing scripts. Many others can be used to gauge inclusivity and comprehensive representation, such as:
The DuVernay Test
Created by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis in 2016, this test evaluates the representation of people of color in the media. Named after director-writer-producer Ava DuVernay, according to Dargis, the test gauges whether “African Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than [serving] as scenery in white stories.”
This test seeks to encourage screenwriters and filmmakers to include complex POC characters with their own plotlines, fully developed personhood, and narrative significance.
Movies that pass the DuVernay Test include:
- “The Color Purple” (1985)
- “Daughters of the Dust” (1991)
- “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” (1993)
- “Belle” (2013)
- “Dear White People” (2017)
The Vito Russo Test
Developed by GLAAD, the Vito Russo Test—named after film historian and GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo—addresses LGBTQ+ representation. For a production to pass the test:
- At least one character must be identifiably bisexual, lesbian, gay, and/or transgender.
- This character cannot be solely defined by their sexuality or gender identity.
- This character must be integral to the plot, to the extent that if they were removed, it would have a significant effect on the story.
This test highlights the importance of including fully realized, consequential LGBTQ+ characters.
Movies that pass the Vito Russo Test include:
- “But I'm a Cheerleader” (1999)
- “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
- “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012)
- “The Imitation Game” (2014)
- “Call Me by Your Name” (2017)
- “Booksmart” (2019)
The Sexy Lamp Test
This comically named test is a thought experiment created by comic book and TV writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (“Captain Marvel”). According to her, “If you can remove a female character from your plot and replace her with a sexy lamp and your story still works, you're a hack.” These characters are not intrinsic to the narrative, meaning they could easily be removed from the story without making an impact.
Films that fail the Sexy Lamp Test include:
- “Batman” (1989)
- “Transformers” (2007)
- “Skyfall” (2012)
Like the Bechdel Test, the Sexy Lamp Test identifies flat representations of women—albeit in a more subjective way. It emphasizes the importance of including agency-driven female characters who are more than mere props.
The Mako Mori Test
This test can be seen as the spiritual successor to the Bechdel Test and a more rigorous take on the Sexy Lamp Test. Named after the character Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) from “Pacific Rim” (2013), this test was developed in reaction to the film not passing the Bechdel Test—despite Mako Mori being a complex female character.
In order for a piece of media to pass:
- It must include one or more female characters.
- These characters must have their own story arcs.
- The story arc shouldn’t exist to support a male character’s arc.
This test prioritizes the development of female characters in a qualitative (rather than quantitative) manner.
Films that pass the Mako Mori Test include:
- “Sister Act” (1992)
- “The Craft” (1996)
- “Mulan” (1998)
- “Spirited Away” (2001)
- “Moana” (2016)