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Hamlet and the Bechdel Test

October 21, 2009
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So, some of you may have heard of the Bechdel or Bechdel-Wallace test, so called because it was outlined by Alison Bechdel in Dykes To Watch Out For, crediting “a tip o’ the pen to Liz Wallace”. It’s also occasionally called the Mo Movie Measure, after a character in the strip. It goes like this.

A film/book/etc. passes the Bechdel test if and only if:

1) it has at least two female characters
2) who talk to each other
3) about something other than a man.

The Bechdel test came up in conversation this afternoon in conversation with my friend Seamus, from whose previous appearance on this blog may be deduced a propensity for literary silliness similar to mine. It started when we were discussing our respective NaNovels, and ended up with our going through every work of literature we could think of and trying to remember if, and if so to what degree, they passed the Bechdel Test.

After some thought, we invented a set of subcategories to clarify exactly how well/badly things passed/failed:

1) Pass with Distinction – passes the test on the first page, and passes consistently throughout
2) Pass with Merit – passes consistently throughout
3) Simple Pass
4) Third-Degree Fail – fulfils criteria 1 and 2, but not 3
5) Second-Degree Fail – fulfils criterion 1, but not 2 or 3
6) First-Degree Fail – does not fulfil any of the criteria
7) Super Fail – a special category, featuring those works that feature only one woman who only talks about men even when talking to men.

The most disturbing thing about the whole process was how many classic and rightly beloved works of literature fail, and in some cases fail spectacularly. Even authors we both thought of as forward-thinking and/or of arguably (we do literature. If you can argue for something, it counts) feminist sensibilities scored low.

Shakespeare’s record, for example, is surprising: a healthy string of passes (including Othello, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth) and a pile of fails (including The Tempest, first-degree fail; Troilus and Cressida, second-degree fail; Hamlet, third-degree fail [Gertrude and Ophelia exchange only a few lines, and they’re about Hamlet]; the other Histories; Julius Caesar, second-degree fail).

Other random examples: Sophocles’ Antigone, third-degree fail; Oedipus the King, first-degree fail; Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, third-degree fail; Oliver Twist, pass; Little Women, pass with distinction; Paradise Lost, super fail; The Turn of the Screw, pass with merit; 1984, third-degree fail; Moll Flanders, pass with merit; The Silmarillion, third-degree fail; Lord of the Rings, second-degree fail; The Handmaid’s Tale, pass with merit; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, pass; Of Mice and Men, first-degree fail; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, second-degree fail; Beowulf, second-degree fail.

It looks like a fairly mixed bag, but still: that string of fails. Hell, Hamlet fails. The single most famous piece of literature in English fails the Bechdel test. What does that say?

Partly what it shows, of course, is that a work of literature can be great despite the under-representation of women. That’s more than adequately proved by looking at the examples above. It also shows that there are plenty of great works which show women consistently and three-dimensionally. In light of which, I’m sure there are people who will basically ask “What’s the problem?” Why does it matter?

The answer is most easily provided by reversing the question. How many works of literature are there which feature at least two men, who talk to one another, about something other than women? The answer has to number in the millions. For one thing, every single one of the works listed above passes, unequivocally, with the possible exception of The Turn of the Screw (which still passes if you include the prologue). When there’s a discrepancy that glaring, something is clearly wrong.

What can we do, given that editing extra women into the classics isn’t an option? I think the solution, or at least the best approach, is twofold: firstly, as readers, to use the Bechdel test and call attention to those instances where works fail for no terrifically good reason. (A ‘good reason’ to fail would be something like Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, which is set first in a monastic citadel, then in a pastiche of Ancient Greece, then in a battle, and makes the point several times that all three of these environments are distinctly woman-free.) And secondly, as writers, to plan our own works so they pass the Bechdel test, hopefully to the point where it becomes second nature.

Disclaimer: The only books we had on us when we worked these out were two copies of Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays, from the seminar we’d just been to. If you can provide counter-examples to the verdicts on any of the works mentioned, please post them in comments!

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. S. G. permalink
    October 22, 2009 2:35 pm

    Ah, I thought this might turn up on here. The vanishingly rare instance of failure in the reverse Bechdel test tells its own story. Most of the works I can think of which do fail it do so because they are deliberately structured that way: I think I mentioned Eight Women. Incidentally, out of the three Pedro Almodóvar films I’ve seen, only Bad Education passes the reverse Bechdel test.

    I am grieved to see that the book we once crowned as the best ever fails the Bechdel test, though now that I think of it 1984 is pretty male. I think Brave New World might get a bare pass: I’d have to look back at it.

  2. S. G. permalink
    October 22, 2009 2:45 pm

    PS. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a second-degree fail, with special extra certification for containing no interesting character on the part of the female characters it does contain.

  3. wickedday permalink
    October 22, 2009 4:42 pm

    Yes, I was upset to realise that 1984 failed. Also, I seem to have listed it as a third-degree fail, when if anything it’s a second. There’s Julia, and Mrs Parsons and a few randoms, but I don’t think any two of them ever hold a conversation.

    Brave New World opens, as I recollect, with a conversation between Fanny and Lenina Crowne. I know some of it is about who they’ve respectively recently had, but not all I don’t think …? Do they talk about their work? I’d be inclined to think it passes, but I don’t have a copy to hand …

    Watchmen passes, and Sandman passes so hard so often it deserves special recognition; there’s even at least one story which fails the reverse Bechdel (I’m thinking of “Façade” in volume 3.)

  4. S. G. permalink
    October 23, 2009 2:23 pm

    Good old Watchmen. There’s something specially Bechdelian in a mother-daughter conversation on the subject of kicking ass.

  5. October 26, 2009 12:03 am

    Fanny and Lenina also talk about their Malthusian drills, pregnancy surrogates and a few other things. I think it passes.

  6. wickedday permalink
    October 26, 2009 1:15 pm

    AngeliaSparrow, thanks for clarifying that 😀 Another one for the list . . .

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  1. The Bechdel Test and some obvservations on it « This Wicked Day

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