The Betchdel Test (And Others)

Feminism.

Oh god, I’ve said it, I’ve said the dirty word.

You can practically see the poison ooze off the letters, threatening to destroy the rest of the words on this very page. Yes, I am a filthy, dirty feminist. Worse yet, I am a scary feminist writer. A witch! Burn me at the stake!

Sarcasm aside, I’d like to take a minute to talk about feminism in media, namely the tests that most works are put to. Without any further ado, let’s start with the most common test.

The Betchdel Test

Created by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, this test has three parts.

  1. There must be two women in the work who
  2. talk to each other
  3. about something besides a man.

That’s all there is to it. In some versions of the test, the two women who speak must have names that the audience have heard at least once. This test has received a lot of flack over the years, because A) many people believe that stories should be told without a need for female to female interaction, and B), two women talking to each other doesn’t make it a feminist-friendly story.

Let’s work backwards on this one and start with point B. The Betchdel test is not meant to be a be-all-end-all of whether a work is a work that exercises feminism. It’s a baseline, it’s a “wow, you can’t even have two girls talking to each other about something other than how much they love/hate/what to help one of the men in the story? That’s… that’s pretty sad.” It is not meant to create feminist works, it’s a sign of how unequally females are treated in literature, video games, movies, comics… you name it.

As for point A, I want you to think of your closest female friend. They probably have other female friends, right? They talk about things? That aren’t males? That’s realistic. The idea that two female characters in a story shouldn’t have to talk about anything besides a man simply isn’t realistic. You owe it to your readers (at the very least, your female readers!) to have at least a single non-male-centric conversation between your girls. (If your argument is “my story is a male-centric book set in a future where females aren’t relevant for any reason I can think of,” please, write a new story. We have enough of those.)

It’s worth noting that there is another version of this test where two POC have to talk to each other about something other than a white person. Which is still definitely not passed very often because “why do I need to pepper my work with POC? It just looks like I’m pandering to the SJW audience!” Yeah, no, please go walk through a major city and watch how many non-white people interact with each other.

The Sexy Lamp Test

The lamp I always see in my head with this test.

Created by Marvel Comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, this test is a pretty easy one.

  1. Replace the females in your story with sexy lamps. Does your story still work?
  2. If yes, you’re a hack.

Pretty simple, right? So simple that you’d think you wouldn’t need a test for it. But, alas, the fact that this test exists is, again, a sign of how bad women in media have it. This test is to keep women from being objects. Does your female character do anything significant, or are they simply there for eye candy? To be the damsel in distress and/or prize for another character?

And, just to be clear, just barely passing this test in any capacity is going to make your fanbase angry at you. If you’re going to have your character do something to un-sexy-lamp-ify them, do not make it a single thing, and then go back to them being a sexy lamp. Technically, Asuna passed this test in season 2 of Sword Art Online, because she managed to escape and get the key item for her heroic savior to use later. But for the rest of the season, let’s get real, she was a sexy lamp inside a giant birdcage.

That face basically describes how I felt about it too.

The Mako Mori Test

Coined for Mako Mori in Pacific Rim, this test is has been touted as the “replacement test” for the Betchdel Test.

  1. Your work must contain at least one female character
  2. who gets her own narrative
  3. that is not about supporting a man’s story.

Again, like all the other tests listed, passing this test does not automatically make your work feminist. This is a reminder that the bar is set super low. Daily Dot writes:

The application of this test might enable interesting discussions of feminism surrounding films which typically seem to be steamrollered by their failure to pass Bechdel. For instance, while Avengers barely managed to have two women on screen at the same time, much less conversant with each other, it had a female character, Black Widow, whose narrative arc was a major driving force of the plot. Using the Mako Mori Test as a measurement of whether Avengers is a feminist film or not points the focus away from the film’s small quantity of women and towards the way Black Widow is demonstrably capable of commanding her own storyline.

The Tauriel Test

A test that not many know (but I love) made by Jenn Northington, “which i made in response to The Hobbit 2, which passes and Skyfall, which fails.”

  1. There is a woman
  2. who is good at her job.

That’s it. That’s literally it. It astounds me that this test needs to exist. But think about it; how much media do you consume where there’s a woman who can’t do what she is supposed to do? And I mean, it is a task that she should be able to accomplish, given her character and characteristics. There are a lot of things that don’t pass this test in order to make the man look better; he swoops in and does what needs doing, to save the woman from herself and her inadequacy.

Women in Fridges and Tupperware

I’m fairly sure most of my readers are aware of the term “fridging” or “stuffed into the fridge” and what it means, but just in case, when you fridge a character, you kill them off solely to insult, hurt, or cause anguish in another character. This is often followed by the character who was meant to be hurt by, surprise, being hurt, and growing as a character through their pain and suffering. Long story short; you kill off a character in order to progress the growth of another character through loss. It’s gross, and it happens way too often. To pass this test, you

  1. Don’t do any of that.

Women in Tupperware is a similar, except rather than killing the female character, “they incapacitate her during a high stakes plot point and seal her away to preserve her freshness.” So, the female isn’t killed specifically so she can be just as pretty as she was before her little accident. This sort of thing often leads to damsels in distress or prizes. To pass this test, once again, you

  1. Don’t do any of that.

The Russo Test

This test is for LGBTAQ characters. To pass this test, you must

  1. Have a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, asexual, and/or some form of queer
  2. that is not predominantly defined by their sexual orientation and gender, and
  3. they must be tied to the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.

This prevents A) the erasure of LGBTAQ characters, and B) fresh-out-of-the-box sassy gay friend characters. If you don’t know how to write a non-straight or non-cis character, I have a really quick hint; you write them the same as you would your “normal” characters. LGBTAQ people are, first and foremost, people. The only difference is the gender they like, or the gender they identify as.

“But what about men?”

If you take all these tests and flip them backwards, so that men (and straight cis people and white people) are the ones under the microscope, your story is much more likely to pass. That’s because the “default” setting is straight cis white male. You see more of them well-written in media than any other character. So, yes, while gender equality means equality for men as well, we live in a world where men don’t face the kind of inequality that others do. Especially in media.

“But I don’t wanna!”

If the take-away point from this post is, for you, that you don’t have to do any of this because you know what’s best for your story, you’re right. You’re the author. But your story is going to be much less realistic that is could be, you’re going to end up driving away people who could be your fans, and there’s a good chance that you’re at least a little bit misogynistic.

It is important to note that these tests do not immediately make your work a feminist-friendly work; they are the foundation for building a feminist-friendly work. If someone accuses you of having a work that isn’t feminist, your answer shouldn’t be “but it passes Betchdel! I made sure I didn’t have any sexy lamps!” it should be “can you explain why, so I can understand and do better in the future?” While you will have people who will nitpick just to nitpick, you will also have people who just want to see better representation in their media.

Questions? Comments? Feminist witch trials? Feel free to leave them in the comments!

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