Farmer in the dell, writer in the Bechdel

I was recently listening to the Scriptnotes podcast, Bechdel and Batman episode 91 and while the usefulness of the Bechdel test in Superhero movies was interesting, I first had to find out what the heck is a Bechdel Test? After a quick google, I realized it is also a very good writer’s tool.

The Bechdel index is used to determine the role of women in a movie. To pass the test, three conditions must be met. When I first heard of it I rolled my eyes but when I saw the criteria, I shook my head. It was quite obvious to me that meeting the criteria would insure the women in your work are real and not merely accessories. In the course of a day, I might talk to a friend about my husband but if he was all I talked about, that would be very boring.women-3

Bechdel Rule is a simple test, which
requires the following three criteria to pass:
(1) it has to have at least two [named] women in it, who
(2) who talk to each other, about
(3) something besides a man.

I like to develop a character through her conversations with another woman than a man. Women show a vital other side to their personality when talking to other women. And then contrasting what a woman says about the same topic to a man gives a full experience. With whom is she being honest? Does she share of withhold? How does she treat other women? As rivals or sisters? Does she mentor young women or see them as threats? Does a young woman look to an older woman for advice or does she reject her for being old? You can really toss the baby out with the bath water when you ignore women-to-women dialogue.

So, I grabbed a few books and looked at two women talking. It was a bit enlightening. It was rare for two women to have a dialogue that did not revolve around issues she is having in her love live. The other woman is as flat as a mirror and I am quite sure in real life, her friends might start avoiding her. Comparing lists of movies that passed and failed, I could see that it’s just lazy development to have unnamed women in a movie who never speak to each other. Also, a mistake IMHO…


Think about it, if you were planning on eavesdropping in a coffee shop, where will you sit? Near the young couple giving each other googly eyes? Or near two women, heads together, engaging in an energetic dialogue?

How to identify your 2-dimensional women? Try this site: Female Character Flow Chart 

Of course, this should not be just a light bulb moment, but the beginning of a natural way of looking at all characters. It’s too easy and sloppy to use a female character as a generic writer’s device. The generic heroine is often built on stereo types and biases, which alienate your readers and might even get you some unpleasant attention.

Look at your character sketches and ask if this is a real person or a literary device. Your reader will only care about a character they believe, they will care nothing for a paper doll. Is your Native American a mystical shaman or a father with a wife, children and mortgage? Is the blonde bank teller stupid? Lazy, lazy, lazy! –you owe more to your craft and your readers. And if you are writing YA, what are you perpetuating in the minds of the next generation?


I was reminded of a recent movie I watched, The Women, with a fun cast of women: Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing,Jada Pinkett Smith, Carrie Fisher, Candice Bergen, Bette Midler, Cloris Leachman, Debi Mazar. The scene that stuck me at the end was when Debra Messing gave birth surrounded by her friends and it was so natural and beautiful. I had to admit to myself that I would probably prefer having my friends with me too. Not that I don’t love my husband and he is my best friend but there is a wonderful and special bond among women. I have spent long periods of time without a man in my life and recently without a female friend, gotta admit the latter was the sadder time. To omit this powerful dynamic in our writing is really missing out a necessary aspect of a heroine’s character.

The 1994 movie Camila with Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda was a delightful example of two woman bonding across an age span of seventy years! The movie is held together by the women’s relationship and Jessica Tandy’s amazing character, which can only blossom with Fonda, who sees her as a mentor. It almost feels like we evolve with Fonda’s character through knowing Tandy. And then everyone, even her son who has been painted as a baboon is redeemed, then we  really appreciate and believe her running off with her long lost love.

If you found this interesting, you might also enjoy reading the following:
Bechdel Test
10 Films that Surprisingly Fail the Bechdel Test
TV Tropes Bechdel Test
Geek feminism Bechdel Test
TVtropes Deggans Rule (race)
TVTropes Native Americans

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. natalieratcliffe
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 01:18:23

    Fantastic post!! I have often gotten frustrated with books and movies and completely stopped reading, zoned out, or quit watching when the women on the screen were glittering accessories and didn’t have any substance. This is definitely something I want to avoid.

    As women, we have so many different facets of who we are and what we are about, our dreams, our fears, our loves, our joys, our stories. All of the introductions of the women who write for Mimosa gives the world a small glimpse of who we are as authors and as women and none of it shows only one aspect of ourselves. If we are three dimensional, and we enjoy women who are, then you are absolutely right, our characters should be the same.

    Thanks again Cris for a very thought provoking post!


  2. CristineGzr
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 07:12:10

    Thanks Natalie! You are sweet as only another woman can be! We reveal a lot and provide texture and emotion. Yesterday, was preparing my first 25 pages for entry into a contest and my WIP’s early women characters. I had written a spa owner as Natasha from the Bullwinkle cartoons, and like all cartoons,she had no depth. I realized Natasha must become a friend and confidante. And provide the heroine a whole new emotional layer which developed the intrigue and conflict by contrasting the WIP’s murderer’s pathology. Obviously, you never know where she’ll lead you, when you respect a woman.


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