Apply the Bechdel Test, with a twist, when you read, watch and write

I recently learned about the Bechdel Test for sexism in fiction. This is a way to gauge the level of sexism in a work by checking to see if it has a conversation between two women that isn’t about a man or men. It’s been on my mind for a week or so, ever since I watched the documentary “This Changes Everything,” which is about how tough it is for women in Hollywood to get jobs as directors or other male-traditional jobs, or even get good parts.

At first I thought, gee, it can’t be that rare to have two women in a movie, TV show or book talking about something other than men. Then I started paying attention. In the past week or so as I’ve watched many episodes of a well-loved ’90s sitcom, several episodes of two different BBC shows based on very popular books (both by women), a few episodes of other British and U.S. mystery series and two movies, I’ve found not only is it rare to have two women having a conversation about something other than men, it’s rare to find two women having a conversation about anything.

This eye-opener came as I was already getting irritated at the number of mystery and crime TV shows and movies I’d seen recently that had plots that involved either strip clubs or sex workers. If an alien landed on Earth and got all their knowledge about our culture from TV crime shows and movies, their conclusion would be that the best job opportunities for women are in sex work, and that many, many women spend most of their time wearing nearly nothing in order to show off their young very attractive perfect bodies. If a show or movie has a fair amount of women in it, often it’s because the show has a strip club or hooker theme.

I know many of you right now are thinking of all the exceptions to what you’ve just read. That’s great. There are exceptions. Thank goodness! But wouldn’t it be great if the exceptions were the norm?

If you want a dose of reality, here’s a Bechdel Test with a Milliken twist. (And as an aside, similar testing can be done for race, but today I’m talking about women). I’ve devised a series of questions not only to ask when I’m watching and reading, but also to ask when I’m writing. All these scenarios, if the gender were flipped, are fairly normal for male characters. Not so much for women, I’ve discovered:

A conversation — about anything — between two women

A conversation — about anything — between two named female characters

A conversation — about anything — between two women who are significant characters in the book, TV show or movie

A conversation between two women that isn’t about a man or men

A conversation between two women that’s doesn’t involve a female cop interviewing a female suspect or witness

A conversation between two women in which one later doesn’t end up being a victim (therefore the conversation is mostly an introduction set-up)

A major positive (or likable) female character who is overweight/middle-aged/considered in some way to be conventionally unattractive

A major positive (or likable) female character who is overweight/middle-aged/considered in some way to be conventionally unattractive who has a real love interest who doesn’t later turn out to be a murderer, con man etc.

Female characters central to the plot who aren’t strippers or hookers

A professional group (cops, work/professional group central to the story that’s not a group of strippers or hookers, friends group, etc.) with more than one woman or where women have representation that reflects real life

A girlfriend/wife/love interest for a male protagonist who’s his age or older (and if she is his age or older, it’s a good, strong relationship)

A strong female character who doesn’t become the love interest of the male protagonist

A strong female character who doesn’t become a victim

I’m sure that I’ll get emails from people insisting I’m overreacting, wrong, laden with examples that “prove me wrong.” Or with rationalizions as to why female characters can’t be used in stronger, better ways. Fighting it, instead of taking a deep look at it, won’t solve the problem, though. As I’ve said, I’m putting the test to my own writing going forward. My books don’t have strip clubs or sex workers — there are way too many good professions and interesting crimes for women that don’t involve further objectifying us — but on some of the other questions, I have room for improvement.

I’ve been waiting for six decades for the world to change, and in a lot of ways it has. But, in a lot of ways it hasn’t. Changing the world of fiction is a step in the right direction.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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4 Responses to Apply the Bechdel Test, with a twist, when you read, watch and write

  1. Anne Cass says:

    Startling, depressing, and inspiring…all in one post! Thanks, Maureen.

  2. Heidi Wilson says:

    Ran through my WIP — checked every box!

  3. Jane Nelson says:

    Interesting observation. Since I rarely watch television, I can’t apply it there. But I want to mention Mary Marks’ Quilting Mystery series. Her main character is a middle-aged, somewhat overweight woman, who develops a relationship with a younger man.

  4. Sandra Neily says:

    I loved THIS POST. And have shared it widely. Well done! The Milliken Twist was brilliant and useful and sadly, I don’t think the movies my Bob likes comply with most of it, but I make him watch good Brit drama and that compensates. My best to you!

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