Who Invented the Bechdel Test?

Maybe I should change the way I titled my articles, because some readers may think the answer is in it. Like with the Laws of Robotics, there’s a history behind the Bechdel Test. But first, if you don’t know what we are talking about today:

What is the Bechdel Test?

According to Merriam-Webster, the Bechdel Test is a set of criteria used as a test to evaluate a work of fiction (such as a film) on the basis of its inclusion and representation of female characters:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something other than a man.

Who Created the Bechdel Test?

Even if the name may let you think that American cartoonist Alison Bechdel invented the Bechdel Test, it’s not the case. Her work, however, popularized it, and that’s why it was named after her.

The test first appeared in Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” (which ran from 1983 to 2008 in Funny Times, and in syndication). The strip was about the lives of a diverse group of characters (most of them lesbians connected to the city’s feminist bookstore) living in a medium-sized city in the United States. It offered political and topical commentaries as well as soap opera storylines.

“The Rule” published in “Dykes to Watch Out For.”

The strip behind the test was originally published in 1985. It was called “The Rule” and was about two friends talking, one of them explaining her rules about the way she chose the movies she watched. As her friend put it, it’s “pretty strict, but a good idea.” It seems that a lot of people thought like her because it’s today considered a standard.

Alison Bechdel never claimed to be the originator of the test. In fact, she never gave it a name. She credited her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, but also the work of author Virginia Woolf—more specifically of her writing in her 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own” in which she observed that:

“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple… And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends… They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that…”

For creating the comic strip explaining the test, Alison Bechdel got the credit for the concept. She definitely had her part in it, but let’s not forget Liz Wallace’s contribution.

There’s not a complete collection of “Dykes to Watch Out For” easily available, but if you’re interested in the comic strip, you can find a great compilation in “The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For.”

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