Why We Can’t Take The Bechdel Test Seriously

By Phil James

Recently, the term “Bechdel Test” has arisen in various editorials on a number of new movies, including Linda Holmes’ take on the new female-centric comedyThe Other Woman. Based on a comment made by a character in the comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For, the term has been unofficially appropriated as a means to gauge the validity of female characters in film, literature, theater and television. Basically, if there are no scenes in a movie where two women are speaking to each other without directly or indirectly referring to relationships, then the work ultimately fails the Bechdel test. Although in its beginning it was a tongue-in-cheek jab at cardboard representations of gender in popular culture, it has recently become more prevalent for analyzing everything from recent Disney blockbusters to newer works of literature.

“Fails the Bechdel Test”

While The Bechdel Test is a fairly effective way of picking apart the stupidity of major entertainment industries, it is far too easy to use such rhetorical exercises as a means to encourage censorious behaviour. In fact, I believe that the test goes against what many writers of both sexes have been trying to defy for the latter half of the 20th century.

Postmodernism, a term thrown around Ad Nauseum, is too difficult to define in a single sentence let alone article, but at the core of the postmodern ethos is a skepticism against preconceived narratives that govern the way we read cultural artefacts. Fiction writers like Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift and Margaret Atwood have challenged the authority of history books with their novels, while playwrights like Caryl Churchill and David Hwang have challenged gender roles in the hopes of dissolving rigid binaries that still remain prevalent in contemporary society. What postmodernism allows is for discourse to remain in flux, not suppressed by narratives or larger institutions that want to suppress the dissemination of ideas.

You may be thinking that The Bechdel Test is included in this paradigm, and in many ways, it is; if we can pick apart rigid gender binaries and open our eyes to who we really are as people, perhaps we can use art to learn a lot more about ourselves. On the other hand, using the Bechdel Test to delegitimize a work of art is equally harmful, as it implies that the work is only permissible if it follows a certain set of pre-ordained characteristics. Muzzling an author based on requirements they may not have even considered is falling into a trap that authors of both genders have fought against for decades.

It is worth noting that the genre of The Other Woman, comedy, has origins closely tied to romance. The Comedy–be it yesterday’s Shakespeare or today’s Apatow–stems from the original Athenian conception of performance, which involved the convergence of the community to experience collective, emotional catharsis. Aristotle, who outlined the role of the comedy in his Poetics, believed that comedies worked best when, through a series of mistakes, misunderstandings and general buffoonery, audiences were able to recognize the excesses and exaggerations of the actors. What they promoted were moderation or a particular middle-ground where veracity would triumph over mendacity. Bringing the community together to reflect upon their behaviour and promote honesty in courtship and marriage served a specific purpose in society.


That’s not to say that marriage is required in a comedy, but the desired effect of bringing an audience together and laugh has traditionally been rooted in society-building. I’m not saying that comedies are inherently non-sexist because of this, but it is rare that comedies deviate from a formula where love–on either side of the gender–does not play a part in moving the plot forward. Websites strictly devoted to the analysis of whether or not a text passes question playwrights like Shakespeare for their potential sexism, but characters like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Katherine in The Taming of The Shrew openly call out the idiocy of male courtship, and although they become “subject” to marriage by the end of the plays, their wit often defers the feeble words of her suitors.

Alison Bechdel herself is a wonderful writer of graphic memoirs, my favorite being her introspective nonfiction, Are You My Mother?, about trying to reconnect with her mother and be accepted after decades of tension. The book, however, leaves out a major character: her father. After telling a fellow reader about it during a discussion, they just looked at me and laughed, and told me that her first graphic memoir, Fun Home, is actually all about her father. My point is that all works of fiction and literature must leave particular items out to reach their desired end, and for many works, certain conversations will never see the light of day, simply because they don’t need to. Some works will inevitable have flat characters who happen to be women, and some may not contain women at all. Some may not contain men, either.

With that in mind, a lot of pulp literature and popcorn cinema is sexist, and I’m not trying to divert attention away from the objectification of men and women that Hollywood producers consistently use to make a quick buck. That being said, The Bechdel Test should not be a requirement to gauge the legitimacy of a work, because doing so will often ignore the context of the work itself, and will only bring the focus back to gender when a work may actually be about nationalism, courage, loneliness or even the rights of bees. The test is a fun rhetorical exercise, but it cannot be a serious tool of analysis, unless your study of literature and film rests solely on the teller and not the tale.

10 Essential Comic Books and Graphic Novels

Here are ten graphic novels and comic books worth a look. The list explores many groundbreaking works that have kept the medium popular well into the information age. Let us know about your essential reading lists in the comments.

1. Blankets – Craig Thompson


Blankets is an autobiographical story about Craig Thompson’s childhood and adolescence, growing up in an Evangelical Christian family, and documenting his renunciation of the faith. Through his retelling of his early life, Thompson shows us repressed memories covered up with childhood imaginations, guides us through the fantasies of teenage romance and heartbreak, and explains that during those periods of our lives, many of the obvious facts that we learn as we grow are still unknown to us.

Why you should read it now

If you ever feel yourself confused by the rampant emotions of younger generations, this book is a humbling and humanizing reminder of how difficult growing up is.


2. Maus – Art Spiegelman:


 Maus brought a lot of attention to the medium through its controversial anthropomorphic depiction of the Holocaust–Jews are portrayed as mice, Nazis as cats, Americans as dogs and the Polish as pigs. Maus is not only a historical piece, but also an introspective story that explains the survivor’s guilt shared among historians and authors who study the Holocaust. Spiegelman used his father, a Holocaust survivor, as his source, and struggled to fully capture the pain that his father went through.

Why you should read it now

We find ourselves and Spiegelman trying and failing to understand that amount of suffering, Maus is a meditation on the sorrows of not knowing a loved one’s pain.


3. Sandman – Author- Neil Gaiman, Artist- Various through the series:


Sandman follows the incarnation of dreams, Dream, and his brothers and sisters, Death, Delirium, Despair, Desire, Destiny and the retired Destruction, collectively known as the Endless. Gaiman uses these characters to explore philosophical themes by having them discuss and question the absolutism of their existence. Supporting characters include a suave & fashionable Lucifer, the biblical Cain, who obsessive-compulsively murders a reincarnating Abel, and the ghost of Richard Nixon, who harasses a future president through his dreams.

Why you should read it now

Effortlessly blending mythology, fantasy,history and philosophy, Sandman is without a doubt one of the most thought-provoking comic series ever written, and is worth reading for a multitude of reasons, if only to be immersed in the brilliant universe Gaiman has created.


4. Kick Ass – Author: Mark Millar, Artist: John Romita, Jr., Inker – Tom Palmer, Colourist – Dean White


Kick-Ass puts forward a semi-realistic view on what would happen if a teenager decided to act on his fantasies and become a superhero. It goes about as well as you’d expect, and that’s why you need to read it. Kick-Ass is completely devoid of catharsis and Millar’s bleak and borderline nihilistic storyline is perfectly complemented by Romita, Jr.’s art, which is intentionally sloppy and visceral. Kick-Ass should be read understanding that there isn’t going to be a happy ending, and even then, you will constantly find yourself surprised by how horrible everything ends up.

Why you should read it now

Millar has said that Kick-Ass is based on his own fantasies from adolescence and coming to terms with how terribly they would have concluded, and if there’s ever been a comic that could remind us that our fantasies don’t always go as planned, it’s Kick Ass.


5. Planetary – Author: Warren Ellis, Artist: John Cassaday, Colours: Laura Martin


Planetary is an organization dedicated to investigating the paranormal, metaphysical and pseudoscientific history of the world. Ellis’ series is based off of this organization interacting with alternate versions of popular fiction and science-fiction characters, such as the Justice League, Godzilla, and Tarzan. Not only do these alternate versions deconstruct the original stories of these characters, but Ellis also manages to interweave an original story explaining the origins of the Planetary group itself.

Why you should read it now

Planetary is a phenomenal exploration of the origins of pulp culture, and a self-aware yet non-contrived commentary on how many of these characters would be seen if created in modern times. It would also be inconceivable to mention Planetary without praising John Cassaday and Laura Martin’s absolutely stunning art.


6. Y: The Last Man – Author: Brian K. Vaughan. Artist: Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka, Paul Chadwick. Inker: Jose Marzan, Jr.


When a mysterious plague kills every mammal with a Y chromosome on earth, except for amateur magician Yorick Brown and his monkey, Ampersand, they are contacted by secret agent 355, who is tasked with escorting them to Boston where they can be studied. While ‘Y: The Last Man’ sometimes struggles with its feminist themes, the subplot is clear; Yorick is an average feminist-leaning male who has been thrown into a radically different woman’s world.

Why you should read it now

Both the character and the book are perfect examples of patriarchal men trying to understand the feminist perspective and having difficulty. It’s a touching and well-written story about a man and his monkey, wrapped in an endearingly and frustratingly naïve attempt at feminism.


7. Watchmen – Author: Alan Moore, Artist: Dave Gibbons, Colours: John Higgins


If you haven’t read Watchmen, go read it right now. Seriously, go read it. Arguably the single most important comic book in the genre, Watchmen is about superheroes whose political views, personal values, and interwoven histories clash in one of the most spectacular tour de force. ‘Watchmen’ is one of the most stunningly written critiques of the superhero genre, capitalist culture and the nuclear arms race. Watchmen is also the only comic book to be featured on the Time Magazine’s 100 All-Time Novels List

Why you should read it now

A portrayal of starkly different philosophies on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, ‘Watchmen’ showed the world that comics could be just as intelligent, poignant, and influential as any other medium.


8. Alison Bechdel – Fun Home/Are You My Mother?


Bechdel revisits her past in two separate books, the first chronicling the life and death of her father, the other her mother. The story is told through non-linear vignettes, going through her youth, her formative years and early adulthood as she tries to come to terms with a past that lingers in every frame.

Why you should read it now

The graphic novels are funny and heartbreaking, but each frame is replete with internal references and hidden messages that turn the story into an introspective view of a melancholic but beautiful mind. Bechdel’s work is unsettling but it captures the difficulty of a life full of unanswered questions.

9. Pyongyang: Journey in North Korea – Guy Delisle


A non-fiction diary about a French-Canadian animator’s stay in North Korea, Guy Delisle spent two months overseeing an animation project that was outsourced to the isolated nation. In Pyongyang, he describes how truly bizarre the country really is; visitors are accompanied by tour guides almost everywhere they go, at night all the lights turn off except those illuminating the Leaders’ faces, and it’s mandatory that civilians wear a pin with Kim il-Sung’s or Kim-Jong Il’s face on it.

Why you should read it now

Pyongyang provides amazing insight into what North Korea is like by showing it through the eyes of a normal Westerner, not a photographer or a journalist, who are generally seeking something to bring out of the country. An intimate look at the shortcomings of the last bastion of Stalinism in the world.


10. Scott Pilgrim – Bryan Lee O’Malley:

 Graphic ScottPilgrim

Scott Pilgrim has to fight Ramona Flowers’ seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to date her. ‘Scott Pilgrim’ is on this list because it shows that for comic books to be taken seriously comic books don’t always have to be serious. The book is hilarious, juvenile, and fantastically written. The main character is an unemployed twenty-something who simultaneously takes his life too seriously and not seriously enough. O’Malley has captured what it is to be a young adult in metropolitan North America in the 21 st century, condensed it, and turned it into a book that both lampoons and applauds indie culture.

Why you should read it now

After you read all the heartbreaking and soul crushing books on this list, Scott Pilgrim acts as a great reminder that comics don’t have to be too cerebral to be enjoyed.