Jo Talks Books: On My Bechdel Test Experiment

Hi everyone! So it’s almost the end of 2018 (how did that happen?), and with that, I thought for my final discussion post of the year, I’d talk about a little experiment I’ve been running with my books this year. At the beginning of the year, I decided that one of my resolutions would be to analyse the books I read against the Bechdel Test, a test that looks at female representation in media, by asking three simple questions: a) are there two (or more) named female characters, b) who talk to each other and c) about something other than a man. This sounds like a pretty easy test to pass, but it’s actually more difficult than you would think. It’s usually used for films, but I figured why not try it on books? It’s been quite a fun and interesting little experiment and I thought I’d share the results with you guys here.

So I read 35 books this year, more than 2016, slightly less than 2017. Of those 35 books, a pleasing 24 of them passed the Bechdel Test, whilst 11 of them did not. In this post, I’m going to take a closer look at the books that did and didn’t pass the test, and look at some of the limitations of the Bechdel Test as well, since it’s not a perfect science.

Almost all of the books I read which passed the test were written by female authors, and had female main characters (the only one which passed the test and was written by a male author was Midnight by Derek Landy, but the main character in the book is female. VE Schwab’s Vicious was the only one with a male main character that still passed the test, but in that case, the author is female). I don’t know how much of this was just that I read more female written and female led stories than not, and 35 is a relatively small sample size, so I can’t really conclude anything definitive from this, only that the books I read, the ones written by women with female lead characters were more likely to pass the test than others.

I will say that one issue of using the Bechdel Test on books is that because of the nature of the test, it is somewhat biased against books that are told from a male main character’s perspective. Because the test requires two named female characters to speak to each other about something which isn’t a man, if the book is narrated by a male character, the likelihood of two female characters speaking without the male character present is highly unlikely, so even if the book does have good representation of women, it will automatically fail the test because the narrator is male.

This happened for me with The Burning Maze and A Thousand Perfect Notes-both books have quite nuanced, interesting female characters, but because they are narrated by a male main character, they automatically fail because the male character is always involved in their conversation in some way-we are seeing it through their eyes. This also happened with Firestarter, the book has plenty of wonderful female characters, Daphne, Cassie, Leila, Jo, Charlotte etc but because the main character is male, all of their conversations revolve around him and the one conversation that would have counted, between Daphne and her mother, fails because Daphne’s mother is not given a name, she is merely Mrs Richards.

The opposite of this problem is Vicious, which is a male led book that does pass the Bechdel Test, but it really only does so on a technicality-there is a brief conversation between Sydney and Serena that is not about men. That’s not to say that Sydney and Serena aren’t well drawn characters, they are, but it is definitely the men (Victor and Eli) who are the stars of that story, and Sydney and Serena are very much supporting. This is one of the reasons why I’m so excited for Vengeful, because we get to see the women in charge!

There were two books I read this year that failed because they only had one named female character in them: the first was Fawkes, the only main female character was Emma, the love interest of the narrator, Thomas, and I was actually pretty disappointed that this book failed the test, because it would have been easy enough to give Emma a female friend to talk to, and Emma was such a great character, it seemed a shame that Fawkes failed simply because she was the only one there. The other book was Not If Save You First, where Maddie was the only named female character in the book, which again, how difficult is it to just have one other female character who has a name? It’s a low bar people, low bar.

Then there were the books that failed because their conceit demanded it. For instance, Louise O’Neill’s Almost Love failed the test by design, because the only thing that Sarah can talk about to her friends is Matthew, since she’s in a toxic, obsessive relationship with him. In this case, the failure of the test works quite well for the book, because it shows how deep Sarah is in with this man, that he is affecting every part of her life. The other book which failed because its conceit demanded it was Night of Cake and Puppets-it’s the story of Zuzana and Mik’s first date in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone world and whilst Karou does pop up from time to time via text, their conversations do revolve around Mik, since that’s what the book is about-honestly I would have been quite surprised had the book passed.

Finally we come to the books that should have passed the test but didn’t. Hero At The Fall for instance, should have passed the test. It had numerous named female characters: Leyla, Shazad, Amani, her aunt whose name I can’t remember right now, but she definitely had one, there were so many opportunities for this book to pass the test and yet it just didn’t because whenever the female characters were together, they were talking about the men in the book. Wintersong had Liesel, her sister and her grandmother, there were enough women there to pass and yet, not a single conversation that didn’t revolve around a man. Sea Witch had Evie and Annemette, it would have been so easy for them to talk about something other than Iker and Nik and yet…..nope, that’s all they could talk about! If I found a mermaid, I would have far more questions about that than about her crush on a boy. The Enchanted Sonata had Clara and Zizi and yet the two of them barely interacted, it would have been so easy for them to have a short conversation that wasn’t about Nutcracker and yet again, there was nothing.

Then we come onto the books that did pass. There was a lot of variation between them as to the level of interaction between female characters and discussions of things other than men. There were the books that obviously and definitively passed, like The Exact Opposite of Okay, A Spark of Light, Rose Under Fire, Moxie, Things A Bright Girl Can Do which had numerous named female characters and multiple conversations between them that were not about men.

There were those that did pass, but at the lowest level of the test, they met the requirements but that was about it. By A Charm and Curse was one of those books, had it not been for a conversation between Emma and her best friend about food at the beginning of the book, it probably wouldn’t have passed. Vicious only passes on the basis of a brief conversation between Serena and Sydney. The Hazel Wood, I had to hunt very hard and it was only at the end of the book that I found a conversation which counted. For A Muse of Fire only passed based on a brief conversation between Jetta and Cheeky about clothes and Tower of Dawn because of a brief conversation between Yrene and Hafiza about healing (although with the latter two, I would argue that both have good representation of women, even if it was difficult to find conversations that weren’t about men, these women have agency and their plots do not entirely revolve around the men in their lives).

The problem with the Bechdel Test is that it’s not the most sophisticated test in the world, it’s relatively easy to pass, but just because a book passes, doesn’t necessarily mean that it has great representation of women because all it requires to pass is literally a few short sentences exchanged that aren’t about men. It also doesn’t say anything about race representation, or sexuality representation, or disability representation, so you can have a book pass the test purely on the presence of straight, cis, ablebodied white women and I’m sure none of us would say that’s the best or only representation of women we want in our books.

It is also as I have already explored, incredibly biased towards female led or multiple POV books, male POV books largely don’t stand a chance of passing the test, even if they do have valid and nuanced representations of women because it’s a lot harder to include a conversation between two women that the POV character (in this case, the man) is not included in.

The Bechdel Test is designed to favour quantity of female interactions in books, rather than quality, a book that has a two sentence exchange can pass, where a book with a great, nuanced representation of women can fail because there is only one woman present, even if the representation of that one woman in that book is better than the two sentence exchange in the book that passed. Some of the books that failed have great, complex multifaceted female characters, and the fact that they don’t pass an arbitrary test, doesn’t take that away. However, it doesn’t always have to be quantity over quality, all the books I talked about above, which had multiple female characters with multiple interactions, had both: they had complex, nuanced female characters and they had multiple interactions, so it is possible to not favour quality over quantity, but by design of the test, that is what tends to happen.

I also think that using the Bechdel Test as an indicator of how feminist a work is as opposed to a marker of female presence is a big mistake, because often so many of the conversations that we have as feminist involve men, so therefore they wouldn’t pass the test! The Bechdel Test was never meant to be some complicated test of how feminist a piece of work is, it’s a simple, by the numbers test, to see how often women talk to each other about non-man related things in a piece of media. A book could pass the test and still be sexist, whilst a very feminist book could fail-it’s not a perfect science, nor was it ever intended to be.

It’s also quite difficult to work out what counts as a conversation, so it’s very often up to the person doing the analyzing, what books I think pass the Bechdel test, someone else might think don’t because we have different ideas about what counts as a conversation.

Overall, I’ve had a fun year applying the Bechdel test to my reading and it’s been quite eye opening to see what has/hasn’t passed the test. I think I’m going to carry on doing it into next year, because it’s quite fun to do, it’s not something I see on any other blogs and I’d like to have a larger sample size to see if the results from this year carry on into next year (or if I have a larger proportion of one or the other!). One thing I think I’m going to change though, is putting the Bechdel Test rating at the top of my reviews, so you guys don’t have to scroll all the way through to find them if you’re interested!

I’m going to have another discussion post for you quite soon, my first of 2019, as I want to talk about my 2019 Reading/Writing/Life Resolutions! In the meantime, I will have my last review of the year and my End of Year Check In up hopefully tomorrow, my End of Year Check In will definitely be tomorrow, my last review of the year might end up being my first review of 2019!


2 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On My Bechdel Test Experiment

  1. Jolien @ The Fictional Reader December 31, 2018 / 8:54 am

    This is such an interesting experiment! I loved reading your conclusions, and am quite surprised about some of them. I did read Hero at the Fall but didn’t even realize there wasn’t a single conversation between the female characters that didn’t mention the men at some point. I think I’ll try to be more observant in my reading next year, and try to see how the books I read would do on this test – just as an interesting observation for myself

    I hope you’ll write more posts on your experiment in 2019, because I’d love to read them! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • iloveheartlandx December 31, 2018 / 3:41 pm

      Thanks! Honestly that’s why I did it, because it does help you become more aware of things that you honestly never would have thought of before. I figured pretty much everything I read would pass, and as you can see-they didn’t! Hero at The Fall really did surprise me in that respect because the female characters in that are so well drawn, I was shocked that they never had anything to talk about other than men. I would definitely encouraging trying this-it’s a lot of fun and really opens your eyes about what you’re reading! I will definitely try to post more about my little experiment next year ๐Ÿ™‚

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