Jo Talks Books: On Year 3 Of My Bechdel Test Experiment

Hi everyone! I meant to do this post at the end of last year, but I just didn’t have time for it, so I moved it to the beginning of this year. This has become an annual thing since 2018 when I first started analysing the books I read to see if they passed the Bechdel Test, and I like to wrap up my thoughts at the end of each year to see if I can see any trends or patterns emerging in the books I read that passed. For anyone who may not have heard of the Bechdel Test, it’s a (admittedly flawed) test of female representation in media, usually used for films. The three criteria for passing the test are as follows: a) there have to be two or more female characters, b) who talk to each other & c) about something other than a man.

Last year I read 45 books, and of those, I analysed 38 of them. 7 were left out of my data, because for 4, I honestly just wasn’t able to keep track of incidences where they passed the Bechdel Test (most were audiobooks and for some reason I find those harder to analyse for passing material), one was a non-fiction and two I didn’t review because they were so short. This is slightly up on my 2019 stats, where analysed 34 books.

Of these, 34 passed the test and 4 failed. This is actually a significant downtick on 2019, where I had 11 books fail the test and it was the same the year before that, and significantly more books passed the test last year than have previously, 35 as compared to 22 in 2019. Now obviously, this year did also have books missing from the stats, and not every book I read in 2020 was released in 2020, so I can’t say with any real confidence that books are becoming more feminist, but it definitely is pleasing to see such a marked difference in the number of books that passed the test last year.

Once again, almost all the books I read last year were by female authors, which isn’t really a surprise, since I rarely read much by male authors, I read 3 books last year by male authors (one of which isn’t included in the stats). All but one of the books that passed the test were written by female authors, but of the books that failed, again, all but one were written by female authors. Honestly, I would need to read more books by male authors to get better data on whether their books are less likely to pass the test, but from the little I have read over the past few years, it doesn’t seem like male authors are any less likely to write books which pass the test than female authors (though again, do take this with a pinch of salt as we are talking about a very, very small pool of male authors that I’ve read here).

The issue of male narrated books not passing the test was actually less evident this year than it has been in previous years. Of the four books that failed, only one failed because it was from a male POV, the rest either had mixed casts or a female narrator, so that’s actually quite an interesting change from previous years as last year, three books suffered from this issue and in 2018 as well, so it was quite interesting to see this year that it wasn’t the case this year. I will admit, I do read books primarily with either female narrators or mixed casts (I read a lot of YA and they tend to either have female leads or a multiple narration with different genders) so that probably does skew my sample slightly, but it was still interesting to see that this issue wasn’t as prevalent this year as it has been.

In fact, two of the books that failed the test this year were quite interesting to me, because they really should have passed. Foul Is Fair, by Hannah Capin, presents itself as a feminist retelling of Macbeth, there are plenty of female characters, it would have been very easy for it to pass the test. In fact, her other book, Dead Queens Club, which I also read last year, passed the test easily and on multiple occasions. But Foul Is Fair, being entirely focused on a revenge plot against the boy who assaulted Jade, means that all of her discussions with her friends end up being focused around boys. Now obviously the Bechdel Test really isn’t a measure of how feminist a piece of work is, and I do think this book has some merit in that area, but it did stick out to me that a book like this about women reclaiming their power, didn’t pass the test? Like it would have been super straightforward for Jade and her friends to have one conversation about something other than guys, but nope. Didn’t happen.

The other was Capturing The Devil, the final book in Keri Maniscalco’s series. The series sets Audrey Rose up as this feminist heroine, so ahead of her time but the final book was so focused on her romance with Thomas that it was literally all she spoke about on the rare occasions that other women appeared in the book (this series definitely has an issue with Audrey being the only woman in the book a lot of the time!). It would have been really easy for the book to pass, if the author hadn’t been so focused on the romance, which derailed the rest of the plot.

I only had one book that failed this year because it only had one major named female character in it, and that was Good Omens. Being published in 1990 should not, and should never have been an excuse for not having more major female characters in your book! I have many, many issues with this book but the treatment of women is definitely one of the major ones. Still, it was really great to see only one book failing because of a lack of female characters in 2020 and I would love to see this stat be reduced to nothing this year.

Okay so onto the books that did pass the test, and there were lots of them last year! As usual though, there was a fair bit of variation in the amount of passing content featured in the books that did pass. Over three years of doing this, it’s fairly obvious (and tbh, it would have been before I started doing this), that the books that do best have multiple female characters, who interact frequently and place female relationships as something that is centrally important within the plot. For 2020, these were books like, Queen of Volts, which despite being a disappointing finale in other areas, definitely really highlighted its female characters and the relationships between them. The Lady’s Guide To Petticoats and Piracy was another great example, that book was all about Felicity and her relationships with other women and I actually really loved how Lee showed her growth in terms of examining her internalised misogyny and improving her relationships with other women, particularly Johanna. The Enigma Game was also a really great one for this, Louisa, Ellen and Jane (and a certain other character who shall not be mentioned for spoilery reasons), all have a really important part to play in the story and their friendships are definitely front and centre. I’ve already talked earlier about Dead Queens Club, so I won’t touch on it too much here, but that was another great one in terms of focus on female friendships.

However, where there are obvious passes, there were also of course, those that only just passed. Addie LaRue for instance, whilst Addie is not the only female character in the book, and one of her most important mentors (Estelle) is a woman, there are actually fairly few interactions between her and other women. This is a problem I’ve noticed a lot in VE Schwab’s books actually, as she tends to go for the “one main woman” trope a lot. Not Even Bones had a similar problem, Nita doesn’t really interact all that much with other women, most of her interactions in the book are with Kovit, so though it did pass, it was barely. Kingdom of The Wicked, much like Keri Maniscalco’s other books, had so much focus on romance that Emilia barely interacted with other women. The City of Brass also suffered with this quite a bit as Nahri didn’t seem to interact much with other women aside from Nisreen, though thankfully I would say this improved in the other two books in the trilogy.

I also wanted to talk about some of the books that passed that had problematic content in terms of their treatment of women. Because the test isn’t massively nuanced, it measures quantity of interactions over quality, this means that a piece of media can be problematic and still pass the Bechdel Test (see, Twilight). A notable example of this last year was Neal and Jarrod Shusterman’s Dry. It passes the Bechdel test due to a brief conversation between Alyssa and her friend Sofia about the water crisis.

However, the main male character Kelton acts in some pretty toxic ways throughout the book, acting like Alyssa is a prize to be won and he even admits to having spied on her at one point. There’s also a few instances of slut shaming and girls having to trade sex for water. So in terms of the way women are represented, and treated in the book, I would say it’s not actually great representation, even though the book ostensibly passes the test.

The City of Brass also suffered from a well worn trope, immortal who is distinctly abusive towards his human love interest. There were definitely moments in City of Brass where it felt like Dara was being abusive towards Nahri and on more than one occasion, even though again, that book ostensibly passed the Bechdel Test.

So that was my 2020 Bechdel test results! I thought it was quite interesting this year, because though a lot of the same issues from the last two years cropped up again, there were far less books that failed this year and the ones that did, didn’t necessarily fail due to lack of female characters but rather that their female characters plotlines were so focused around the men that their interactions revolved solely around that. Still, the fact that I read so many books that passed the test last year and so few that didn’t was very heartening!

I look forward to seeing how these results differ in 2021 and hope that the marked increase in books passing the test from last year is something that continues!

I’ll have another discussion posts for you next month, I’m hoping to do something for my blogiversary on the 13th, though I haven’t decided what that will be yet. In the meantime, I will have my usual Top Ten Tuesday post for you all on Tuesday.

8 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On Year 3 Of My Bechdel Test Experiment

  1. Davida Chazan 01/02/2021 / 8:32 am

    Yes, this does sound like a flawed test but it does have its merits as well. One that I think would pass by a male author (that I read recently) is “Trio” by William Boyd. Mind you, Boyd is very good at portraying female characters, so there is that. Fascinating post – thanks!

    • iloveheartlandx 09/02/2021 / 12:03 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Oh it’s definitely useful for some things, but like any test, it’s imperfect.

  2. Time for tales and tea 01/02/2021 / 5:21 pm

    Interesting post! I also read Good Omens and didn’t really like it either. Just like you I read mostly books by female writers. But from the male writers I read, I think most books by Khaled Hosseini and Jay Kristoff would pass the Bechdel Test.

    • iloveheartlandx 09/02/2021 / 12:02 pm

      Thank you! I’m glad I’m not the only one! I’ve actually found that most of the male authors books I’ve read have passed the test, I just don’t read enough of them to make a definitive judgement!

    • iloveheartlandx 09/02/2021 / 12:00 pm

      Ha ha it’s a test of female representation in media.

  3. FangirlFlax 02/02/2021 / 3:29 pm

    This is really interesting to read! I think it’ll be on my mind as I read, now – great post!

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