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The Bechdel Test: Hollywood's Conversational Rut

What do you talk about during normal conversations? Does it vary between men and women? Do men only talk about sports and sex, while women only talk about clothes and men? Do parents only talk about their kids with other parents? Do you talk about those same topics over and over, or do you discuss different topics?

What about work friends versus personal friends? Or work friends who are also personal friends? When I worked in an office, I found that I would talk to friends at work about personal things, but if we were ever at lunch or dinner, we talked about work.

More importantly, do the movies reflect real life, or are they a cheap, facile imitation?

I recently learned about the Bechdel test in movies, and how it relates to conversations between two women. It's a simple test that determines whether a work of fiction — a movie, book, or TV show — meets three rules at least once. The work has to have 1) two named female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man.

Named for Allison Bechdel, creator of the "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic, the test applies to any two women talking about any man. It could be two friends talking about their husbands or boyfriends, two sisters talking about their father, or two female doctors talking about a male patient.

There's even a joke about it: Two women walk into a bar and talk about the Bechdel test.

Of course, it fails if one of them is actually dating a guy named Bechdel Test.

Many cinemaphiles and women's advocates have cited the high number of Bechdel failures as a sign that Hollywood isn't interested in anything where women aren't interested in men or need men to complete them. It fosters the belief that women are merely accessories to men and spend their whole lives trying to win and please them.

You can see which movies pass the Bechdel test at BechdelTest.com. They apply the three rules to every movie, people share their opinions in the comments, and the moderator will declare whether it passes based on the discussion.

A few movies that pass the test are Disney's "Brave" and "The Incredibles," and Dreamworks' "How To Train Your Dragon." "Bridesmaids" passed with flying colors, because the cast was nearly all women who talked about their friendships, the explosive diarrhea at the dress shop, and how much Annie hated Helen.

Er, so I've been told.

Meanwhile, other movies failed because of a lack of female characters. "The Expendables 3" and "Captain America" only had one female character, while "The Avengers" failed because there was only one female character in a scene at any one time.

I wonder if the third rule is too broad. After all, two female doctors talking about a male patient is not the same thing as two women talking about a male love interest. But, no one asked me, so I don't get to have a say.

Could we pass the Bechdel test in real life? If art truly imitated life, you would expect more movies to pass, because our real conversations pass it with ease. I know plenty of women who talk about all sorts of things besides men.

Forget the stupid old jokes about shopping and shoes. They talk about work, family, music, art, food, and the friend who couldn't make it to lunch that day. Once in a great while, they'll talk about their boyfriends, husbands, or that creepy guy eavesdropping on us at the next table, and oh my God! I think he's writing down what we're saying!

It would be interesting to apply the Bechdel test to other situations. For example, can two men talk about something other than sports or sex?

Man #1: Did you see the sportsball game last night?

Man #2: Oh yeah, I loved it when my favorite player did that awesome sportsball move.

Man #1: I couldn't believe the sports official blew that call in the third session.

Man #3: Boobies!

Similarly, I'd love to see parents talk about something other than their children. Whether it's a couple alone, or getting together with friends, young parents should spend an hour without talking about the kids at all. Or at least spare us from that stupid story about the cute thing Jeremy did with the wastebasket again.

We all get into conversational ruts at times. We have people in our lives we discuss the same topics with over and over. We have a wondrous variety of conversations that pass the test with ease. If only Hollywood would figure this out for itself.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm meeting my friend, Bechdel, for lunch. He's having girlfriend problems again.



The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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