Science Fiction Beyond the Bechdel Test

As an undergrad I studied mathematical biology, neuroscience, and gender theory – so yeah, I like sci-fi and I especially like feminist sci-fi. For me there isn’t one definition for “feminist science fiction” but there’s at least one obvious, low-bar criteria a story needs to pass to be on its way to that distinction: the Bechdel Test.

What’s the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is named after writer/cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who penned the popular graphic novel Fun Home. Interestingly Bechdel prefers the test be known as the Bechdel-Wallace Test as Liz Wallace also deserves credit.

There are three criteria a film or book must meet to pass this test:

  1. It must have at least two named women in it.
  2. The women must talk to each other.
  3. The women must talk to each other about something besides a man.

Now, just because fiction passes this test doesn’t mean it’s automatically “feminist” – but that’s a conversation for another time. What I want to mention here is how surprising it is what doesn’t – and does – pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Some weird dark sexual fictions actually do pass it – for example, Spring Breakers. Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, meanwhile, does not pass. (Even more interestingly in my opinion, I’ve read/watched both of these and they make me equally uncomfortable.) Unfortunately, one of my favorite stories doesn’t pass either: Jaws, neither the movie nor the book.

The Fun Part: Some Sci Fi that Passes the Test

So let’s list out some science fiction I’ve enjoyed that absolutely passes this test.

He, She and It by Marge Piercy

This one is easily my favorite science fiction book of all time. In it Shira, a scientist who has recently lost custody of her young son Ari, returns to her seaside hometown to live with her incredible scientist of a grandmother. If you want to read a gorgeous, heart-wrenching novel about deep virtual reality and a dystopian future stemming from a harrowed past, this is the one.

Courtesy of Flickr

Contagion

This one is all too real right now, but it passes the test because of a mother-daughter duo.

Arrival

A celebrated linguist (played by Amy Adams) is brought in to try communicating with an alien ship floating above a pasture in Montana. With her unorthodox methods and the mysteries the aliens bring with them, this brilliant scientist and compassionate person has her work cut out for her. Another one of my favorite stories.

Courtesy of The Guardian
Courtesy of StarWars.com

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

This is my favorite Star Wars episode, and yes, it is in large part because of Amidala, Padme, and Shmi.

The latest Star Wars trilogy

By no means is the new trilogy perfect, BUT: they did Leia justice and developed her character way better than the old trilogies did, plus we get Rey. That’s two dynamic female characters. with names, who talk to each other about lots of things other than men.

Courtesy of CinemaBlend

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

One of my favorite things about this series is that it boasts an array of female characters, no two of whom are alike. From Katniss to Effie to Rue to Clove, these aren’t token women. These are compelling femme characters who move storylines along all on their own.

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

If you’re a fan of dark dystopian not-so-far-future fiction, this is a good choice of read. In a world where human fertility is suddenly near nil, one woman finds out that she’s pregnant. And discovers who will be true to her in the process.

Courtesy of Amazon
Thanks to Wikipedia

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Not going to lie, it’s been years since I read this one and I haven’t seen the movie yet. But I remember strong female characters of all different dispositions and ages, plus a fun mix of science and fantasy that’ll speak to lots of readers.

Courtesy of GoodReads

Hugo by Brian Selznick

Here I’m talking about the book, not the movie, simply because I haven’t seen the movie. This is a sweet story about a young boy, animatronics, and old movies. Yes, the main character is a male child, but I promise this one passes the test.

The Walking Dead

There is a lot going on in this show/comic, and unpacking it would take a whole ‘nother blog post, so I’ll just say here that yes, it passes the test.

Courtesy of Vanity Fair

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artificial Friend waits in her store for the perfect companion. What is she going to do when that perfect companion is in danger? Ask the Sun for help, that’s what.

Definitely a wholesome tear-jerker, and well worth the read.

Why does it matter?

Gloria Estefan spoke to my coworkers and I recently and said something along the lines of “If you can see it, you can be it.” Now, of course, you can be it without seeing it, but wouldn’t it make you feel good and strong to see someone who looks and reads like you doing what you’re striving to do?

Another thing that’s important is that, although fiction need not respect reality, it’s unnerving to see only male characters act in fiction. Especially when that theme is echoed in non-fiction. And science. And the news. And history. Women are left out of both fictional and nonfictional worlds, which makes no sense since we’re about half of the population and we work to shape the world at least as much as men do.

On a personal note: science fiction inspired and interested me since before I thought I was smart enough to do science, since a time when I was taught that my “female brain” wasn’t built for math or analytical thinking. All the famous scientists I learned about in school were men. Most of the main characters in sci fi were men. Maybe if I’d learned about or been able to imagine someone who looks like me doing science, I would be more confident now. (Not that I’m not confident, but it’s been a long road to get here and I certainly still have doubts.) A woman’s confidence matters in cultures designed to keep her down.

Beyond the Bechdel-Wallace Test

The Bechdel Test is just a starting off point for analyzing feminist representation in literature and media. It’s an easy test to pass, which makes it even more sad how many classic tales don’t pass it and highlighting just how lacking in non-white-cis-het-male representation so much of culture is.

So what kinds of new tests can we come up with to deepen the analysis? Let’s consider…

  • Do at least an equal number of female characters exist?
  • Do the female characters contribute to the movement of the plot?
  • Are the female characters well developed in the story? Are they more than one-dimensional?
  • Do we see different representations of women throughout the story?
  • Are sensitive topics, such as assault, handled with care?

Now, none of this directly addresses nonbinary or queer representation in science fiction. And by no means are these possible questions perfect or a complete list or even necessarily useful. Those are even more complex but equally important topics that requires a lot more conversation. For now I hope that human representation in popular media (and also, the media we have to ingest in schools, like summer reading) continues to widen and draw our attention. ✿

Sources & Resources

Bechdel Test Movie List, to double check movies and books I hadn’t seen or read in a while

PopSugar, for inspiration and reminders of sci fi I’d read

Bitch Media‘s analysis of the women of The Walking Dead


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