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Alison Bechdel's “The Rule” (1985)
Alison Bechdel’s “The Rule” (1985)

The Bechdel Test is a very simple type of content analysis, created by Alison Bechdel in a 1985 episode (“The Rule”) of her comic-strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”, that tests how women – and by extension men – are historically represented in Hollywood films.

Aside from throwing-up, so to speak, some interesting and frankly-quite-surprising results (the Bechdel test web site has a database of films that passed (or more usually, failed), the Test itself is a simple and efficient way to allow students to “do” some Content Analysis in a context that’s easy to arrange and manage.

In basic terms, ask each student in your class to watch a film of their choice (in their own time…) and, while their watching, record whether or not it satisfies 4 simple criteria:

1. Does it have at least 2 women in it?

2. Do they have names (i.e. are they something more than background extras)?

3. Do they talk to each other?

4. Is their conversation about something other than men?

If the answer to any of these questions is “No”, the film fails the test.

Your students can then report back to the class about their experience of applying the test.

If you’re focusing on research methods, students can be prompted to reflect on any practical / methodological problems they may have encountered while “doing the research”. If you prepare a set of content analysis “strengths and weaknesses”, for example, you can introduce these in the context of their individual experience of the method.

For example, The Joker (2019), passes the test because a conversation between two women (Sophie and Gigi) focuses on the poor state of the building in which they live. This conversation does, however, raise a couple of methodological problems in relation to the interpretation of both:

  • quantitative data: although the two women are named, this only appears in the film’s credits. They are not identified in the body of the film.
  • qualitative data: although the two women are nominally engaged in a conversation about “their building”, this is carried-out in the context of the behaviour of their male neighbour. Does this count as a conversation between two women that’s not about a man?
  • If you’re using the test to talk more generally about media representations of gender it would be interesting to explore a range of possible themes – from the general “invisibility” of women in Hollywood films, through their role as “male supports” (their roles as things like “love interest”, “damsels in distress” and the like that act as props for male-centred actions), to the question of whether or not the Bechdel Test applies equally to areas like television programmes, books and magazines. And if it doesn’t, what does it tell us about the American film industry (particularly in the context of the #MeToo movement)?

    The Bechdel test for Women in Movies

    States the rules and provides examples of “a couple of films that don’t pass the test”.

    Update

    If time is tight, an alternative exercise is to use the Bechdel Test web site to identify films that do or do not pass the Test. Prepare the ground by asking your students in advance to think about their favourite film and then use the site database to discover whether or not the film passes the test.

    One advantage of this, besides saving a lot of time and preparation, should be that the student who suggested the film should know quite a bit about it and so should be able to explain why the film pased / failed.

    This information can then be related more-generally to any bdiscussion of gender representations in film.

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