Call It the ‘Bechdel-Wallace Test’

The woman who gave her name to the women-in-culture standard would, true to the method, prefer to share the credit.

It’s come to be known as the Bechdel test, and it goes like so: For a given work of fiction to pass the test, the work must 1) have at least two women in it, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something other than a man.

The test is a blunt, basic measure of gender equality in a given film/show/book/etc. It revels in its own absurd simplicity. And it is often—still, ridiculously—not passed by Hollywood movies. It’s often failed in other settings, too. As the A.V. Club summed up the current controversy at Duke, which involves incoming students’ refusal to read Bechdel’s celebrated graphic novel on the grounds of its sexual themes: “Duke students refuse to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, will probably fail the test.”

The standard got its name from the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who, in a 1985 strip from her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, introduced the idea as a winking criticism of male-dominated movies.

The comic, from Dykes to Watch Out For, that gave rise to the “Bechdel Test” (Wikimedia Commons)

Bechdel, however, wasn’t the originator of the test. She has long attributed the idea of the Bechdel test to her friend Liz Wallace, who mentioned the standard to her as Bechdel was looking for ideas for Dykes to Watch Out For. (Bechdel also attributes the idea, more broadly, to Virginia Woolf—who, in A Room of One’s Own, remarked, “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple”—and that the women of literature, contrary to the living, breathing, complex women of real life, are almost always depicted only “in their relation to men.”)

But Bechdel—the one who created the comic that resonated with feminists frustrated with women’s depiction in cultural products, the comic that found a new resonance on a virality-enabled Internet—was the one who got credit for the concept.

She’d prefer it not to be that way. In a recent interview with Fresh Air, Bechdel reiterated her debt to Wallace for coming up with the test. “I feel a little bit sheepish about the whole thing,” she told Terry Gross, “because it’s not like I invented this test or said this is the Bechdel test. It somehow has gotten attributed to me over the years.”

She added, “It’s this weird thing. Like, people actually use it to analyze films to see whether or not they pass that test.”

And now that the stuff of a 1985 comic strip has morphed into the stuff of broadly recognized cultural and literary criticism, Bechdel wants to return credit to Wallace. The Bechdel test, after all, came from the very thing it’s meant to celebrate: two women, talking about something other than men. The test’s current name doesn’t recognize that dialogue, though. It does not, actually, pass the Bechdel test.

You know what does, though? The “Bechdel-Wallace test.”

“Since the idea of this criteria was suggested by your friend whose last name is Wallace,” Gross asked Bechdel, “would you like it to be renamed the Bechdel-Wallace test?”

Bechdel’s reply: “I would be very happy if that happened.”