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Measuring the Representation of Women in Fiction

Reading Mona Awad’s novel Bunny (2019) got me thinking about the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Not because Awad’s novel is male-centric (to a degree), but because the discussion about what is women’s art about is discussed by the all-female cohort at Warren University:

“‘As female storytellers, writing at this level, at this institution, we must be mindful of [androcentric leanings]. Do we really want to enforce the narrative that we’re ‘saved’ by a boy? Illuminated by a boy? Ravished by a boy?... Do we really want that to be the Work? The fruit to come out of our time here at Warren? One would hope the work wouldn’t just be the stuff of slumber parties.’”

What is the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

You may be most familiar with this concept with regards to films. In fact, there is an entire website dedicated to rating the representation of women in films, But it has expanded to video games, novels, and more.

In fact, some believe the test (prior to its name and pop culture interest), harkens back to Virginia Woolf’s essays in A Room of One’s Own. She wrote:

“I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. ... They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman's life is that.”

Building on this idea, in 1985 cartoonist Alison Bechdel published a comic strip that shows a conversation between two queer women about “The Rule.” One explains her criteria for choosing when to watch a film or not. Bechdel admits she was inspired by her friend Liz Wallace, who in turn had Woolf on her mind. No matter which way you look at it: it’s a feminist way critique of art.

Here's how it works. The next time you watch or read something, ask yourself:

  • Are there two female characters in the story?

  • Do they interact/talk with each other?

  • Do they talk about something other than men?

Note that for the first criteria, some believe the female characters must have names, but that might be left up to artistic interpretation.

Answering these three questions will let you know if a film, TV show, or novel has more rounded female figures. It can also be used as a way to view the progression of women characters over time, answering questions like: how do we see the interior life of women? Have the contents of the conversations between women changed?

The Bechdel-Wallace Test has gone on to inspire additional test of inclusion, such as for the LGBTQ2+ community, the Jewish faith, and people of colour.

Of course, none of these ‘tests’ will indicate if a work is good or not (that’s up to you!). And it’s entirely possible that asking these questions won’t eliminate other problematic themes from a work (misogyny, racism, homophobia). But it does give you another critical lens to apply to your reading or viewing.


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