TelevIsm: The Bechdel Spectrum
If you’re on a site about feminist response to pop culture (spoiler alert: you are), you have probably heard of the Bechdel Test for movies. Conceived in Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For, the test is simple: to pass, the movie in question must feature a conversation between two named female characters that is not about a man. It’s a good indication of whether or not a film is at all concerned with women, or if its focus is entirely on men. It’s deceptively simple; upon hearing this for the first time, I thought “well, surely almost every film must pass!” But no.
While I am not the movie writer in residence here (check out Snarky’s archive for that!) I’ve found that it’s easily applicable to other forms of media, including television! It’s not a standard I apply to every single episode of every single television show I watch, but more of something that occurs to me while I’m watching. “Oh,” I’ll think while watching Tami and Tyra talk about college on Friday Night Lights. “This episode clearly passes the Bechdel test! Awesome!” The Bechdel test is not a way to tell whether or not a show is feminist—that depends on the viewer’s interpretation of the show and their definition of feminism—but it’s a good way to gauge the development and value of female characters on the show.
But one conversation in one episode doesn’t bear the same importance to the entire series as one conversation in a movie. A movie is usually 90 to 120 minutes, but a show? A single episode is 43 minutes long, but a season is usually a minimum of 300 minutes. While a three-minute conversation about something other than a man has weight in a movie, it doesn’t quite cut it for a series.
So if one conversation in one episode doesn’t cut it, what does? How does a television show pass the Bechdel test? To fully pass the Bechdel test, every single episode must feature a conversation between two named female characters that is not about a man.
This may sound stringent, and it is. Off the top of my head, I can barely think of a show that would easily pass this. But at the same time, it’s not unreasonable. One 30-second conversation about mothers, or daughters, or female friends, or goals, or cleaning, or even Applebee’s, in every 22 or 30 or 43 or 60 minute episode is not that hard of a requirement to satisfy. And the fact that this demand is completely out of line with what’s actually on television is an indication of the shitty state of television as much as whether any of these shows are well concerned with women—much like the film industry. But since no television shows can really pass this test, how can we look at how well they do relative to other shows?
Unlike movies, which pass or do not pass, television shows exist on a Bechdel spectrum. No conversations between women not about men ever would be at the very dim end of the spectrum. And at the almost unrealistically bright end of the spectrum is the standard outlined above.
At the low end are series with none to few qualifying conversations. Most shows will have an episode or two that pass—I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a stray episode of Family Guy in which Lois says something horrible about Meg that doesn’t have anything to do directly with men. Some of my favorite shows fall on this end: The Office has some decent lady characters, but it’s mostly about dudes—I can’t offhand think of any episodes that pass the Bechdel test despite having seen the entire run of the show multiple times. Shows with a couple of even cardboard regular female characters will inevitably have some kind of conversation after a long enough run.
Shows that are patriarchal in nature—centered around the stories of men—do not necessarily disregard women altogether and fall nearer the middle of the Bechdel spectrum. Friday Night Lights and King of the Hill (two of my favorite shows) are primarily about the work, friendships, and lives of men, but treat the women in those men’s lives with respect and consideration, and develop their lives and interests independent of their husbands, sons, and boyfriends. Lost definitely had some Bechdel passing episodes early on, but as it became more and more heteronormative, it had less and less conversations between women that weren't about husbands, lovers, fathers, or sons.
Nearest to the bright end of the spectrum are shows that are primarily concerned with the lives and work of women—those that make a point of focusing centrally on female characters. Mad Men is a good example of this; though it’s set in a world that explicitly belongs to men, Peggy, Joan, and Betty frequently have conversations about work, mothers, daughters, religion, and themselves. Weeds was a very effective example of this in its excellent first three seasons: when the point of Nancy’s character was her resourcefulness and not her sex appeal, she often had interesting conversations with Celia and Heylia. These shows don’t always pass the Bechdel test, but do pass at a much greater rate than typical television fare.
But centralizing a show around a woman does not a guarantee it’ll be Parks and Rec: 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon rarely has lady-centered conversations with the only other regular female character on the show, Jenna.
So what does the bright end of the spectrum look like? What show is concerned heavily enough with women that it passes the Bechdel test in every episode? I can only think of two as of this writing: The L Word and United States of Tara. Though it’s got the occasional dude, The L Word would fail pretty hard at being a show about lady-loving ladies if it didn’t pass. While I critiqued USOT pretty heavily for its ableism a few weeks ago, it’s still a show I deeply enjoy for the thoughtful relationships it’s developed between the protagonist and her sister and daughter.
Where do your favorite shows fall on the Bechdel spectrum? Which series fail and which succeed on this scale?
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