“One, Two, Three, Bechdel!”

The Queer Origins of Alison Bechdel’s Famous Test


Chase Elliott Clark, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Here is Alison Bechdel, in a photograph at the Boston Book Festival in 2011, where she spoke on a panel about graphic novels. Her first graphic novel, ‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,’ spent two weeks on ‘The New York Times’ bestseller list.

“One, two, three, Bechdel!” Sitting in my eighth period journalism class, I overheard this. Two of my classmates, Yasmine Salha ’24 and Sela Emery ’23, were trying to have a five minute conversation that passed the Bechdel Test. 

Let’s back up. What is the Bechdel Test? In short, it is a three part checklist for female representation in films and TV shows. In order to pass, the piece of media has to 1) have two named female characters who 2) have a conversation with each other about 3) something that is not a man. Seems simple enough, right? 

The test is deceptively basic, but far fewer films pass it than one might think. The majority of the Harry Potter films, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the original Star Wars trilogy all fail to meet Bechdel’s criteria. Even films with strong female protagonists don’t always pass — Gravity features a lone female protagonist fighting to survive in space, which seems like a clear example of representation, but since she never has a conversation with another woman, the movie doesn’t pass the test. 

“The Test” premiered in an episode of Alison Bechdel’s long running comic strip. The strip, while disjointed at first, eventually came together to tell stories about a group of lesbians in an unnamed American city. In the edition titled “The Test (published in 1985),” a lesbian couple considers going to see a movie. One says she doesn’t go to movies that don’t pass her test — two women talking about something that isn’t a man. The other remarks that it must cut down the number of movies she can see, and the first woman agrees, saying that the last movie she went to see was Alien, which had come out six years prior.

To Bechdel, this was where the joke ended.

Alison Bechdel has become famous for her graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? where she detailed her own queer identity in relation how queerness itself impacted her family. Throughout the course of her career, her queer identity has played a major role in her art, from her memoirs to her comics.

Despite creating a comic strip that ran for over twenty years and writing two popular books — one of which became a hit Broadway musical — the Bechdel Test has become, much to her surprise, Alison Bechdel’s largest claim to fame. 

In an interview with Kara Swisher of Sway Bechdel said, “And it was just a lesbian feminist joke of the ’80s, the kind of stuff we were all saying to each other. And it, you know, it just disappeared. But then, 20 years later, these young feminists resurrected it.” 

She was not even the creator of the test. Bechdel makes a point of telling interviewers that the idea actually came from her friend, Liz Wallace. 

She explains in a profile with the Atlantic that she doesn’t want the credit for the test: “I feel a little bit sheepish about the whole thing.” As Bechdel has said in many interviews, she needed content for the next installment of her comic, and Wallace had just told her about the concept, so she stuck it into her next edition. 

And Wallace herself was most likely inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1926 book A Room of One’s Own, as noted by Bechdel in a blog post from 2013. In her work, Woolf uses the protagonist’s surprise at discovering a book with two female characters who have a genuine friendship to explore the idea of characterizing women outside of their relationships to men. The novel she sees these characters in is fictitious, but the musings that follow are very real. Woolf points out how rare it is to see women detached from men and how frequently they are defined by their relationships as the mothers, wives, and daughters of men. 

As the test has gotten increasingly popular, criticisms have also emerged. To Alison Bechdel’s own surprise, the test is now seen as a definitive criteria for feminist media. While it brings up important questions about the ways women are “allowed” to interact in movies and shows, it is ultimately an arbitrary line, ignoring the themes and nuances of each piece of media and the nuance that discussions of representation deserve. 

Take, for instance, Twilight. The protagonist, Bella Swan, spends most of her time thinking about her male love interests and is for the most part a passive protagonist. The majority of the movie consists of her pining after Edward Cullen, but at one point she has a brief conversation with her mother (another named female character) about her recent move from Arizona to Washington. This makes the movie pass the Bechdel test, technically ticking the boxes even though the themes of the story go against the idea of the test. 

The typical application of the test we see today also ignores a major part of its origin. The original comic strip alludes to a need for lesbians (the subjects and protagonists of the comic) to look to subtext if they wanted any representation in media. If two women could talk to each other for five minutes without mentioning a man, a queer woman starved for representation could watch the movie and pretend, for five minutes, that those two women could theoretically be together.

For a test that began as a tongue in cheek comment by a lesbian artist in her comic about lesbians, the Bechdel Test has taken on a surprisingly heteronormative role. Instead of being viewed as a way to see if women are being defined by men, it is often used to see if women are defined by romance. The Bechdel test can be an interesting thought experiment about the roles of women in media, but to treat it as a definitive judgment on whether or not something is “feminist” would be counterproductive and impractical. To ignore its queer origins would be to ignore its intentions (and to do Alison Bechdel a great disservice).

While it brings up important questions about the ways women are “allowed” to interact in movies and shows, it is ultimately an arbitrary line, ignoring the themes and nuances of each piece of media and the nuance that discussions of representation deserve.