Failing The Bechdel Test. Twice. On purpose.

A recent Geek Life podcast brought up the Bechdel test again. You know the one – based on a strip by Alison Bechdel about not watching movies that don’t have at least two female characters who at least once have a conversation that’s not about a guy. It turned into a meme and a way of critiquing movies, most recently this year’s Oscar nominees, as well as something to live up to in your own stories.

Just passing the Bechdel test doesn’t mean your story is all feminist and stuff. Geek Life’s Melissa cites Sucker Punch as an obvious example to the contrary. The thing is, in mainstream storytelling you’re supposed to further the story with every scene, so every dialogue should be about something that concerns the plot, or the protagonist – who, more often than not, is still male. So if your story fails the test, you don’t fix it by adding a Bechdel-conforming scene to it. That, in mainstream storytelling terms, would just be bad writing. You fix it by writing more and better female characters.

Me, I’ve always taken the trope lightly. Actually, Reception Man was designed to fail the Bechdel test. (I don’t know about your superheroes, but my superheroes are sexist.) Conny Van Ehlsing, on the other hand, started with a dialogue between two major female characters, and has been Bechdeling along quite fine ever since.

What Conny fails almost entirely, though, is the reverse Bechdel test referenced in the podcast. Conversations between two major male characters about something besides the female characters? When I thought back, I was surprised to remember not one. Either Conny is around, so it’s not an all-male conversation, or it’s about her (as in Playground Politics). Only relatively recently, in last Fall’s Conny and the Pirates, the boys are having a moment of talking about treason and schemes and venomous poisons – guy things – before Conny enters. (Oh, and in a semi-to-non-canonic one-shot just before that, the guys have a similar game, playing superheroes. But Kevin plays the “girlfriend in the fridge” there, so it doesn’t really count.)

Failing the reverse Bechdel test is even harder than passing the original, and maybe it reveals more about the story, too. For every all-male conversation in a comic to be about a girl, the girl must be a pretty central character. That’s all it is, though. After all, the comic fails this test the same way most of this year’s Best Motion Picture nominees failed the original test – by sticking to the storytelling rule of always reflecting the main plot and a connection to the protagonist.

But both results show how little self-evident female-biased stories are. Even nowadays.