The Bechdel test is a simple series of questions designed to test a film for its basic level of female participation—1. Are there two named/speaking women? 2. Do they talk to each other? 3. About something other than men/a man?
The issue is not that every movie needs to pass this test—it’s that so few do. When looking at a wide group of films, and the industry as a whole, the fact that this test is so difficult to pass is the problem.
But when the test is taken and applied to a single film, and used to judge that film’s quality or feminism, it becomes reductive. For example, a film about a powerful woman who just happens not to talk to other women could be feminist—on its own. But in an industry where there are hardly any movies about powerful women who have meaningful relationships with other women, then it becomes a problem. Again, not necessarily in a single movie, but in the group.
Or a film where two women talk but are otherwise reduced to stereotypes or props or problematic clichés can still be damaging, even while passing the test.
With any story, the test of equality has to be more than just a simple exchange of dialogue. Who is meaningful to the story? Who is interesting? Who has agency? Who has complex relationships and backstory and depth? Who makes things happen? If most or all of the characters with any significance in your story are men (or straight, or white, etc.), it is not necessarily a bad story—but it’s falling in line with trends of privilege and exclusion that are much bigger than your story alone.
And all this means is that it’s something worth thinking about.
If your story passes the Bechdel test, or any similar test designed to determine the minimum level of diversity, that’s a great start. Once enough stories pass this test in culture as a whole, then it will lose its meaning as a challenging exercise, and thus any story that doesn’t pass won’t be bad because it won’t be part of a negative trend.
But be sure to also consider how you can go beyond this test in your own work—early on in development, try changing characters’ identities to add diversity. You have to be careful of adding ‘token’ characters just to fill a quota, and you also have to be sure that changes in identity are treated with the full complexity and depth of that different identity, but an exercise in changing gender or race or sexuality can open your eyes to the possibilities.
There’s no rule that says a story has to be feminist or diverse—and I wouldn’t advocate for such a rule. Every story can be told, and it’s okay to enjoy stories that fit the current mold. But why does it have to be the current mold? Why can’t everyone be represented in all kinds of roles and stories?
Why is two women talking about something other than men such a high bar in the first place?