To all the boys I loved before - passing the Bechdel test

Why a movie should pass the Bechdel test


If you’re a fan of romantic movies you’ve probably wondered if your favourite one can pass the Bechdel test. But what is it?

It’s pretty simple, to pass the Bechdel test means to follow those three rules:

1- the story must have at least two women (with names) in it
2- the women must talk to each other
3- their conversation must involve something different than a man

It’s easy to do right? Right? Wrong. You’d be surprised to find out that the movies that can pass the Bechdel test are not as many as you might think. But first, we should see why the Bechdel test was invented and why it’s important.

Pass the Bechdel test

It takes its name from an american cartoonist named Alison Bechdel that in 1985 was working on the comic strip “Dykes to watch out for”, which is where the rules of the test were explained for the first time. The idea came from a friend of Bechdel named Liz Wallace.

The intent of the Bechdel test is to understand if a movie is giving a fair portrayal of women or a sexist one. Obviously the test is not an absolute truth, just because a movie passes the Bechdel test, it doesn’t mean it’s not sexist.

To give you an example the first Transformers movie (2007) barely passes the Bechdel test because in a scene one character (Mikaela) says “Hi, I’m a friend of Sam’s” and another character (Judy) replies: “Gosh, you’re gorgeous”. Technically this counts as the two characters are named women who are not talking about a man.

But the movie has also been criticized for over-sexualizing Megan Fox’s Mikaela in more than one occasions, with particular emphasis on this famous scene:

So if passing the Bechdel test doesn’t guarantee that a movie will portray women in a non sexist way, why even bother?

Simply because the Bechdel test is actually more important than what it seems and to understand why, it’s necessary to look at why it was created in the first place. I’ve already mentioned that it came from an idea of Liz Wallace and that it became famous thanks to cartoonist Alison Bechler, but what inspired her was an essay wrote by Virginia Woolf called “A Room of One’s Own”.

"Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA would have been altered had she done so! [...] Cleopatra's only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more. But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends."
- Virginia Woolf
A room of one's own

In this quote, Woolf talks about the Shakespeare play “Antony and Cleopatra” and how women in fiction are usually depicted as enemies who are constantly fighting each other over the affection or the love of a man.

Again, passing the Bechdel test is not the equivalent of saying that the movie is good, nor failing it means that the movie is bad or sexist. Fox example: The Lord of the rings trilogy doesn’t pass the test because the female characters in it are far apart and don’t really have the chance to talk. But this doesn’t mean that those women are represented in a sexist way.

In recent years (pretty much ever since the Bechdel test became famous enough to be taken seriously by filmmakers), movies have become more and more aware of the problem of how women are portrayed, especially in movies that focus on a romantic relationship.

But testing if an already finished movie meets the criteria is not as important as testing if an unfinished script meets the criteria. A movie that has already been released cannot be taken back even if it fails the test, but a script still in the works can be tested and corrected.

Here’s what happens if you use the Bechdel test on a script:

1 - the story must have at least two women (with names) in it

This means that, no matter what the genre of the movie is, it must have at least two female characters that are important enough to be named.

It’s not enough to “cheat” and make the female protagonist of your romantic comedy exchange a couple of lines with a random female bus driver about the weather. The other female character must have a name, therefore must be a character involved in the story.

2 - the women must talk to each other

In the Transformers example of before, I wrote that it barely passes the test because the two female characters exchange just a couple of lines. They don’t have a relationship, the just met, and one of those lines contributes to objectifying the other’s body (“you’re gorgeous”).

It would be better if the two female characters actually already know each other, or if they can develop a relationship during the course of the story. This forces the writer to give the female protagonist other acquaintances, so that it doesn’t seem like that she’s living in a bubble.

3 - their conversation must involve something different than a man

This is actually the most important part of the test. The fact that they need to talk about something different than a man implies that the characters must have something more in their lives than a romantic relationship.

They might talk about a job, a hobby, a financial problem, or other things. Not because the words they use are important, but because trying to think of something else to talk about compels the writer to give his female character a life outside of the relationship.

For example: in the 50 shades of Grey trilogy the female protagonist (Anastasia) seems to exist for the sole purpose of being the love interest of the male protagonist (Christian Grey). The story starts with her having barely anything to do when she’s not with him (she works in an hardware store and has literally two friends, neither of them seem to be relevant enough to have a personality).

In the second and third movie, the life she had outside of the relationship seems to fade away as she starts working in a company that Christian owns and doesn’t have much contact with her old friends. But right from the start, when she’s not with Christian she’s either talking about Christian or thinking about Christian. She likes to read but it’s never specified what she reads and what she does at her job is vague.

The result is that this character seems to exist only for the sake of the relationship.

To all the boys I loved before

It’s a romantic comedy by director Susan Johnson released by Netflix in 2018. This movie passes the Bechdel test since more than one scenes involve two named female characters talking about something different than a man.

What is interesting is that in all of those scenes the story are not part of the main plot (which revolves around Lara Jean and Peter’s love story). They are actually part of the subplot of the movie which focuses on Lara Jean’s internal conflict: the struggle to mature, become a more open person and a good example to her little sister.

The fact that Lara Jean writes letters to the boys she likes but never sends them represents her difficulty to communicate her feelings. In the movie we see that this difficulty doesn’t manifest itself only with her crushes but also with her family. As the story progresses, she starts to be more open and learns the importance of being honest, both in the romantic aspect of her life and in her family life.

This movie is a good example of how helpful the Bechdel test can be if used wisely. Those scenes are not forced on the narrative, they actually influence the main plot and the protagonist’s actions. They also provide a deeper dimension to Lara Jean.

She is not just a girl who can’t express her feelings for a boy in the right way, her difficulty in expressing herself comes from the same insecurity that is holding her back in the other aspects of her life.

If those scenes that allow the movie to pass the test were cut out, Lara Jean’s character would probably be less empathetic and fall flat.

It’s really common for love stories to make the mistake of focusing solely on the relationship and forgetting all the other aspects that make a character unique and believable (like a job, a family, a passion, a friendship etc…), that is why it’s important for a movie to pass the Bechdel test is important.