The Bechdel test and the woman behind it
Bechdel test was among the new additions in the most recent update to the Oxford English Dictionary, and one that brought me particular personal delight for three reasons. One, it was one of the earliest suggestions made to me at Geek Dictionary Corner, a dictionary suggestion stand which I run at Nine Worlds, an annual multi-genre convention. (More about that in future blog posts!) Two, in my opinion the test itself is important in encouraging analysis of how women are represented in popular culture, so I’m pleased to see it has achieved sufficient prominence to be added to the dictionary under OED’s inclusion criteria. And three, I have been a huge fan of Alison Bechdel, the American cartoonist after whom the test is named, for many years, so I’m going to permit myself a little squee!
The Bechdel test itself is an informal method of evaluating whether or not a film or other fictional work portrays women in a way that marginalizes them or which exhibits sexism or gender stereotyping. It sets a pretty low benchmark but nevertheless is very often failed (bechdeltest.com, among other sites, catalogues this). Other complementary tests have been proposed since: the Furiosa, Tauriel, and Mako Mori tests are all named after strong female characters in specific films which have sparked debate. Comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick has also memorably proposed the sexy lamp test, which invites writers to ensure their women are protagonists not devices by swapping them for a piece of furniture and seeing whether the plot suffers. The Bechdel, though, is the critique test which started them all off.
Portion of ‘The Rule’ in Dykes to Watch Out For. Comic and issue by Alison Bechdel, 1985. Source: Wikipedia.
Its criteria are set out in this early Dykes to Watch Out For strip from 1985, but its wider use and the use of the term Bechdel test to refer to it seem to have emerged around twenty years later (though antedatings are always welcome). Alison Bechdel herself wrote of her own ambivalence about the term, but in more recent interviews she sounds entirely enthusiastic about it.
Besides the DTWOF strip, Alison Bechdel has written two remarkable graphic novel memoirs. The first of these, Fun Home, a ‘family tragicomic’ about her father, was turned into a Broadway musical which is being performed in London this summer. In 2014, she was made a MacArthur fellow, receiving the award usually known as a genius grant.
Bechdel also, it seems, has a particular affinity with dictionaries. She has been a member of the advisory panel of the American Heritage Dictionary for many years. As a pronunciation editor, I particularly appreciated her remark on her own website clarifying how her surname should be said (‘rhymes with rectal’); it was good to feel 100% sure about the placement of stress and realisation of the <ch> in the middle when adding the pronunciation to the new OED entry. Several frames of her graphic novels depict and pick apart dictionary definitions of key words (queer and lesbian, father and beget, and eighty-six in Fun Home for example), in a way that a lexicographer can truly appreciate.
So although the test named after her has taken on a life of its own outside her control, I hope that being immortalized as an eponym in the OED this year is something that she enjoys.