Screenwriting to pass the Bechdel Test

As long as I can remember, I’ve been writing scripts. Some of them have been made into short films and 60-second plays. Most of them haven’t.

Having read and enjoyed some of my dad’s own screenwriting efforts as a kid, I think I was about 10 when I had my first ever crack at a sitcom; it featured two men, best friends, going on holiday to sunny Bridlington to meet girls. Sadly, being 10 years old, knowledge of the location was just about the only strength I had at the time, not so much the nuances of characterisation, plot and dialogue, much less the whole ‘meeting girls’ thing, and what went on between fully grown-ass men and women.


Two decades on, and the only thing that’s put me off writing more than fear of rejection is the actual rejection.

My last effort, ‘Come Home’ was a sitcom about two men and a woman, best friends from school, whose lives hadn’t panned out the way they wanted. Now each being fully grown-ass men and woman themselves, they were regressing to the comfort of the town they grew up in to lick their wounds. The pilot had everything; slapstick, origin stories and most of all, charming interplay between genders.

The BBC Writersroom scheme did not agree.

I’m working on something a bit different now, and for all the online articles I’m reading and books filling my shelves, there’s only so much I can learn about plot and structure before I’m actually supposed to get on with it.

More than being funny, more than being entertaining, more than anything I just want my work to feel natural, and to that end I’ve been reading about the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test (or the Bechdel-Wallace test)

First laid out by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, the rules for what she herself prefers to call the Bechdel-Wallace test, as explained by one of her characters are as follows:

  • The piece must portray at least two (named) women,
  • Talking to each other,
  • About anything other than a man.

It wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously in its original form, but having found its way into academia in subsequent years, the Bechdel-Wallace test now serves as a pretty brilliant and simple measure of equal representation in the arts. You’d be stunned how many films (and games) fail this test – there’s a database tracking the results here.

(According to the website, films which don’t pass the test released in 2015 include Fantastic Four, Ex Machina and Ant-Man. Films I love which, also according to the website don’t happen to pass the test include High Fidelity, Swingers and Fight Club. The first film I love that did pass my completely random searches is Empire Records.)

Think about that for a minute. All those films you love. All those films which get produced without managing to include something so simple as two women having a chat about the weather, or their favourite food, or their hopes and dreams.

I don’t even want to get into what this says about Hollywood’s attitude to equal representation, about women’s supposed inability to further a story, or about the fact that it isn’t physically possible for a female film character to exist without wondering out loud about anything but her male love interest.

I don’t even.

Passing the Bechdel Test (by not knowing there is one)

Fortunately for me, before I’d even started giving myself anxiety over the fact that maybe film and TV have subconsciously given me funny ideas about women;  before I’d even resolved to fix this potential pitfall of inequality and awkward attitudes to women by familiarising myself with the Bechdel Test and making sure I passed it as soon as possible in my story…

…I started reading back the latest draft of my latest script and realised I’d already done it.

On page fucking one.

With an extremely early morning phone call between an insomniac video editor and her half-asleep friend, about the video that the former has been up all night creating.

Oh shit, the video’s about a bloke.

Only kidding. It’s about aliens in a video game. Nearly had you there.

And before I could separate my shoulder by patting myself on the back too much, I realised that the best way of passing this test is to pretend it doesn’t exist.

In writing what I hope is natural conversation between two people, it should logically follow that some of that natural conversation is going to be between two women, and it’s not going to be about a man.

I’m not trying to strike a blow for feminism, I’m just trying to be a better writer. Knowing things like this will hopefully help me to achieve that.

Right, it’s after 3am. Now that I’ve cracked out 800 words about equality, maybe I should try to overcome that other famous obstacle to screenwriting – procrastination from writing the damn thing.

One thought on “Screenwriting to pass the Bechdel Test

  1. A lot of movies have what I sometimes call Winnie the poo syndrome. All characters are male…except manga the mom. Too many are nameless moms, wives, girlfriends, and sisters. Don’t even get me started on the animated film barnyard that has a male cow as the lead.

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