Romance fiction is a female-driven industry. The novels are often written for women and by women. Traditionally, a romance book will reflect a woman’s life, especially her struggles and dreams. The heroine is a main character with agency. Her actions and choices have an impact on the plot.
And yet, does the romance novel you’re reading pass the Bechdel Test?
What is the Bechdel Test?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains that the Bechdel Test is “a set of criteria used as a test to evaluate a work of fiction (such as a film) on the basis of its inclusion and representation of female characters.”
The test is named after a 1985 comic strip created by Alison Bechdel. The cartoonist and her friend Liz Wallace created the simple standard to highlight the gender inequality found in popular fiction. In The Atlantic article, “Call it the Bechdel-Wallace Test,” Bechdel also attributes a passage in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:
“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. […] But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.”Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
How to Pass the Bechdel Test
According to the Bechdel Test website, a work of fiction must:
- Have at least two [named] women in it
- Who talk to each other
- About something besides a man
The test doesn’t expect much from writers or directors. Sure, there were probably a lot of movies, television shows and books that couldn’t pass the test when it first originated in the 1980s. That was decades ago and representation has improved, right?
The Bechdel Test Fest claims that “of the 25 top grossing movies in 2016, a measly half passed the test.”
The site also mentions that “The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film discovered that of the 4,370 speaking named characters from the top-grossing films in 2015, only 31.4% were women and 26.3% were underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.”
The Bechdel Test and Romance Fiction
The next time you pick up a romance book, have the Bechdel Test running in the back of your mind.. Are there other women in the story? Do these women have names?
Note: the female character’s full name doesn’t have to be used. But, remember, Guy from Galaxy Quest knew an incomplete name meant trouble: “Because my character isn’t important enough for a last name, because I’m gonna die five minutes in!”
Most importantly, do the female characters talk to each other? And what is the topic they discuss? If every conversation is about the hero, the story fails the Bechdel Test.
- Question: What if the characters are stranded on a desert island and there’s no one else around?
- Answer: If there are no other female characters, the story fails the Bechdel Test.
- Question: There are lots of women in this story but they’re identified by personality quirks / physical attributes / job positions.
- Answer: If the female characters do not have names, the story fails the Bechdel Test.
- Question: The heroine has lots of female friends with names. They’re always giving her dating advice.
- Answer: If every discussion the heroine has with her friends is about men, or in this case, dating men, the story fails the Bechdel Test.
When a romance novel doesn’t meet the basic requirements of the Bechdel Test, it doesn’t mean that the book is outdated or bad. There could be many reasons for the lack of female characters, such as story length, premise or structure. The Bechdel Test isn’t the definitive standard of enlightened fiction. It’s meant to bring awareness about female representation and inclusion.
But since romance novels are for women, shouldn’t female characters be seen and heard throughout these stories?