….but we are all fabulous.

The Bechdel/Wallace and Finkbeiner Tests

I came across mention of the Bechdel or Bechdel/Wallace Test for the first time recently. The test asks whether two or more named women appear in a work of fiction and whether they talk to each other about something other than a man. The test is named after Alison Bechdel who presented the ideas in a comic strip (below). She attributes the idea to her friend Liz Wallace, who in turn was probably inspired (according to Wikipedia: by Virginia Woolf, who wrote:

“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that […]”

BechdelWallace cartoon

Dykes to Watch Out For (1985) by Alison Bechdel

See here for a list of films that have been rated according to this test:

What I particularly enjoyed about finding out about the test was that the Guardian reported that contrary to perceived Hollywood wisdom, films that pass the test do just as well at the box office as those that don’t: Indeed, they report that films with more meaningful interactions between women may even do better at the box office. Shock horror! Film goers are more likely to enjoy a film that has something more substantial than women talking about men. Certainly for female film goers, that may indeed be because, as Woolf said, men are only a small part of women’s lives.

Incidentally there is also an LGBT test inspired by the Bechdel Test, called the Vito Russo Test, whereby a film will pass the test if:

• The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
• The character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.
• The character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.

As well as having men (or not) in their lives, women might also have careers for example, which brings us to the Finkbeiner Test. Inspired by the Bechdel/Wallace Test, the Finkbeiner Test is a checklist proposed by journalist Christie Aschwanden to help other journalists write about women in science in a gender neutral way. To pass the test, an article must not mention the following:

• the fact that she’s a woman
• her husband’s job
• her child care arrangements
• how she nurtures her underlings
• how she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
• how she’s such a role model for other women
• how she’s the “first woman to…”

Obviously some articles are specifically about a woman achieving in a male dominated domain and so these rules would not hold, but when reporting the science, the rule of thumb should be – would you say the same thing if you were writing about a male?

These issues don’t just concern women in science, but women discussed anywhere. A woman’s age, number of children and marital status are far more likely to be reported in a newspaper article than for men in any walk of life. This reinforces the idea that a woman’s worth has a shelf life and that her primary role in life is to marry and have children. Men also age, have children/or not and a marital status, yet this information is rarely provided, reinforcing the idea that men automatically and unquestioningly have value throughout their lives, that childcare is not something that they need to be concerned with and that their marital status is trivial.

An exception which illustrates the pernicious use of age around women is the rare occasion it is used for men – a notable example being when a man dates a woman much older or younger than himself, when it is used to judge him either positively or negatively. Once again the woman is simply the ornament on his arm, but his age is relevant because hers is and as a means of evaluating him. It’s been said many times before, but even when he is negatively evaluated for the age gap, there is not a male equivalent to ‘cougar’ reserved for women who dare to date younger men.

And so the message continues: a woman is primarily relevant or important based on her relationship to men. But we know that’s not true and in the same way that film goers are more likely to enjoy a film with something other than women talking about men, so readers of magazines and newspapers might well better enjoy articles celebrating women’s achievements outside of their relationships.


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