Failing the Bechdel Test


Post Author: Kelsey Grissom Johnson


We were driving to my parents’ house when my sister, Lindsey, mentioned the Bechdel Test.  I had never heard of it, so I had to ask what it was.

“It’s like a baseline test for women in movies.  You ask three questions: Does the movie have at least two named, female characters; do two female characters talk to each other; and do they have a conversation about something other than a man?  It helps ascertain if women are portrayed as anything other than sex objects and background players.  Go ahead, test some movies,” she said.

We had fun naming movies and thinking about whether they could pass the Bechdel Test.  It was surprisingly difficult—even movies that were marketed to women often failed to pass.  I was still thinking of the test and mentally shaming Hollywood for its poor portrayals of women when I started to feel uneasy.  What if I Bechdel-tested my own life?  What would be the result?

I’m a not-quite-thirty-year-old divorcee, a single mom, and a pastor.  You’d think that if anyone could pass the Bechdel Test in her personal life, it would be me.  But in reviewing my adult history I realized that my uneasiness was not unfounded.

At twenty-two, I got married the weekend after my college graduation.  The marriage was miserable and quickly devolved into codependency.  After five years of trying to keep up with my husband’s demands and doing near-constant damage control for our public image, he left me and our young son.  I might have risen from the ashes like some kind of phoenix, but instead I rushed into something comfortable, dating a man who put very little into our relationship, while I poured more and more of myself into it, trying to make up the difference.  When he left, I felt empty and hollow.  Without a relationship to take up my time and energy, there seemed to be very little in my life.

Enter the Bechdel Test.  If I Bechdel-tested my own life, I failed miserably.  Of course to some extent this is an exaggeration (I have two sisters and a mom and I’m sure we talk about groceries and Dancing with the Stars from time to time), but outside of family, the test revealed how starved my life had become.  I had a few female friends left over from younger days, friends faithful enough to have stuck around despite my almost completely ignoring them during my married years.  I rarely spent time with those women, though.  When I did, it was because I didn’t have a date lined up and my parents were available to babysit for free.  On rare occasions when I was spending time with a girlfriend, I talked almost exclusively about the men in my life: my boyfriend (if I had one), the dates I’d been on, whatever scheming I was up to concerning a particular crush.

Looking back, I can’t blame myself for talking so exclusively about men.  It’s not that I was boy-crazy (I don’t think anyone would describe me that way), but even if I had wanted to talk about something other than men, I really had nothing else going on in my life (except my son, but he’s a boy, too!).  Like most women, I was programmed to view relationships as all-or-nothing projects, to view my life as a gift to give someone else rather than a gift to enjoy myself.  Years of pouring everything I had into a marriage, at the expense of all other friendships and interests, had left me bereft of conversation.  I failed the Bechdel Test in my life, and the results were telling:  I felt out of control of my own future.  I had inadvertently turned myself into a background player in my own life, subject to the whims and desires of whatever man I was currently dating.

After these sobering reflections, it was time to make a change.  To pass a real-life Bechdel Test, I needed to add more women friends to my life and talk to them about something other than men, so my approach was two-pronged:  Revive my female friendships and add activities to my schedule that had nothing to do with men.  This seems easy enough, right?  But for me, it involved a fundamental shift in my priorities.  I would no longer be putting energy into finding a boyfriend or using my babysitter’s available time for dates.  From now on, my first priority would be to make dates with friends, and my sitter would be called up not so I could go out with Johnny, but so I could spend time with Jane.

For step one, I thought a sorority would be a pretty good place to start.  Fortunately, I live in the same town where I attended college.  It was easy to contact the alumni chapter of my undergraduate sorority.  Before I knew it, I was volunteering to be an advisor to the local collegiate chapter.  “You’re going to love it,” Georgina, the general advisor, told me, “You’ll be amazed at how quickly the girls open up to you. You’re going to help shape their lives.”  That gave me even more motivation:  If I was going to be modeling life for young women, I wanted to model a healthy, strong life.

Next I started contacting my long-neglected female friends.  I made dates for the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning with Mary, a weekly afternoon walk with Alicia, and a regular phone date to catch up with Melanie.  Then step two: I needed something to talk about.  Without my usual boyfriend drama I had time and subject-matter to fill.  I started taking guitar lessons, training for a 5k, and yes, learning German in my car.  Now, when I got together with my girlfriends or spent time with the coeds, I was amazed at how I bubbled over with conversation.  There were so many things to talk about, so much I was excited to share.

It’s been several months now since that first Bechdel Test conversation, and I no longer feel like a background player in my own life.  When I get home at night I play with my son, put him to bed, and then delight in trying to decide what fun hobbies I will choose for the rest of the night.  I still go on dates, but men have to work hard to convince me that the date they’re offering will be more fun than putting the finishing touches on that Taylor Swift song I’ve been working on at home.  Even then, I only go out if the babysitting is free; my babysitter is reserved for time with friends.

Two years ago, stuck in a life-draining marriage, I would never have thought that my days could be this full or fun.  And just a year ago, struggling to figure out who I was after defining myself by the men in my life for so long, I could not have guessed that it would be the women in my life who would free me to live fully.  Some would argue that the Bechdel Test is meaningless, and for some another test might be needed (I am, after all, heterosexual), but for me, Bechdel-testing my own life opened the door to recognizing and correcting significant absences and shortages in my life.  Now I drive the plot in my story.

And, after three months of German in the car, my kid speaks Deutsche.

So go ahead, test some movies.  Test your own life.


Kelsey Grissom Johnson is the associate pastor at Cahaba Heights United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  She and her (almost) three-year-old son, Houston, share their home with Nicky the dog, Alice the cat, and innumerable toy cars and trucks.


Image by: Duke University Archives
Used with permission
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