Females in YA: Part 6 the Bechdel Test

Posted by Katie L. Carroll on March 10, 2014 in Books, Females in YA, Uncategorized, Writing |

I’ve mentioned the Bechdel Test a few times in conversations recently and most people have given me a “huh?” look and proceeded to listen to my explanation of what it is with a glazed look of disinterest. But stick with me for a few minutes because I think it’s worth a moment of thought.

So what is the Bechdel Test? Originally used to evaluate films and now used for other works of fiction, it is a quick and basic way to look at a film or book or whatever to see if it fails a very simple gender bias test. The criteria: Two named women characters (let’s revise this to females b/c with kids’ books we’re not always talking about grown ups) speak to each other about something other than a man (let’s revise this to male for the same reason stated above).

Seems like a pretty basic test to pass, but it’s amazing how many films don’t. Just taking a look at this year’s Oscar nominated movies for best picture, only four out of nine pass. (Here’s a website where you can explore what movies pass/fail the test and a thoughtful article about women in movies by Frank Bruni called “Waiting for Wonder Woman”.)

Now I realize the Bechdel Test isn’t a perfect way to evaluate the gender biases of a work of fiction and certainly isn’t a good judge of whether or not a piece of fiction is good. The test is too simple to be a comprehensive look at gender bias, but I think think the point is that it’s simple and it’s a good jumping off point. And there are many, many works of fiction that are brilliant that don’t pass the test. (I’m thinking of The Shawshank Redemption, one of my favorite movies, which happens to fail all three of the Bechdel Test’s criteria and probably shouldn’t pass the test given the setting and time place–an all male prison in the past.)

So it seems Hollywood isn’t doing a great job at representing the–ahem–better half 😉 of the human race. But how are we doing in YA? I think a pretty good job. If there’s one form of fiction that is female-centric, it’s YA. There are so many different genres, topics, issues, and characters in YA, and it is this diversity (when I say “diversity,” I’m not talking about race here…that’s a whole other topic) that is one of my favorite things about YA.

Sure YA has lots of books about boy-girl romances and there are those books where the regular girl falls for the hot, often non-human, guy for no more compelling reason than he’s hot and maybe not totally human. Beyond that, though, there are romances where the female character has real conversations with her female friends about things other than the male love interest, there are books about female friendships, and there are books where females are taking on the world together. (Now you want some specific examples, right? Hmm…maybe I’ll have to pull some recommendations together for another blog post.)

Just for fun, check out this post by S.E. Sinkhorn called “How to Write the Perfect YA Heroine” and if you haven’t seen my past Females in YA posts, you can find them all in this link. So what are your favorite YA books that pass the Bechdel Test?

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  • I think a lot of books overplay female heroines. I mean, I know that I’m not going to leap off of tall buildings, nor be a CEO, a policewoman. Personally, I like women to be portrayed in a realistic manner.

    • Valid point, Suzanne. Still there are women who leap off tall buildings and are CEOs and policewomen. I think it’s important for young readers to see lots of different kinds of females in their literature.

  • Interesting! I hadn’t heard of this test before, but now I’m going to have to start thinking about it. And wonder if my own work would pass :/ Hmm, I’m going to go look through Gabby and Bea’s convo’s now!

  • Marva says:

    All of my books (even with female MCs) pass except one. Wait. It passes even if the two named females are mother and daughter. They’re certainly not talking about males.

  • This is interesting and not at all on my YA radar. I think my novel passes!
    I’m going to suggest my friend write a column about the test for BookPage.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kimberly! The test has been around for awhile, but I only heard about it recently. It would certainly be a good topic for the BookPage column.

  • I agree that YA does pretty well with this test, but I also agree with Suzanne that sometimes the strong heroines in YA can feel too similar to each other. Strong doesn’t necessarily need to mean feisty or warrior-like (though of course there’s nothing wrong with either of those traits). We want to make sure we’re showing all different kinds of strength the same way that we show all different kinds of girls, boys, humans, non-humans, etc. 🙂

    • Yes, Anna! Part 5 of the Females in YA series was about “Strong Female Characters” and how strong doesn’t have to mean physically strong or feisty. There are so many other ways to be strong and I think it is important to have those type of strong female characters represented in YA.

      In case anyone wanted the check out that post here is part 5.

  • I’m pretty sure my books pass this test. If all you need is one conversation between two females that isn’t about guys, then yeah, I’ve got this. Can’t say my NA titles pass though. I can think of one that doesn’t.

    • Hi, Kelly! And maybe your NA titles don’t need to pass the test. They’re romance, right? Romances tend to be more focused on female-male romantic relationships and not friendships. Again, the test isn’t the only (or best) judge on whether a work is gender biased…just one way to start the conversation.

  • Jenni E says:

    I’ve heard of this test, but haven’t really thought about it in terms of my own books. I have a strong romantic component in my current project, and I’m not sure it would pass the test, especially since the main character has a brother also who’s often talked to or about. I also agree with what the other commenters have said. I’d like to see more “regular” characters in YA, especially in the fantasy genre.

  • This is new to me, too–so interesting!

  • I’m trying to think about mine. My female characters are part of a group of characters involved in situation, so often the males are mentioned because they are part of the overall plan for their mission… LOL!

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