B is for the Bechdel test and what it shows us about the novels we read

Author: Anne

Date Published: Apr 26th 2017, 6:01pm

The Bechdel test is an excellent idea which was originally designed to be used for films but has also been applied to books. It aims to measure the sexism of a piece of work by asking a simple question – is there a scene where two named women talk together about something which is not a man ? You can find out more information about the background to this on Wikipedia and you can also find lists of well-known films which fail the test and ideas on how to extend it to look at other types of diversity.

This is obviously a very rough and ready test because a book which passes it may also contain sexist material and those which fail may not be sexist but have some other reason for lack of female characters (“The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco for example is set in a monastery, “Moby Dick” is set on board ship, and “Robinson Crusoe” has only two named characters anyway). I have, however, found it amusing, and rather revealing, to apply this test to some of my reading. Don’t get too hung up on it though – it is just an indication or a tool.

Initially, I thought that most books I read would pass this test. You usually, in a contemporary novel, have a main male and female character who are trying to achieve something together – to solve a crime or find the Holy Grail, for example. These characters talk together about lots of things and usually have friends of the same gender as they are. On reflection, however, I realised that in a lot of cases the main characters discuss the subject at issue, the male character contacts friends and acquaintances to find out more information, and the woman talks to her best friend about the man – whoops ! I am not sure that I would have realised this had it not been for the application of this test.

Obviously it doesn’t work in 100% of novels but I have found, for example, in detective novels where there is a female detective that she usually doesn’t have another female to talk to about stuff. In action and adventure novels the female main character is often isolated from her friends and family and has only the male character who she can trust. In fantasy novels, especially epic ones, the fact that they are based around pseudo-Medieval hierarchies doesn’t help. I’ll list below novels that have been identified as failing to pass the test – lots are from previous generations but sadly some are very up to date and may have been reviewed on this site without anyone having noticed the fact that they feature few women.

It does seem that, in many books, one main female character is enough, almost as if women live in a world where their culture and emotional life is unimportant unless it is shared by a man. Of course, there are lots of books where female friendship is important and where women discuss their families and life events with other women – we call these books “Women’s Fiction”. I think that this test may actually just have proved its point.


“Around the World in Eighty Days” by Jules Verne

“Interesting Times” by Terry Pratchett

“Watership Down” by Richard Adams (presumably we are talking male and female rabbits here

“Skin Game” by Jim Butcher (this is a difficult one because it’s a first person narration by a man)

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins

“Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams

“The Lord of the Rings” by JRR Tolkein

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

The Narnia books by CS Lewis

“Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand” by Carrie Vaughn

“Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card

“The Hunt for Red October” by Thomas Clancy

“The Silver Pigs” by Lindsey Davis (another first person narration by a man)

“The Day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham

“Kim” by Rudyard Kipling

“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl

“Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke