The Gay Bechdel Test

A post at Boing Boing informed me of the Bechdel test, named after Alison Bechdel and her character Mo who detailed the rule in her comic strip ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’.

The rule is:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

It’s amazing what qualifies and the large amount of movies that don’t. Like other ‘laws’ like Godwin’s or Rule 23 it’s a useful tool to reveal a truth and to think about, rather than a hard and fast rule, namely that women do get relegated to wallpaper-thin shallow characters there only for a plot device, and/or the ‘love interest’ in the majority of movies – and that if women do talk, it’s usually about the main male lead.

Obviously there are great movies that qualify, such as the Alien series, or more contentiously (and less great although I think important for women’s roles in games and movies) Resident Evil series (tell me the dark and grimly competitive but also in the end respectful relationship between Alice and Rain in the first movie is somehow stereotypical, it isn’t as is Ripley’s relationship with Newt and later Call) but a lot of great ones that don’t.

Boing Boing makes the important point that wouldn’t these movies be great with strong independent female leads and supporting actresses that aren’t in the background (as someone who loved Terminator and Run Lola Run as well as the aforementioned movies partly because of that difference I would be so there, as well as the likes of Baghdad Cafe and the more arty/’chickflick’ sort). Also is mention of the reverse Bechdel – interesting how some movies are similarly male/female fixated – but obviously there are a lot of movies (80-90%?) that DO cater purely for men and their fine bromance.

I’m aware of this in part because of Celluloid Closet and from a gay aspect – the same sort of ‘shoulder character’ and pushing into the background also applies with gay men, lesbians (I suspect slightly less so since some highly deluded straight men find them sexy….sorry they’re not that much into you, dear! So they get more ‘explotative’ foreground titilation treatment sometimes – say in Basic Instinct for example), trans (only ever come singly, noticed that?) and bi I think you can devise a gay bechdel:

  1. Are there more than 2 out gay men*?
  2. Do they talk to each other? Or even do more than *shock horror* kiss?
  3. Do they talk about anything other that sex**/being gay/men?

* or lesbians or transgender etc.
** or shopping. 😉 Or cats…

Even when for brief periods it’s been fashionable to have gay storylines or token gay characters (Peter’s Friends, Four Weddings, In and Out, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain) very few of them could really cope with showing real gay life and real 3 dimensional gay characters. Of that list, only maybe Four Weddings actually qualifies (not seen Brokeback, but the closeted nature is another tortured stereotype, hence the ‘out gay man’ – the addition of a ‘freak’ to add colour, so Jaye in the Crying Game, Peter in Peter’s Friends, etc).

In more modern films, the gay friend as confidant to the lead woman or ‘good reliable friend’ (that never dates, has sex, has a partner, has any ideas other than shopping, basically an emasculated and desexualised man) are always single. If they show any sexual interest it’s a plot device or humorous – a figure of mockery. And never even advance the plot along except usually are the first victim of the monster, or provide the soul-searching chat that makes her mind up, etc. Totally unthreatening, and totally unrealistic, and a token.

It’s an improvement but also a reaction to the freakshow of psychopaths, perverts and murderers in the 50s-80’s – the likes of Cruising and Silence of the Lambs proved such a vocal reaction it seems the cinematic version of a queer Andrex puppy is the result. It’s not negative or positive portrayal that’s at fault, it’s breadth and depth – as with the original Bechdel it should be a mixture, not all one sort.

In fact outside a few specifically gay targetted films (Cachorro for example), and the ones mentioned I’m finding it hard to think of any that qualifies for my gay Bechdel…


  1. Martin C
    July 27

    Interesting read. What are your thoughts on the gay characters in the American sitcom Modern Family?

  2. […] While the results of applying the Bechdel Test to your favorite shows can be depressing, it is even worse if you try to apply a similar test about gay characters. If you transliterate the Bechdel Test into a test of how gays are treated in storytelling, it might look like this proposal: […]

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