How Virginia Woolf Inspired the Bechdel Test

Some people might be surprised to know that the Bechdel Test was indirectly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction book A Room of One’s Own, which was published in 1929.

The Bechdel Test is a famous feminist benchmark for movies which first originated in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel in 1985. The test uses three simple requirements to evaluate whether a film portrays women in a sexist or stereotypical way. The three requirements are:

1. The film has to have at least two [named] women in it

2. The two women talk to each other

3. The two women talk to each other about something besides a man

According to a post written by Bechdel on her personal blog, the test was inspired by Chapter 5 of Woolf’s book A Room of One’s Own:

“I speak a lot at colleges, and students always ask me about the Test. (Many young people only know my name because of the Test—they don’t know about my comic strip or books.) (I’m not complaining! I’m happy they know my name at all!) But at one school I visited recently, someone pointed out that the Test is really just a boiled down version of Chapter 5 of A Room of One’s Own, the ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ chapter. I was so relieved to have someone make that connection. I am pretty certain that my friend Liz Wallace, from whom I stole the idea in 1985, stole it herself from Virginia Woolf.”

Although Bechdel may have immortalized the idea in her comic strip, she also points out that she wasn’t the one who invented the test and actually first heard about it from her friend, Liz Wallace when she was looking for ideas for her comic strip.

Over the years, the test became associated with Bechdel, but not Wallace, as she told Terry Gross during an NPR interview in 2015:

“I have to confess, I stole this whole thing from a friend of mine at the time because I didn’t have an idea for my strip. My friend Liz Wallace … said, ‘I’ll only see a movie if it has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man.’ That left very, very few movies in 1985. The only movie my friend could go see was Alien, because the two women talk to each other about the monster. But somehow young feminist film students found this old cartoon and resurrected it in the Internet era and now it’s this weird thing. People actually use it to analyze films to see whether or not they pass that test. Still … surprisingly few films actually pass it. ”

Since Bechel’s comic strip was published more than 35 years ago, the Bechdel Test has become an important part of the discussion on modern cinema because it calls attention to gender inequality in films.

How Virginia Woolf Inspired the Bechdel Test

Yet, as an article in The Week magazine points out, it has also become widely misunderstood and is sometimes criticized as merely a flawed and simplistic metric that ranks films based on a technicality when all it was ever intended to be was a tool to promote discussion and awareness of gender equality in film and media.

The test is not the be-all and end-all of movie reviews, it is merely a way to get audiences talking about the way women are represented in movies.

Aside from being a feminist benchmark for movies, it is evident that the Bechdel Test is also a testament to the influence Virginia Woolf still has on not just literature, but all modern art forms, and is living proof that her ideas live on even decades after her passing.

Sources:
Bartyzel, Monika. “Girls on Film: Why the Bechdel Test Is Still So Valuable.” The Week Magazine, 8 Jan. 2015, theweek.com/articles/449406/girls-film-why-bechdel-test-still-valuable
Bechdel, Alison. “Testy”. Dykes to Watch Out For, 8 Nov. 2013, dykestowatchoutfor.com/testy
Garber, Megan. “Call It The Bechdel-Wallace Test.” The Atlantic Monthly, 25 Aug. 2015, theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/call-it-the-bechdel-wallace-test/402259/
“Lesbian Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Countered Dad’s Secrecy By Being Out and Open.” NPR, 17 Aug. 2015, npr.org/2015/08/17/432569415/lesbian-cartoonist-alison-bechdel-countered-dads-secrecy-by-being-out-and-open