Rule 1: Does the film feature at least two women and at least two men, and do they have a conversation with each other that is about something more than the other gender?
Rule 2: Is there any physical violence that is portrayed (a) as if it is humorous or not serious, (b) as if it was normal or acceptable, or (c) as if the recipient in some way deserved the violence?
The original Bechdel Test
The Bechdel Test originated in the 1970's and by the 2010's had received a significant amount of popularity. According to Wikipedia it asks "whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man".
It highlights the fact that women are often relatively absent in films (and television, and the media generally) and that when they are present, they often have roles that are merely in support of male lead roles. Various assessments of what percentage of films pass or fail the test have been published, with most concluding that roughly 40-50% of major films fail. (Smaller budget films tend to do better, but the situation is still not good).
This failure rate is often cited as evidence that mainstream media (and our culture, more generally) is dismissive, sexist, and misogynistic towards women (especially those in positions of authority).
Reverse Bechdel Tests
Men's Rights Activists and others have pointed out that the Bechdel Test, while often portrayed as an assessment of gender issues in film and other media, is actually only a measure of women's issues.
In response, some attempts have been made to reverse the Bechdel Test, by simply reversing the genders; "Are at least two men represented, and do they speak of something other than women?". Although some films fail this reverse test, a sizeable majority pass, and this is often accepted as evidence that we live in a male-dominated world and that our media serves men's interests.
However, this raises an interesting question: Does any representation equal good representation? Can we assume that because men are somewhat omnipresent, that they are doing better than their (less well represented) counterparts?
Because gender trends - patterns of privilege, sexism, and conditioning - affect men and women differently, there are very few measures of gender fairness that can simply be "gender-flipped" and produce any useful kind of comparison.
To do a genuine "reverse Bechdel Test", one needs to reverse-engineer the thinking that led up to the test and not just the wording.
I am not privy to what Alison Bechdel was thinking when she developed what became the Bechdel Test, but it's easy to imagine that the test arose in response to what is arguably the biggest problem facing women in the media: Massive under-representation and, if present, being referenced around male interests. Her assessment of the situation - and subsequent intervention - makes sense.
To create a properly reversed Bechdel Test, one needs to consider what the biggest problems facing men in our media (and culture) are. It's not such an easy thing to do, and there is no objective way to measure it; for instance, how does one weigh up the lack of credible male representation in family and community life, and balance it against Hollywood's frequent failure to represent men as emotionally mature and communicative beings? ...It is impossible.
In the end, I simply decided that violence against men is a pretty substantial issue - and a very under acknowledged one. So the test was simple: Does the film portray violence against men in a way that is humorous, in a way that normalises the violence, or in a way that suggests that the victim of the violence somehow deserved it?
And, just like that, almost every popular film has failed the test, because almost every film celebrates, accepts, or makes fun of violence against men. If you - like me - think it's saddening how few films pass the Bechdel Test, prepare to be stunned at how few pass this new amendment.
Personally, I dislike any kind of gender politics that only address one side of the story. In an attempt to rid the world of gender-based pain, unfortunately our one-sided analyses often create new layers of it. At the same time, there is rarely a reason not to include all genders in our observations, even if the beneficiaries of our interventions will mainly be from just the one gender.
So it was a simple process to bring the original Bechdel Test and my addition together, and frame both rules in a way that is inclusive of both genders; see the beginning of this article.
Friends, we live in a very gendered and sexist society. It is misogynistic, as is hinted at by the Bechdel Test. But our society may be just as misandric - as hinted at in the Barnett Test.
I think we're only just getting started on this topic. (A more thorough test of gender fairness would have to include something about sex and consent, and also something about whether women and men get to play roles outside of typical gender-conditioned patterns). A lot needs to change, and I hope this test helps us move towards a culture that represents both women and men well.