The Bechdel Test,or Bechdel Rule is a way of judging whether a movie is feminist friendly. There are only three criteria needed for a movie to pass the Bechdel Test: (1) it has to have at least two women in it with names, (2) those two women talk to each other (3) and they talk to each other about something besides a man.
The test originated in Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip called The Rule. You can check out a video about it here
Now, Lord knows I’m not against men in the movies. I love men. I love Apha heroes, and I can objectify a half-naked Gerard Butler as well as the next woman. And passing or failing the Bechdel Test does not determine whether a movie is GOOD or BAD. I can totally enjoy a movie that fails the Bechdel Test. For example: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Avatar, The Hobbit, Looper, okay, I could go on for pages and pages. Would you be shocked to know the majority of movies made do NOT pass the Bechdel Test? I know I was. gerard_butler_04
If the purpose of the Bechdel Test is to make one aware of the presence of strong women (or lack of it) in popular entertainment, I thought I would apply it to Romance novels. I grabbed the 4 Romance novels I read most recently, and then, since I had never heard of this test until a couple of weeks ago, I was curious to look at my Blazes to see if they would pass the Bechdel Test. Here are the results:

Other Romance novels:
1. Candy Haven’s TAKE IT LIKE A VAMP – FAIL – The only other female with a significant role is the villainess and they only discuss the hero. The assistant and the aunt barely have any dialogue )
2. Lorraine Heath’s DECK THE HALLS WITH LOVE – Fail - While there are plenty of women with names Ladies Sophia, Beatrix, and Violet and Lady Anne, the heroine, Meredith, doesn’t speak to any of them about anything other than men.
3. Courtney Milan’s THE DUCHESS WAR – Pass – The heroine, Minnie, speaks with her 2 aunts and her best friend on several subject other than men.
4. Cindy Dees’ DEADLY SIGHT (Code X) – Fail- The heroine is the only female in the story except for a very brief mention of a couple from previous books in the series.

My Romance novels
1. LET IT RIDE – Pass (Jordan has several conversations with her mom, Tammy)
2. SEDUCE AND RESCUE – Fail (there are three women with names but they only speak to each other about men) 
3. NIGHT MANEUVERS – Fail (Jordan does help Hughes with a makeover but it’s really all about getting a man: Mitch)
4. PRIMAL CALLING – Pass (Serena speaks to her female producer about work)
5. ONCE A HERO – Pass-But not really (Kristen talks to bestie, Amy about her photography contest and surfing but not for any significant length of time)
6. RELENTLESS SEDUCTION – Pass (Claire talks with her bestie, Julia about cults, and their lifelong friendship)

Interesting. Do these results mean that the Romances that failed are bad? Not at all! The Bechdel Test is simply a tool to determine whether or not women have a significant presence in a story. And I would argue that, by their very nature, Romance novels ALWAYS have a strong female presence.
In a recent article, Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism New York Times bestselling author Sarah MacLean says her novels are feminist because, “the heroine is the hero of the story and she is taking action.”
I agree. The article goes on to say, Perhaps there is no greater example of the impact of feminism on the romance genre than in the way it “routinely foregrounds women’s sexual desire,” Historical Romance author Olivia Waite says. Romance novels are the place in our culture where “women are seen enjoying sex, desiring a partner, and having orgasms that are about feeling orgasmic rather than merely looking orgasmic.” Cecilia Grant puts it succinctly, “romance is one of the few places where a woman is a subject in sex, rather than an object. Looking around at pop culture at large, there is no other space where such scenes happen, especially not regularly.”
Anna Cowan believes that feminist romance “tells its readers: you can make your own decisions, and expect your world to respect your right and ability to make your own decisions.”
So, do Romance novels always pass the Bechdel Test? No. But that doesn’t mean there is a lack of strong, empowered women in the genre. However, perhaps just noticing whether the heroine in our next Romance novel talks to another woman with a name about something other than men will make us more aware of our need for strong woman in our entertainment.
What do you think?

8 Responses to “Romance Novels and the Bechdel Test”
  1. Katie says:

    That’s an interesting assessment.

  2. Interesting. Romances,by their very nature, will have most of the conversations about the relationship between the hero and heroine. I’ve never heard of that test, but I agree that romances empower the heroines.

  3. Pamela J. says:

    I find it interesting too, Jillian. I love a story with a good strong heroine. It does add something to the whole plot if they can have a good solid relationship with another female character in the story.

    I guess we can be glad that Firefly passed that test for sci-fy. We had Zoe who is kick ass in every way, Kaylee who is well rounded as a woman and Inara who embraces the seductress that every woman wants to be. And we can’t forget River who had the intelligence to have the most powerful men of the Core planets want to use her for their evil purposes. Leaving River out of the equation for sanity reasons, the other 3 female characters carried on many conversations throughout the series that had to do with lots of topics. Not just men, although Kaylee was fond of seeking council of Inara for that purpose. (Poor Simon…)

    PS- Not to change the subject or anything… GOT MY CON TICKETS! Nathan here I come!!!

  4. Annette W says:

    Interesting! Thanks for sharing

  5. Linda Steinberg says:

    I never heard of that test either, J, but it’s interesting. I have two strong women in my current WIP but one is the villain and they never talk to each other. Many romances have a best friend to heroine talks to but the subject of the conversation is usually men.
    I’ll have to keep this in mind and grade the books I’m reading.

  6. Mary Preston says:

    This the first I have heard of the Bechdel Test too. It’s sounds too narrow a judgement to me.

  7. Von Jocks says:

    I’ve been fascinated by the Bechdel test all month, and you do a great job of explaining it. I agree with you and the other comments that ‘failing’ the test so often doesn’t make romance novels anti-man… woman’s empowerment in general isn’t anti man. But imagine if we could say this about men in western novels, or any movie. Are there at least two? Do they have names? Do they speak to each other about something other than women? The answer is ‘of course,’ almost every time. I do find the contrast interesting.

  8. Desirée O says:

    Great post! I’ve heard of the Bechdel test and love the idea of applying it to romances. Thanks for this! :D

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