Bechdel and Hugos

The Bechdel Test (or if you prefer, the Bechdel-Wallace Test) is back in the news because of a particularly silly essay in the conservative National Review

Now, yes, it is not some infallible instrument of feminist quality but it does a couple of things well:

  1. It is simple and sounds in principle like an easy bar to get over and that many films and other media don’t does highlight a genuine issue with the lack of representation of women.
  2. It is a handy criteria to use to aggregate data. Yes, yes, lots of exceptions – good positive stories about women that don’t pass and sleazy, stereotyped stories that do BUT in aggregate we can get a sense of how women are being portrayed.

Take the Hugo written fiction for example. Death’s End passes the Bechdel Test, whereas The City Born Great doesn’t but that doesn’t tell us much about either story specifically (particulalry given their different lengths).

But what if NONE of the Hugo finalist stories passed? What would that tell us? It would show that in aggregate that women were not well represented as characters and that at best they are represented in the context of men.

I did a quick count of some numbers using a sort of modified Bechdel test. The modification was partly out of laziness and partly to make the test a bit stricter. What I did was count up the stories were I could recall (without re-reading) whether two women had a conversation about something other than a man. In effect, that meant that the characters and the conversation were significant enough to the story that they were memorable. While I was at it I also counted up whether there was a significant woman character at all in the story.

I won’t give the data per story for two reasons:

  1. As I said above it isn’t about the individual stories.
  2. I may have forgotten a particular conversation in a story or dismissed it as not being substantial enough and that would be beside the point.

Anyway, of the twenty four* stories:

  • 21 (87.5%) had a major character who was a woman (more depending on your definition of ‘major)
  • 12 (50%) passed the Bechdel Test based on my recollection (possibly more if there are less memorable conversations)
  • 12 (50%) passed a reverse Bechdel i.e. two men having a conversation about something other than a woman (again, possibly more – based on what I could remember of the characters)

Make of that what you will.

*[I counted “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” as a yes, even though there aren’t any conversations as such or maybe the whole thing is a conversation]

8 responses to “Bechdel and Hugos”

  1. Short stories and novelettes can easily fail the Bechdel test (or the reverse Bechdel test) simply because the short length and limited number of characters often don’t allow for the respective character conversations. Therefore you can’t really judge a short story for failing the Bechdel test, e.g. The City Born Great only has two named characters, who happen to be men.

    With works of novella and novel length, it becomes more problematic, if they fail the Bechdel test, though there are reasons that might happen, e.g. a male first person narrator.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes – and the City Born Great is a good example of a story with other kinds of positive representation which would fail the Bechdel test. However, across several short stories it would be an issue if most failed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Fist of…” has a flashback/memory where the protagonist is talking to her sister about how cool it is to live in the big city. (As opposed to home, where their parents qvqa’g npprcg gung gur fvfgre jnf genaf, naq xrcg ersreevat gb ure jvgu znyr anzr naq cebabhaf.) Mention of the sister’s fave city place to eat and whatever.

    NR, like many people, is too dumb to realize the B-W test is useful in aggregate. “Iron Man 3” isn’t feminist, it’s mostly about dudes blowing stuff up, yet it passes the test b/c of one scene between Pepper and the woman scientist.

    But the first 20 minutes of “Wonder Woman” pass it all the time. 🙂 It’s on my ballot next year, for sure.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I recently went to see the musical theater adaptation of Bechdel’s own memoir, Fun Home. Ironically enough, it only barely passes the Bechdel test itself – the vast majority of it is about Alison’s father, and her relationship with him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t seen the musical, but I love Bechdel’s graphic… memoirs, I guess we have to call them, since they aren’t novels. Fun Home is mostly about her relationship with her father, but as I recall, there are a number of scenes with Bechdel’s women friends, including her lovers, where other things are talked about besides Dad.

      I like Are You My Mother? almost more than I like Fun Home — that one’s about her relationship with her mother.


Blog at

%d bloggers like this: