The Bechdel Test & YA Books (With Charts!)

It might just be that Kelly at Radiant Shadows has become my YA blogging inspiration. Last month she posted an interesting discussion of YA books and the The Bechdel Test. What is The Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test: a test measuring female presence in fictional media where in order to pass, the media must meet the following criteria:

  1. It includes at least two [named] women,
  2. who have at least one conversation,
  3. about something other than a man or men.

It’s surprising how many movies, video games, and books do not pass this test! Anita Serkeesian from Feminist Frequency (who is pretty awesome, by the way) explains this very well (yes, Kelly also had this video in her post, but it’s so good that I wanted to include it here, too.)

Over at Radiant Shadows, Kelly went on to explain in more detail, and I was surprised to discover that many of the books she’s read don’t pass the test. So, naturally, all of this got me thinking about the YA books I’ve read and if they pass The Bechdel Test. Right off the bat, there were some that I knew passed the test (Prophecy of the Sisters series), but I couldn’t think of many that didn’t pass the test. At that point, it was time to dig deeper!

How Many of the YA Books I’ve Read Pass the Test?

Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink

This book definitely passes the Bechdel Test.

That’s right: I collected data, and compiled statistics, and created charts! While collecting all this data, I decided to break it down by… not genre, really, but… er, category I guess. Category, in this case, means things like vampires, werewolves, zombies, dystopian, magic, etc. This means that yes, many of my books fit into more than one category, and I’m okay with that. In addition, I collected rating numbers for each book, and marked whether or not it passed the Bechdel Test. I wanted to see if certain categories were more likely top ass the test, and also if there were any correlations as far as how much I liked those books.

A Note About My Collection Process

It is true that many of these books I read over a year ago, and it can be hard (impossible) to recall every conversation that happened in every book you’ve read. But I did my best to remember each one, and I might have been too generous, but we’ll see. I also tagged all my books on Goodreads with passes-bechdel-test, for easy future reference. Feel free to look over my list and correct me if one of them does NOT pass, but I marked that it does (you know, because you have nothing better to do?).

On With the Charts!

To begin, just a general breakdown. I collected this data for 93 total books (yes, I have read more than this, but I excluded some, sorry!). Since some books fit more than one category, I have 139 total ratings. First, let’s see what percentage of these books passed the test.

charts_booksbechdel

So, either I am good at picking books that pass this test, I was too generous with my tagging, or YA authors are super awesome and avoiding this trope! Since my data differs significantly from Kelly’s, I guess we’ll have to go with one of the first two options.

Next we’ll look at broad categories. I have 20 total categories, but I combined them into 5 larger ones:

  • Paranormal (vampires, werewolves, super powers, angels, demons, ghosts)
  • Science Fiction (cyborgs, clones, alternate universes, genetic modification, steampunk)
  • End of the World (zombies, dystopian)
  • Fantasy (witches, magic, dragons, fairies, magical realms)
  • Other (contemporary, historical)

And let me just say, it is HARD to categorize books, so you may not disagree with all of my choices, but I had to draw the line somewhere! Here’s how much each category takes up in my overall ratings:

chart_categorytotal

(As you can see, I prefer fantasy and paranormal over most everything else.)

And here’s how each category measured up overall.

chart_categorybechdel

I find it interesting — although not especially surprising — that the science fiction category has a lower percentage of books that passed the Bechdel test. I think sci-fi books are more likely to have male protagonists, or just generally include more male characters. I also suspect that the fantasy category has such a high percentage because so many of these books I choose for the abundance of (powerful) female protagonists and secondary characters.

What I forgot to make note of (and yes, I am kicking myself) is how many of each different rating (3 stars, 4 stars, etc.) passed the test. I was really interested to see this, though. So, let’s see if I can at least try to compare a different way.

… Okay. No, no, I can’t. Which sucks. So I guess I’ll stop for now. Next time, I also want to run this test past the non-YA books I’ve read and see some statistics for THAT!

Aren’t You Excited?

I know, me too!

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10 thoughts on “The Bechdel Test & YA Books (With Charts!)

    • Indeed! Apparently I follow a lot of feminism activists on twitter, so I’ve heard of it before, but it only occurred to me to test the books I read recently.

  1. I like the Bechdel test as a general measure, and its an easy way to demonstrate disproportionate portrayal, but I think there has to be some degree of “acceptable exception” for it. I think I myself may be currently writing a long short story/short novel that might not pass. It’s about a couple seperated by space and circumstance, and mostly follows the female half. Nearly every conversation that occurs, between anyone, is focused on either her relationship or another character’s experience with relationships. And I don’t think there ever is a male-male conversation. (Actually, I’ve just realized that it passes currently by one conversation in a flashback.)

    So I could see several potential exceptions, that still arent horribly sexist, Esp in the case of short stories which are more tightly focused. Or I rationalize it as possibly being ok if the vast majority of all male -male conversations are also about women. Or if the character conversations tend to drift from one subject to another so that in one conversation two women mentioned a man, but also discussed two other subjects.

    I also posit that passing the test technically doesn’t count if the conversation that isn’t about men is about shoes.

    So I’d be interested to see if you’ve read anything that either passes or fails, but you don’t think the pass/fail paints an accurate picture. I love the stats and graphs you did. I’m interested to see if the percent of pass changes with age of intended audience.

    • I have to agree with you on all points. In fact, I think I kind of naturally used those rules when deciding if each book passed or failed. Like, maybe their conversation had a man mentioned in it, but he wasn’t the center of the conversation, etc. I like your rule for if it’s about shoes, it doesn’t count, lol. *Substantial* conversation is the key here, no?

      I am very interested in reading this short story/novel you’re writing. Sounds interesting, and reminds me of an anime I saw a few years ago. Can’t remember the name though.

      “I’m interested to see if the percent of pass changes with age of intended audience.”
      As am I! The problem, though, is that I don’t think I’ve read nearly as many “adult” novels as I have YA. Although I could be wrong. I also think that my results are going to continue to be skewed, because I have a tendency to choose genres and/or books that likely have multiple female main characters. (In general, I seem to be less interested in men than women, be it characters or musical voices or whatever. Not always, but often.)

      • I’ll have to send you a draft, once I’m done. I was thinking about putting it on the blog but I don’t know.

        I theorize that the percentage of pass might go down as the intended age rises, because I think people are more conscious of trying to give “young girls” good role models. Although your personal good female character radar may control for that.

        I’m prob going to write a blog semi inspired by this conversation, when I get time..

        • I’d love it if you sent me a draft! (I wanted to ask, but i don’t like to be too pushy, especially when it comes to something like writing).

          Yes, my suspicions are pretty much the same. I think with YA, a lot of times it’s about appealing to girls or boys specifically, so the girl books will have more girls in them. And if the protagonist is female, she usually has female friends or cousins or something to interact with. The ones with male protagonists don’t pass the test nearly as easily. The few I can think of off the top of my head right now… none of them pass.

          Sweet, I would love to read more of your thoughts on this! It’s nice to get some engaging dialogue around here, lol.

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