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What Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend reveal about the limitations of the Bechdel test

The CW
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The CW was all about the Bechdel test on Monday.

On Jane the Virgin, Jane’s new adviser instructs her to make sure the romance novel she's writing passes the Bechdel test, prompting the show’s narrator to assess whether the show itself passes the test. (Diagnosis: not great.) And on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca is visited by a dream ghost/Jiminy Cricket figure who admonishes her to stop paying so much attention to the guys in her story: "Do you know how hard it is to pass the Bechdel test as a dream ghost?"

The Bechdel test is integral to the way we talk about pop culture

The Bechdel test is named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who introduced the idea in 1985 in her comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" (although she says it should be called the Bechdel-Wallace test after her friend Liz Wallace, who gave her the idea). The rules are simple: To pass the test, a work of fiction must contain at least two women, with names, who have a conversation about something besides a man.

"The Rule," Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel, 1985
The original Bechdel test.
"The Rule," Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel, 1985.

The test has become an integral part of the way we talk about pop culture. Websites maintain extensive databases detailing which movies pass and which don’t. In Sweden, some movie theaters are rating movies by whether they pass the Bechdel test. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens passed, it was a cause for celebration. And a major part of the feminist critique of dude-centric prestige films like The Social Network is that they don’t pass it.

The Bechdel test has also been the subject of some criticism: If a movie like Sex and the City 2 can pass it while The Hurt Locker the first movie to net a Best Director Oscar for a woman — fails, how much does the test really tell us about how feminist a movie is? Bechdel herself says she’s "little bit sheepish" about its popularity as a tool for analysis; she intended to use it as nothing more than the setup for a joke.

The CW showcased both sides of the Bechdel test

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend demonstrates exactly what the test is good for: It helps us redirect our focus away from romantic plot lines, like Rebecca’s Josh-or-Greg angst, and toward the rest of the story. In "Josh Has No Idea Where I Am!" as Rebecca’s dream ghost walks her through her past, Rebecca keeps trying to talk about the men in her life: her absent father, the sweet college nerd she overlooked in favor of a douchey play director, and, of course, Josh Chan, the guy of whom she is the titular crazy ex-girlfriend.

"Forget about the guys!" Rebecca’s dream ghost tells her. "That’s the worst part about being a ghost and working with women. So much talk about the guys. It’s not the guys. FORGET THE GUYS!" Instead, the show informs us, the important parts of Rebecca’s life are her mother, who loves her; music, which Rebecca loves; and her friends, who care about her.

This shift in focus is the kind of thing the Bechdel test does at its best. A good Bechdel-passing work of fiction creates a space in which women can have complex interior lives that are not solely focused on men, in which they have interests and passions and mixed feelings that are important in their own right, not for how they affect the men around them.

But "Josh Has No Idea Where I Am!" also demonstrates some of the test's limitations. It is, after all, a rare episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that passes the Bechdel test. Most of Rebecca’s conversations with her best friend Paula revolve around her plans to win back Josh; her conversations with Josh’s girlfriend Valencia are about whether or not she’s trying to steal Josh away; her conversations with her neighbor Heather are about her plans for a one-night stand. If we use the Bechdel test as a definitive arbiter of feminism, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fails miserably.

What the Bechdel test can’t measure is how important men are in the context of the conversations women have about them. And for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the answer is "not very." When Rebecca decides to turn her life upside down to follow Josh across the country, her decision has nothing to do with Josh as a person — it has to do with Rebecca and her desire for happiness and how she projects that desire onto Josh.

Likewise, when Rebecca talks about boys with her friends, the focus is rarely on the boy himself. Instead, it's on the unapologetic middle school pleasure these women get from talking about their crushes and planning their romantic strategies together, as a team. It’s not a coincidence that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's premiere episode ends with Rebecca and Paula singing a duet together. The lyrics might be about Rebecca winning Josh over, but the song isn’t really about the guy. The joy of the moment comes from the fact that Rebecca has clearly found her true soul mate: her best friend.

On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, guys are excuses, tools the show can use to explore the psyches and relationships of its female characters. None of Rebecca’s Bechdel-violating conversations about Josh are really about Josh. They’re about Rebecca herself, and her interests and passions and mixed feelings that are important in their own right, not for how they affect the men around her. Forget the guys. The situation is a lot more nuanced than that.

The Bechdel test provides a solid baseline, but there are limits to its usefulness

Jane the Virgin, meanwhile, is downright skeptical about the usefulness of the Bechdel test. In "Chapter Thirty-Seven," Jane rolls her eyes as she checks her manuscript to make sure it passes the test, at the request of her stern adviser. "Yeah, she sounds like a hard-ass," Jane's mother, Xiomara, sympathizes, right before she changes the subject to talk about boys. But even after Jane revises the manuscript to be Bechdel-compliant, her adviser doesn’t like it: So what if a book passes the test on a technicality? That doesn’t mean it’s feminist; the test is just "a baseline."

The episode itself only passes the Bechdel test on a technicality too: Jane tells a book club full of women that she enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and a green checkmark appears in a corner of the screen where the narrator has been tracking the episode's Bechdel rating. But does that make Jane the Virgin anti-feminist?

This is, after all, a show that's full of complex, three-dimensional women with full, rich lives. Jane has romantic drama, sure, and a major part of her character arc is focused on motherhood and her relationship with her son. (Fact: Any conversation Jane has about Mateo fails the Bechdel test.) But her arc is also about her career aspirations, her dreams of becoming a writer, and her slowly developing confidence in her own voice. It’s about her relationship with her spirituality and how much religion is a part of her life.

Boys are not the be-all, end-all of Jane’s life — or of Xiomara’s life or Alba’s. Xiomara has career goals, too, and the deft, nuanced way Jane the Virgin has explored her decision to refocus on those goals now that her daughter is an adult — along with her fear that she’s waited too long to do it — has been a joy to watch. And Alba, Jane's grandmother, has her politically charged immigration status storyline and her slowly changing religious convictions. The idea that the question of whether Jane the Virgin is a feminist show might be decided over a throwaway line at a book club highlights the limitations of the Bechdel test.

And it is limited. It is a blunt instrument, fantastic for looking at trends and almost useless for looking at individual works of fiction. To say that Ratatouille fails the Bechdel test means very little; to say that 10 out of 14 Pixar movies fail the Bechdel test means a lot.

What makes The CW’s current Monday-night lineup feminist is not its ability to pass or fail the Bechdel test. It’s the fact that the network has created a space in which women can have complex interior lives that are not solely focused on men, in which they have interests and passions and mixed feelings that are important in their own right, not for how they affect the men around them.

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