What the Bechdel Test Says About Women in Film

By: Mark Mancini  | 
Ingrid Bergman's character Ilsa Lund has zero speaking lines with another woman in the classic film "Casablanca." Warner Bros.

No movie is more quotable than "Casablanca" (1942). Don't take our word for it. Just ask the American Film Institute.

On June 21, 2005, the organization aired a TV special called "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes." True to its title, the show ranked the 100 greatest lines in the history of American cinema up to that point. Six different quotes from the classic "Casablanca" earned a spot on AFI's list, making it the most well-represented movie in the entire special. Take that, "Citizen Kane."


Even if you've never seen "Casablanca," you've probably at least heard these famous lines from the film's Oscar-winning screenplay:

"Here's looking at you, kid." -Rick Blaine "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." -Rick Blaine "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.'" -Ilsa Lund "Round up the usual suspects." -Louis Renault "We'll always have Paris." -Rick Blaine "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." -Rick Blaine


Reading Between the Speaking Lines

Watch those six "Casablanca" lines on screen and you might notice a certain imbalance. All of them come from exchanges of dialogue that include at least one male character. Usually, it's Humphrey Bogart's brooding nightclub owner Rick Blaine. Sometimes the opportunistic Capt. Louis Renault (Claude Rains) chimes in. Sometimes barroom pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) lends his ear.

But none of the famed lines are spoken between a woman and another woman.


This dynamic doesn't go both ways. Men talk to other men, and to women, about all kinds of things in "Casablanca" — love, war, booze, you name it.

But at no point in the movie's 103-minute runtime, however, do viewers hear any kind of conversation between only female characters. Rick's former love interest Ilsa Lund, portrayed by Ingrid Bergman, gets some memorable quotes, to be sure. ("Play it, Sam" is one that stands out.) Yet her in-universe audience is never female; when Ilsa opens her mouth, she's always talking to a man.

"Casablanca" is thus an example of a well-known movie that fails the Bechdel Test. Created in the 1980s, the Bechdel Test has become a popular film evaluation tool. It's also an entry point for a much broader discussion about the experiences and framing of women in the entertainment industry, on- and off-screen.

"Casablanca" certainly has some memorable quotes, but none of those are from dialogue between two women, which is why the classic movie fails the Bechdel Test.
Warner Bros.


The Three Requirements of the Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test was named after graphic novelist Alison Bechdel. In 1985, she published a cartoon titled "The Rule, With Thanks to Liz Wallace" as a new entry in her long-running comic strip, "Dykes to Watch Out For."

"I have this rule, see," says one of Bechdel's characters. "I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it... who, Two, talk to each other about, Three, something besides a man."

Later, in the 2000s, the cartoon spread like wildfire among online feminist communities. Film buffs started using the three-part "rule," which was soon rechristened as the "Bechdel Test," to explore how women fare at the hands of screenwriters.


A movie cannot "pass" the Bechdel Test, as it's now commonly defined, unless the film:

  1. Contains two female characters (most sources add the caveat that they must have names).
  2. Those characters talk to one another.
  3. Their conversation is about literally anything other than a man or group of men.

That's it. Doesn't sound too hard, right? Well, you might be surprised by how many movies — from timeless classics to modern blockbusters — flunk the Bechdel Test anyway.


What Movies Pass and Fail the Bechdel Test?

Jackie Brown
Despite having a strong female protagonist, Quentin Tarantino's 1997 film "Jackie Brown" still fails the Bechdel Test. Miramax

Andrea Press is a professor of media studies and sociology at the University of Virginia, as well as the co-author of the upcoming book "Cinema and Feminism: A Quick Immersion," which she wrote with Sarah Johnson-Palomaki.

One of Press' classes at UVA is called "Sex and Gender Go to the Movies," a course that always opens with a showing of "Casablanca." "It has some iconic images of masculinity and femininity that you see across classical Hollywood cinema," Press says via email.


For all its merits, "Casablanca" still falls short of passing the Bechdel Test. So do "King Kong" (1933), "Citizen Kane" and loads of other movies from the Hollywood studio era.

And it's not like this problem has ever gone away. The AFI published a separate list of the top 100 American movies released from 1916 through 2001. Out of all those titles, 70 films fail the Bechdel Test.

"The Godfather," "Star Wars: A New Hope," "Lawrence of Arabia" and even the list's most recent entry — 2001's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" — all failed.

And we continue to see new blockbusters that fail the Bechdel Test. "Thor: Ragnarok" (2017) has both a female villain and a female superhero, but they never have a direct conversation. Neither do any other women in the film.

Other movies that put women front and center — even as the lead characters — have this same issue.

Take "Jackie Brown," a 1997 crime thriller that got a glowing review from Alison Bechdel herself. "It absolutely fails the Bechdel Test but it has one of the strongest female protagonists I've ever seen in a Hollywood movie — it's an amazing feminist text," Bechdel told Cosmopolitan in 2014.

On the flipside of the coin, the 1937 classic "Stella Dallas," with its strong mother-daughter relationship, does pass. "Some Like It Hot," "Goodfellas," "Mean Girls," "Mad Max: Fury Road" and 2022's "Jurassic World: Dominion" all pass the Bechdel Test, too. "CODA," which won three Academy Awards in 2021, also passes the Bechdel Test.

"CODA," which won three Academy Awards in 2021, passes the Bechdel Test with glowing marks.


Is the Bechdel Test Outdated?

UVA's Press says she thinks it's worth remembering the cultural climate of the 1980s that gave birth to Bechdel's cartoon in the first place.

"As I write in my book, there was a brief feminist period that inspired a series of feminist dramas," she says. "'An Unmarried Woman' is one that comes to mind. 'Girlfriends.' 'Kramer vs. Kramer' with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. 'Stepford Wives,' the original, is based on a famous feminist novel and it's interesting that it comes out in 1975. But it's a very brief moment in Hollywood film."


Note that all of those flicks Press mentions came out in the 1970s. By the mid-80s, the "feminist drama" trend was over. "So if [Bechdel] is developing this test in 1985, she's becoming frustrated that Hollywood isn't taking feminism seriously," Press explains.

Fast-forward to the present and the Bechdel Test is now a staple of mainstream cinema discourse. It's also faced criticism, though, as some scholars argue that a simple passing grade doesn't necessarily render a movie feminist or progressive.

Martha Lauzen, the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, made that case in her 2014 article "Moving Beyond the Bechdel Test."

"If the test is taken and applied literally, the results often make no sense," Lauzen says in an email. "For example, a film like 'Gravity' with a sole female protagonist will fail but a film with highly sexualized portrayals of women, such as 'American Hustle,' will pass. The test sets the lowest possible bar for assessing the quality of portrayals of female characters. It is simple but only useful as a consciousness-raising tool."

Some media and film scholars think the Bechdel Test is outdated because movies like "Gravity," which have strong female characters, fail while other movies that sexualize women pass.
Warner Bros.quest

Unhealthy beauty standards, casting biases against older women, the way some directors frame stalking as a romantic gesture. All these issues deserve way more public scrutiny. The Bechdel Test alone doesn't account for any of them. Then again, it wasn't supposed to, per se.

"[Alison Bechdel is] trying to raise our consciousness of what we accept about popular representations of women in Hollywood film," Press argues.

"Our children are exposed to these representations at a mass level, and they're exposed to them without a lot of critique... I think it's worth addressing and it's worth bringing some of these norms to light. And maybe changing the industry so it starts becoming aware of these prejudices and becoming more diverse in the way it represents men and women."