By this point, everyone knows what the Bechdel Test is, but as a refresher, it is the idea that a movie must have two women who have a conversation about something other than a man. (The “named women” requirement came later, and there are some people who won’t accept “Mrs. Thus-and-So” as a name even if there are an equal number of characters named “Mr. Thus-and-So,” and that’s getting a little too detailed for my tastes, thanks.) But the Bechdel Test is a blunt tool that is best used for populations of films and discussions of the nature of representation and so forth, not so much for a particular film—and its strange offshoot is the so-called Reverse Bechdel.
Obviously, the Reverse Bechdel is a test to determine if a film has two male characters who have a conversation about something other than a woman. Obviously again, vast numbers of movies pass it, even vast numbers of films that pass the Bechdel. Because the vast majority of films have considerably more men in them than women. Wonder Woman passed Reverse Bechdel. Most Disney movies. I admit it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I’m pretty sure Mad Max Fury Road does.
But I’m less concerned. The population of movies that pass Reverse Bechdel is enormous, and its only use is as an illustrative tool of representation. Even if we take it as an unspoken tenet that the test can only come into consideration if the film has already passed Bechdel. It is frankly something that should only be used as a discussion of any particular film if you’re willing to acknowledge you don’t really care about female representation.
The interesting argument, therefore, is one I heard that was used as a point as to why Bechdel was meaningless that inadvertently heightened its importance. You see, a film primarily involving women wouldn’t be expected to pass the Reverse Bechdel because minor characters only talk about the protagonist, and so of course films that pass Bechdel don’t pass Reverse Bechdel, because the minor characters have to be talking about the protagonist.
There’s a lot of wrong to unpack there. For one thing, again, Wonder Woman passes Reverse Bechdel, because male characters discuss their history together. Which has nothing to do with the protagonist at all. Even the considerably sparser story of Frozen passes before you get into “do Kristoff’s conversations with Sven count?” (Sven says they do.) Leaving aside how often we allow minor distractions and subplots, something so simple as “Okay, I will do [thing that advances our objective] while you do [different thing that advances our objective]” would count.
But think about that unspoken expectation—that the protagonist is male by default, and that it’s how rare female protagonists are that make films as unlikely as they are to pass Bechdel. It’s back to the old “stories about women are for women, and stories about men are universal” canard that is not even remotely being sunk by the popularity of every movie I’ve mentioned by name thus far in this article. I consider Furiosa the protagonist of Fury Road, and even if you don’t, well, we also get into the fact that a story can have more than one driving force, and characters in a film can discuss more than one of them—and do.
Also, you know, it’s not uncommon for even minor characters to talk about themselves. So that’s clearing the bar right there—if two minor characters introduce themselves to each other. That it’s so easy to pass Reverse Bechdel even in a female-led movie should make people more ashamed that so few movies pass Bechdel. In fact, about the only movie I can think of that has a clear reason to fail Reverse Bechdel and pass Bechdel is The Women, where even the dogs are female.