22 June 2024

SleuthSisters, Movies, and the Bechdel Test: Part I

John has inspired us!  A few months ago, John Floyd made a list of movies he really enjoyed which might have been overlooked.  This inspired Liz Zelvin and me to start talking about movies we loved, and why they might be different from those on John's list.

To that end, we decided to write joint posts.  Mine follows, and Liz's will be on Monday.

Thanks for inspiring us, John!

SleuthSisters, Movies, and the Bechdel Test

Many readers of this blog know that I taught fiction writing at college for over 25 years, going back to the early 90s.  The dialogue below happened so often in class, I could phone it in.

Me to adult male student:  "There are no women in your book.  Over 60% of books are bought by women.  You might want to put in someone they can relate to."

Student:  "Yes there is!  See?" (pointing)

Me:  "She's the victim.  You kill her off on page two."

Then much of the class sat dumbfounded, as I pointed out the "Campbell factor," as they called it.

If you want to sell books to 60% of the market, write real women into your books.  Women we can relate to.



The same applies to Hollywood.  In so many movies released in the past twenty years, and by my count, the majority of action movies and thrillers, there are perhaps two women present in supporting roles.  The victim and the babe.

That's it.  Not surprisingly, a lot of thriller books sport the same two female supporting characters. 

(To be fair, sometimes the babe is a villain.  Groovy.  I am encouraged to relate to a victim or a villain.  Or - worst of all - the only supporting female character is a goodhearted prostitute.  Please save me.)

Which is why the Bechdel Test came to be so famous.  Do you know it?

To pass, a film must have:

*Two named female characters

*Who talk to each other

*About something other than a man.

You would be shocked at how few films pass the Bechdel Test.



I cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew, and then moved on to Agatha Christie.

When I was a teen, Christie was my favourite author.  She's still up there in my top ten.  It's no surprise to me that she is the best-selling fiction writer in the world.

By why, you ask?  Surely there are other greats from the same period, even other female authors - Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh etc - who wrote terrific mysteries.

Curious about that, I decided to look at what I liked about the Christie books and movies, as opposed to other great writers.

It was immediately clear.  I could see myself in her books!  I could relate, as there were several females, young and old, in all of her books.  Far beyond the victim and the babe, Christie wrote female sleuths as well as female village characters (Miss Marple and Tuppence Beresford, for starters.)  Real women of all ages, not just gorgeous young ones that needed to be murdered or rescued, or sat around waiting to be a reward for some hero.



So when Liz and I decided to make our lists of films that passed the Bechdel test, the first ones I thought of were all the Agatha Christie films that have been released in the past 25 years.  And while I might not prefer the way Kenneth Branagh's recent films deviate from the books, they still pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours, so they're on the list.  Here's a sample:

Death on the Nile

Crooked House

Murder on the Orient Express

The Secret Adversary

And Then There Were None

Murder in Mesopotamia

Why Didn't They Ask Evens?

4:50 From Paddington

Murder is Easy

Endless Night

The ABC Murders

The Moving Finger

All of the Miss Marple films (too numerous to list here)


Why is it important to see characters you can relate to and admire on the silver screen?

As someone who went to business school in 1974, and had no female profs for the entire four years, I can tell you the following:

Not only do you have no role models, but if you aren't seen, you aren't heard.

Everyone wants to be seen and heard.  Everyone of all ages and gender.

Now let's see what Liz has to say about the subject on Monday!


Melodie Campbell's books always pass the Bechdel Test, but with a large dose (some might say overdose) of humour.  The Merry Widow Murders is out now.  Look for The Silent Film Star Murders, second in the series, arriving next winter.





  1. Amen, Melodie! As you say, my two cents on Monday. What you call babes is often called femmes fatales, a term that irritates me no end: women whose sexual attractiveness to men defines them as deadly to men and hostile to other women. They're usually depicted on book covers as a pair of legs in stiletto heels kicking up as they lie on their back. No torso. No face. No brain. No eyes. No voice with which to talk to other women about topics other than men.

    1. Liz, you've said it well! I've been gritting my teeth re a couple of Anthology covers I've seen recently. It feels like we are back in the 50s, when women still couldn't open a bank account without their husband's or father's signature. And don't get me started on Olympic uniforms!! Melodie

  2. Forgot to say: my post on Monday will include a list of films that pass the Bechdel Test.

  3. Hey Melodie! You're right, I should've included more choices with strong or leading ladies--but, as you said, there (sadly) haven't been as many of those movies out there. Especially action movies, which I sort of focused on. I did like Jackie Brown, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Lucy, Gravity, The Hunger Games, Fury Road, etc., and I LOVED Fargo, Silence of the Lambs, Cat Ballou, Aliens, and others where the women were the hero(in)es. Then again, those are well-known, and I was going for the lesser-known. Loved your list, by the way--there are several there that I haven't seen, but I will. And I'm looking forward to seeing Liz's choices. One fairly recent movie that not many folks seem to have heard about, which has a super-tough and admirable female lead, was The Homesman (Hilary Swank). She had top billing, and the movie was excellent. Thanks for this post!!

    1. John, one of the things I forgot to mention (and could make another post about - grin) is that we are seeing a lot of children's and YA movies with significant female leads and supporting characters. This would lead one to assume that the tide is changing. But that seems to disappear when it comes to adult movies. I think you point it out quite well. Older movies had more women in them. It's recent movies that I'm wincing about. As I saw one person post, "Well, everyone knows women didn't exist before 1990." Thanks for commenting! Melodie

    2. John, speaking of action movies, my husband and I saw Wonder Woman together and both enjoyed it. But that's not the kind of movie I've been thinking about primarily. One key question is whether the women are talking to—and teaming up with—other women...like Melodie and me! Coupla kick-ass Amazons, us.

    3. Laff! You nailed it, Liz. A single sexy female lead with a bunch of male followers is not what I was referring to. That would be like a single male lead with a bunch of women followers (which is often referred to as a cult, I'm just realizing...smile.) Melodie

  4. There used to be great movies which passed the Bechdel Test, thanks to actresses like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Julie Harris, etc.
    Mildred Pierce,
    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,
    The Little Foxes,
    Old Acquaintance,
    The Children's Hour,
    The Haunting (1963)

    1. Yes Liz! And I would be satisfied if there were at least some decent female secondary characters, like there used to be in older movies. Not just sexist stereotypes, as there are today. We seem to be going backwards... Melodie


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