There seems to be a lot of confusion about the Bechdel test. Many people think the goal is to pass the test, but actually, that’s not it at all.
For those who don’t know, the “test” comes from a comic in which one character cleverly gets out of going to the movies with another by saying she will only go to a movie that contains two named female characters having a conversation with each other about something other than men. That rules out every movie available because, well – think about all the movies you can think of. These scenes are stunningly rare.
Make this observation in the context of discussions on how women are represented in the media, and you often get a response like: “Oh, so I’m supposed to shoehorn this stupid scene into my story so the PC police will get off my back?” But that’s a thought process short-circuited. How on earth would inserting a scene as potentially dull as the one described in the comic make a movie less sexist?
The point of the Bechdel test is something else entirely. Upon realizing how rare these scenes are, the average person is stunned enough to wonder precisely why these scenes are so rare?
Answer: because so few movies and TV shows include multiple, developed, relevant women characters who have any part in advancing the story. Imagine how hard it would be to avoid a scene in which two named men chat about something other than women. Why do you suppose that is? Because virtually every movie and TV show contains multiple, developed, relevant male characters who have some part in advancing the story. See?
Female characters are traditionally peripheral to male ones. That’s why we don’t want to hear them chatting about anything other than the male characters: because in making them peripheral, the writer has assured the women can’t possibly contribute to the story unless they’re telling us something about the men who drive the plot. That is the problem the test is highlighting. And that’s why shoehorning an awkward scene in which two named female characters discuss the price of tea in South Africa while the male characters are off saving the world will only hang a lantern on how powerfully you’ve sidelined your female characters for no reason other than sexism, conscious or otherwise.
It’s not that the audience doesn’t want to hear what “women” characters have to say, as one film pro told me (see above-linked article). It’s that we don’t want to hear what’s said by irrelevant, underdeveloped characters who have nothing to do with the plot. If this was the only role 99.9% of male characters were allowed in film, we might get the idea that male characters never say anything relevant, and should therefore just shut up and look hot.
This, by the way, is why I retain a warm spot in my heart for Xena, despite its flaws: it rarely passed the reverse Bechdel test, thus proving men are not remotely essential for exciting, action-packed stories. Like Xena, Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured women doing exciting things. Neither show could’ve avoided passing the Bechdel test regularly if they’d wanted to: the plots, which relied on women characters, would’ve stalled out in the first act.
Whether or not your story includes the Bechdel scene says absolutely nothing about whether it’s sexist or not. The measure of sexism is whether your story denies women the opportunity to participate in it.