Alison Bechdel and a damsel in distress

I follow a blog which you might also find interesting, so here’s the link. This particular entry was about something called the Bechdel test. This was the first time I had heard of it and what it is about.

In short, this is a test about gender bias in fiction (books or movies). It’s a very simple test to perform. There are three questions that need to be answered:


  1. Are there at least two female characters in the story?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk to each other about something OTHER than men?

If all answers are “yes”, the movie passes the Bechdel test. If any of them are “no”, it fails.

Researching further, I found this TED talk where I learned that out of a 100 blockbuster movies done in 2011, only 11 of them passed this test.


Exactly, I could hardly believe it myself!


Women who are employed – talk about work issues.

Women who are mothers – talk about children.

Women who have female friends – talk about friends and life issues.

Women who are wives – still talk about something other than men.


How can it be that we don’t see this in the movies? Where are they hidden? Or – on the other hand – why don’t we see normal women in the movies that most of us enjoy watching?

And in the end: what kind of imprint does this make on us, the audience watching it? Does it make us behave accordingly?


Now, of course, after I read this blog, I went to dig through my two storylines I’m currently writing, to ask myself: am I doing the same thing? Mind you, both of these do have a love story in their midst, which might be difficult to make the Bechel pass.

However, I am proud to inform you that they both pass, even book nr. 2, which I just began to write.



Still, there is one thing that puzzles me: most of movies or books adored by women are not about strong, independent female characters, with little or no interference of men. Most of them are stories where a woman is in some kind of danger and a man is there to protect her (from hungry wolves, from criminals, from a van sliding on ice and is just about to crush her). Why? Why do we (women) like seeing that?

Digging back into my biological education, I would say it’s genetic: it is an intrinsic and instinctive choice of a prospective partner who is strong enough, reliable enough and able to defend the tribe/group/herd/family. Not very romantic, I know, but this instinct has been around for more than 100 thousand years, whereas our own newly found freedom and equality between genders is a bit more than 60 years old.


So, are characters that pass the Bechdel test and damsel-in-distress figures – opposites?

I actually don’t think so: these are realistic persons, female characters (I purposefully didn’t say “strong”) who are smart, have women friends and family they talk about more than just men, BUT who do follow the genetic imprint of finding a “mate” who is strong and protective of them and their planned families.


So, your turn: Please, list for me how many movies/books you have seen/read that tick these two boxes (Bechdel test pass AND genetic imprint of a strong and protective mate) apart from those that I’m writing and you haven’t read yet 😉  ?

4 Replies to “Alison Bechdel and a damsel in distress”

  1. Hey ya. Interesting post. Can you elaborate more on that idea that it’s intrinsic that women are likely to choose mates that strong reliable?

    I know about research that says women display different preferences for men depending on whether they are on the pill or not.

    I suppose I am not sold on the idea that a preference for a strong dude (if that’s true) automatically implies that women are helpless and in need of protection. (I know you didn’t imply that but I feel that this is often what movies portray. ‘Girls need rescuing’ to me is an extrapolation of ‘Girls like strong dude’)

    If we’re having this discussion based purely on genetics and our primeval history, then is there other information we should consider?

    I’m pretty sure that back in cave-dwelling days women were pretty resourceful, strong and capable. Men would go out hunting and women had to fend for themselves.

    Do you have more information about our genetic history that can help us here?

    1. hi Karin, thanks for your comment!

      This is exactly the issue: the movies (and books) often portray women who need protection. My point was that the audiences, and mainly women audiences, like this. My question then was, why is that, and also, is this in opposition to characters that pass the Bechdel tests? My conclusion was that it wasn´t, because I think both of these characteristics exist in real life, in one person.

      There are two points in your comment I wouldn´t agree with:

      1. Women needing protection does not mean that they are helpless. They might be strong and independent women, with their own job, etc, who still find themselves in a position where they need protection. I´ll give you an example: a woman (a very strong and positive character in a book) is about to be crushed between two cars. There is a “prospective mate” (who is, by the way, superhuman) who saves her because he´s so strong that he can bend metal. The guy is “larger than life”, I realize, so it´s not possible in real life, but – women love it! I love it! It´s a bestseller and a blockbuster. And thinking of why women like this (and many other similar examples), my assumption was that this was genetic: women want to see protective male because they might find themselves in a situation where they or their children might need it ( ,, , ).

      2. Fact is that women are generally physically weaker, even in cave-dwelling days ( ). That, however, has nothing to do with gender discrimination. It is ok to be physically weaker, or choose the same gender for ones’ love partner, or have different color of the skin, and have same human rights to others. The fact that there are differences between women and men, does not undermine women´s human rights, whatever these differences are.

      So my point was that this instinctive predisposition (I want someone who will protect me and my children if I need it) goes hand-in-hand with the Bechdel-pass type of character (strong, smart and independent) because I think both are real. The difference is that the latter one we see in movies a lot less than the first one, which is something I criticize, and was the point of the blog.

      But, it´s only my view 🙂
      Let me know if it´s clearer now.
      Thanks again for commenting!

      1. Hiya
        Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

        I suppose I disagree that women love seeing other women as damsel in distress and in need of protection. I definitely agree with you that there is some science behind the attraction to the ‘neanderthal’ type dude. Heck, my dude at home ticks some of those boxes (in a modern kinda way).

        I guess I take issue with movies (as do you) that tend to only show women as ‘damsel in distress’ and less able to save themselves than is realistic. Sometimes we get a great female character who fends for herself, contributes to the team during the whole film and then in the last couple of scenes either does something idiotic, is knocked unconscious and needs rescuing. That’s just annoying half the time.

        I would love to see a film that portrays strong hunky men (which I personally quite like) alongside capable women who don’t act like idiots. It’s the storyline which irks me, not the characters themselves as much.

        Buffy the Vampire Slayer is actually a good example of what I’m talking about. Her love-interest is a hunky man, strong and capable of protecting her, however she doesn’t need him to step in and ‘save her’ or fight her battles. She is capable in her own right, but still drawn to him.

        Thus supporting the ‘drawn to hunky men’ principle, but also showing us that you can like having a strong guy around and still solve your own problems.


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