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The Bechdel Test still matters, but for its original purpose

Harley Quinn and her Birds of Prey remind us why

Left to right, Rosie Perez (Renee Montoya), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Huntress), Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra Cain), and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Black Canary), in Birds of Prey (Or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Warner Bros. Pictures
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Today, there’s rarely a discussion of women in cinema without some mention of the Bechdel Test. The quick thought experiment highlights gender disparities in film by asking whether movie contains two women who speak to each other about something other than a man. When applied across the whole swath of modern cinema, the Test is an effective way to illustrate the surprising number of films out there in which female characters only react to the men around them.

The Bechdel Test doesn’t really tell you anything about an individual movie — it’s not a measure of quality (or even of feminist content). But that doesn’t keep people from applying it to individual movies as if it were. And with a new superhero movie in theaters that features not just one but five female leads, there is an understandable temptation to apply the Bechdel Test to Birds of Prey.

What’s ironic is that Birds of Prey is kind of everything the Bechdel Test is testing for. The original Bechdel Test, that is. A test that came from a comic created by and for queer people — but especially queer women who wanted to see themselves represented on the big screen.

Veronica Cartwright as Lambert and Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley sit side by side in Alien.
Lambert and Ripley in Alien.
Image: 20th Century Fox

The Bechdel-Wallace Test

The Bechdel Test is named for Alison Bechdel, the legendary queer cartoonist who became a name for her weekly comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. DtWOF ran from 1983-2003 in the progressive cartooning newspaper Funny Times, was syndicated in numerous queer periodicals, and today, is foundational text for a generation of queer folks. Bechdel has continued to soar that first burst of popularity: her graphic memoir Fun Home was adapted into a hit Broadway musical, and she was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2014.

In 1985, Bechdel published “The Rule,” a single installment of Dykes to Watch Out For, in which one lesbian character explains her personal rules for whether she’ll go see a movie. The rules came to be called the Bechdel Test.

Two lesbians walk by movie posters with overly muscled men wielding guns and swords, “I have this rule, see,” one says, “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.” Dykes to Watch Out For, 1985. Image: Alison Bechdel

The rules, which Bechdel prefers to call the Bechdel-Wallace Test, as they were inspired by her friend Liz Wallace, evolved into a way to reveal male-bias in cinematic storytelling. But in its original, humorously intended form, it was also something a bit more exclusive.

The characters in “The Rule” (the two resemble named characters from later in the strip’s life, but weren’t named at the time it was published) are both lesbian women, trying to decide on a movie, and fed up with being unable to see themselves anywhere in mainstream, fun, action-y cinema. One of the characters remarks that she hasn’t seen a movie since Alien, a six-year-old release, in which the two women talk to each other about the alien itself.

As they talk, the women in the comic walk past movie posters of overly muscled men wielding guns and swords on parodic posters for movies called The Mercenary, The Barbarian, The Vigilante, and Rambo Meets Godzilla. And to a straight woman, the male power fantasy of Rambo might at least hold the appeal of seeing a chiseled Sylvester Stallone at his prime. But he’s neither a power fantasy nor a sexual fantasy for a lesbian viewer, and in 1985, these two popcorn-movie-loving lesbians don’t hold any hope of seeing actual queer female representation on the screen.

But if there are two women in the movie, and those two women talk to each other, and their dialogue makes clear that they think about something other than the men around them? In a landscape of extreme scarcity, those two women could potentially be viewed with a queer lens. They could be shipped together. A lesbian audience could at least indulge in the fantasy of representation.

“It was meant as a joke,” Bechdel told San Diego City Beat in 2015, “but I still think it’s a very useful joke,” and the wider film world, which began adopting the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a critical frame in the 2010s, seems to have agreed.

(L-r) MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD stands in a doorway as Huntress while ROSIE PEREZ takes notes on a crime scene as Renee Montoya in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN). Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros.

Which brings us back to Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey isn’t just a popcorn movie with multiple women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Like the Bechdel-Wallace Test, it is a part of the massive contributions comics creators have made to American culture and art. (It also passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test many times over: Montoya and Black Canary discuss the latter’s mother; Cassandra grills Harley about how she got to be so cool; Harley and Canary snipe back and forth about the other’s self esteem; just to name a few moments.)

And, of course, it’s a popcorn movie with a canonically queer lead and costar, Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya. Harley’s bisexuality is established in her intro, and Ali Wong plays Renee Montoya’s ex-girlfriend who is also the assistant district attorney (awkward).

And sure, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to get excited about two characters who are established as queer in explicit but relatively quick asides — the sort that might be edited for foreign markets. But when I saw a tweet exulting in how Birds of Prey passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test multiple times over, I couldn’t help thinking about its origins in an era when even the ability to fantasize about the potential for queer representation in a movie was a tall order.

Birds of Prey could be exactly the kind of popcorn slugfest the women in “The Rule” would enjoy, and they wouldn’t even have to pretend that some of the women on screen were into women. And as filmmakers increasingly view their work through the Bechdel-Wallace lens, they shouldn’t forget the test’s origins weren’t just about female representation, but queer representation, too.