Based on an essay by Virginia Woolf, in 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel accidentally created one of the modern-day standards for gender discrimination in media in her regular comic strip.
“The Bechdel Test,” as it would later be called, started as a simple joke. Could a movie possibly hit three seemingly attainable goals?
The movie contains two women.
The women talk to each other.
The women talk to each other about something other than men.
At a glance, the Bechdel test is quite simple. It’s pass/fail. Easy.
Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to do than you’d think. Some of our favorite movies — “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Shrek” — fail the Bechdel test.
The relevance of the Bechdel test has been up for debate, but honestly, why shouldn’t it be an easy measurement?
By passing the Bechdel test, a work shows that it (at least somewhat) includes a woman’s view separate from the discussion and approval of men. And, because the media we consume tends to shape how we think about the world, it’s important to include women in media for more than what they mean to men.
The same is applicable across all forms of media. About two years ago, I started thinking about this in the context of the different music I liked. Surely I’d want to be supporting women in music.
According to “Pitchfork,” the music Bechdel test is modeled as such:
The song has a woman singing (and singing as themselves or another woman.)
The song involves another woman, speaks about women or speaks to women.
The song has a central lyrical topic or theme that is unrelated to men.
To my shock, I completely failed. The vast majority of music I listened to was from men, and most of the women I listened to were singing about men.
None of it was necessarily bad, but it missed the mark for sure. Only listening to one voice or one narrative in music is just like only listening to one news source or only hanging out with one type of person — it’s not necessarily bad on its own, but leads to a mentality and set of actions that dooms us for failure.
A 2020 study by USC’s Annenberg Institution Initiative found that in the top 900 songs of the last nine years, women comprised 21.6% of all artists, 12.6% of all songwriters and 2.6% of all producers. Additionally, less than 1% of the songs were written by only women.
Even with notable women in music like Beyonce or Taylor Swift, there isn’t equal representation in music. How is it that women can occupy roughly 50% of the population, but just a fifth of the music industry?
At face value, this can be difficult for certain genres of music. Men and women’s voices sound different, and sometimes that comes across differently, so genres like rap, metal, country or indie music might take on a different tone or vibe with a female voice.
However, that doesn’t mean there are no women in those genres that aren’t comparable to the typical sound you might enjoy. And on that note, why should a woman’s singing voice need to sound like a man’s to be deemed good enough?
Furthermore, what does it mean to say you prefer the sound of a man’s voice in music?
And, truthfully, this is really only the bar on the floor. The Bechdel test, in this format, doesn’t even include music by people of color and minorities. There’s no arguing that labels and the beast referred to as the “music industry” has been a culprit to many injustices against women and artists of color, but does anything really change at the top if the consumers don’t change?
It’s really easy to throw on a daily mix on Spotify and not think about anything deeper, but our media consumption reflects and shapes our hearts. How are you allowing yourself to be molded by the music you listen to?