Let’s make a Bechdel Test for people with disabilities

close up of a movie camera lens
A Measure of Inclusion

For those of you who are not familiar with the term The Bechdel Test, the concept revolves around the extraordinary idea that women should be represented in film and other forms of media. The origin of The Bechdel-Wallace test comes from an episode of a popular comic strip created by Alison Bechdel, who got the idea from her friend, Liz Wallace.

The concept is fairly simple – in order to pass The Bechdel Test a movie, novel, play, etc., must:

(1) include two women who

(2) talk to each other about

(3) something other than a man.

In fact, I would say that it is the simplicity of The Bechdel Test that makes it brilliant and thought-provoking. Hollywood movies often fail to pass it. The Bechdel Test has allowed the feminist movement to easily capture the frustration felt when women are passed-over, under-represented, or depicted as characters that only exist to talk about or support men. Almost everyone can agree that The Bechdel Test is a fairly easy to pass – all writers need to do is depict a woman talking to another woman (about anything: the weather, coffee, hopes, dreams, politics, inspirations, food) and you’ve passed it. Yet that so rarely occurs in feature-films, hence the frustration, and the need start and continue this conversation.

And that’s exactly my point; The Bechdel Test offers an easy, clear, and direct method of pointing out a flaw in the entertainment industry. It is simple to explain, and easy to get behind. In my opinion, the community of people with disabilities should have a similar tool in order to evaluate and quantify the representation of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. Such a measure would rally people to make changes in the movie-making business. However, as far as I can tell from searching the internet, there is yet to be a common consensus on what the Disability Bechdel Test should require, or even on what it should be called. I was able to find several suggestions though – some have followed The Bechdel Test’s three-requirement rule, and some have put their own spin on the idea. Here are the suggestions I was able to find.

David M. Perry, from Aljazeera America suggests: “Cast disabled actors whenever possible and tell better stories.”

The blog Disability Thinking writes: “Here’s my proposed Disability Bechdel Test. A work passes if:

1) Characters with disabilities are involved in significant plot developments not centered on their disabilities.

2) Disabilities are depicted realistically, neither less, nor more severe than they would be in real life.

3) Disabled characters are givers as well as receivers … supportive of other characters, not just supported by them.

* Disability Thinking later suggested naming this version of the test, The Tyrion Test, in honor of a character with a disability from Game of Thrones who passes the test.

Dave Hingsburger from the blog Rolling Around In My Head suggests the following criteria:

1) There is a character with a disability in the movie.

2) Who exists and takes action independently without support or approval from others.

3) And who comments on disability as a real experience – not an ennobling one, not one of pity, or one as comic relief.

* Hingsburger also mentions Game of Thrones as an inspiration for this idea, although he suggests self-titling his version The Dave Test.

Later, Hingsburger offers a second, updated version of The Dave Test which incorporates suggestions from his readers and is renamed The Rolling Test. The Rolling Test requires:

1) There is a major named character with a disability in the movie who exists and takes action under personal motivation without needing approval from others.

2) And who comments on disability as a real experience – not an ennobling one, not one of pity, or one as comic relief.

3) And who isn’t smothered with a pillow or done away for their own good.

Ann, from the blog Notes, Notings, and Common Refrains writes:

1) There is at least one character who has an actual disability (with consequences).

2) The character is in the story to resolve a conflict of his or her own.

3) Curing the disability will not resolve that conflict.

What do you think, readers? Does one of the versions above resonate with you more than the others? Do you think it might be possible to come to a consensus?

Perhaps one of the above suggestions could become a “Bechdel test” for people with disabilities. Representation is so important, in so many ways including providing role-models, increasing awareness and understanding, breaking-down misconceptions, and building a sense of community and connection.

As actress Gabourey Sidibe stated, “The way I watch movies, I’m really searching for myself, because I don’t get to see enough of myself and I don’t — I kind of don’t get to like myself enough. But if I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.”

Emily Pate is a third-year student at Seattle University interested in Strategic Communications, learning Spanish, and working with non-profits. Her work for Rooted In Rights is focused on discussing current events in the community of people with disabilities. Her experience previous to Rooted In Rights includes writing broadcasts for KBOO radio in Portland, OR, and managing a neighborhood blog in the Seattle community. In addition to work, Emily enjoys drawing, spending time with her friends and family, and backpacking.

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