In 1985, an American cartoonist named Alison Bechdel inadvertently changed the way we talk about popular media via her seemingly innocuous comic strip, "Dykes to Watch Out For." In the strip, a character based off Bechdel's friend Liz Wallace voiced a seemingly simple, but unfortunately maddeningly difficult, idea: She refused to watch any movie that did not feature at least two female characters who spoke to each other about something besides a man.
As you've probably heard by now, this idea became the Bechdel Test, and by the 2010s its application spread beyond movies to television, video games, comics and more. And while we at MTV News could bemoan the sorry state of women in cinema till we're blue in the face, we're choosing to instead celebrate an area in which great strides have been made -- television.
From high-brow streaming shows like "Orange is the New Black" to female-powered young adult fare like "Pretty Little Liars" to even the katana-wielding lady warriors of "The Walking Dead," television has become a place for female actresses, writers, producers and more to finally use their voice -- you know, to chat about something that isn't men.
"I think about women as having full lives -- not just romantic lives, but work lives and goals and dreams," Jennie Snyder Urman, showrunner of the Golden Globe-winning "Jane the Virgin," told MTV News over the phone. "Things that they’re going after besides romance. I think it’s just the way I write women because I’m a woman, and because those are the women in my life. We don’t just sit around and talk about boys all the time. I wouldn’t really know how to write a woman who is just boy crazy, because it doesn’t feel real to me. We’re much more complex than that."
"Pretty Little Liars" boss I. Marlene King agrees, telling MTV News that the friendship between her four female characters who "love each other unconditionally" and "always put their friendship first" -- even more than the show's central mystery and its cute love interests -- is what makes "PLL" so successful.
And ratings, of course, speak volumes. "PLL" has long been the jewel in ABC Family's crown, while "The Walking Dead" -- which isn't entirely driven by women so much as it features multiple interesting ones -- has even beaten Sunday Night Football. "Jane the Virgin," meanwhile, won The CW's first ever Golden Globe despite being a show about Latina women based on a telenovela (a famously female-friendly genre), and "The 100" is a critical sensation that stars a bisexual female heroine who is the leader of a tribe of "Sky People" in a post-apocalyptic Earth.
So, yeah -- women and men are currently consuming multiple shows about female characters who don't just play "the girlfriend." Eagerly, in fact. So why should the Bechdel Test even still apply to the world of television? In a world where "Orange is the New Black" is a critical and ratings hit -- its first week did better than both "Arrested Development" and "House of Cards" -- can't we set the bar a bit higher? According to every writer and producer we spoke to, the answer is a resounding "yes."
"The Bechdel Test is a ridiculously low bar," Jason Rothenberg, executive producer of "The 100," told MTV News. "I'd say that if you're asked to describe a character and their gender is in the first five traits, then you need to dig deeper."
Gale Anne Hurd, the badass producer of "The Walking Dead," "The Terminator," "Aliens" and more, agrees.
"If you look at a script and the characters in it -- if you white out their names and you feel as if one of those roles could only be played by a woman, because they are always subservient [and] really don’t drive the plot forward in any significant way, then it's failed," she explained.
"Do you know what they want that isn’t men?" Urman added. "Is there a conversation about what their goals are, professionally? What they want their lives to be, outside of men? Is there something specific that they’re going after inside the show, that is not romantic? It’s not only are you not talking about boys, it’s what you are talking about."
Which should be pretty easy, right? Finding words to put in female mouths that aren't about romance? Writers have been writing complex, multi-layered story arcs for male characters for decades, so why should doing so for the ladies be any different?
The answer, unfortunately, is much more simple than one might think -- it's because women aren't being hired to write for television shows. A recent study revealed that female writers made up only 29% of writer's rooms, and only 15.1% of executive producer roles during the 2013-14 season. And according to Urman, evening out this ratio matters when it comes to producing quality television.
"I’m a woman, and I tend to write from a female point of view," she said. "For me, it’s much harder to write a man than to write a multi-layered, Latina woman who is fighting for her dreams and goals and things she wants to accomplish.... I’ll turn to the men in the [writer's] room and say, ‘How would this make you feel? If this was happening, how would you react?’ If you don’t have a whole bunch of people that come from a whole bunch of places and experiences, then your answers aren’t going to be as interesting, and you’re not going to be able to explore the complexity of the human experience."
Some male writers might be absolutely fantastic at writing well-rounded, complex female characters (and vice-versa), but when it comes down to it, the consensus amongst the showrunners we interviewed seems to be that diversifying a writing staff leads to more complex characters. And since most TV writers look more like Rick Grimes than Carol Peletier -- more like Michael Scott than Leslie Knope -- it's shows dominated by white men, with female characters existing as extensions of those men, that you'll continue to see. (Minus, of course, the several standouts we've already mentioned.)
"I'm often surprised by how men view women versus how women view women," King explained. "It may even be just a line of dialogue that we are discussing, but often we interrupt what that line means to the character differently. Diversity equals balance, and that's a very good thing for our 'PLL' room."
"I think it's really important to have a lot of diverse voices on a writing staff," Rothenberg added. "More than half of the writers on our staff are women. My entire life, I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by strong women, and obviously some of that has made its way onto the screen in the show."
Indeed, men and women often think, speak and emote quite differently -- same goes for people of different races, sexual orientations, and economic backgrounds -- so why would shows continue to predominantly hire white men with a median age of 40 to write for every color of the rainbow?
Obviously, writer's rooms aren't going to change overnight, or drop their white male writers like a bad habit. But in the meantime, there are ways for writers to one-up the Bechdel Test, or in other words, create female characters who are more than just someone's one-note girlfriend.
"I take a path from each character’s point of view, as though they’re the hero," Urman said. "They’re the title character -- and what do they want? If you take a path through your script from all of the different character’s point of views, then each character will open a little. You’ll suddenly realize, this character I have who is just the girlfriend, how would this look if she was the hero? If you just take a second and think about that, then your characters are going to get more full. Maybe in the plot that you’re doing she’s just servicing the story of someone else, but imagining her as the main agent and what she wants will broaden and deepen that character definitively."
As for Hurd, she suggests writing some characters as human beings without an assigned gender, then allowing the right actor to flesh out that character and go from there.
"If you go to 'Alien,' when Walter Hill wrote the script, Ripley was a male," Hurd said. "She was not changed when Sigourney Weaver was cast. That’s important, to have roles that are gender-blind, and that let the best actor play them, and that could be a male or a female."
And of course, as we said before, it all comes down to money. Which is why, according to King, the best way to get more women hired behind the camera -- resulting, of course, in more fully-formed female characters -- is to support the "PLL"s, the "100"s, the "Jane the Virgin"s, and the "Walking Dead"s that are already out there.
"The almighty dollar still drives this industry," King concluded. "So if we all go see a movie about interesting female characters on opening weekend, that speaks very loudly to the studios. Or if we watch a TV show with interesting female characters live instead of recording it, those ratings spell success for the networks. And success breeds success. Let's make the Bechdel Test irrelevant!"