I was probably 16 years old when I first learnt about the Bechdel Test.
Five years into a seven-year stint at an all-girl’s’ school, I was learning most of my socio-political theory and nuggets of feminist knowledge from Meaningful Threads on Twitter, like every other blossoming social activist did at one point or another. For those of you that are not aware, the Bechdel Test measures how women are represented in film; in particular, whether two women can have conversations without mentioning men. A handful of tweets I saw on this matter came from women confessing that their daily conversations did not in fact pass the test, and the Meaningful Twitter Threads warned against the dominating presence men have in women’s lives.
At 16, I had such little experience with boys or dating, so cushioned by my all-girls’ school and female friendships, that I brushed the concept off as unworldly.
Eventually, I started A-Levels, and I found the Bechdel Test entering my life in a way I hadn’t expected. My closest friend at the time happened to change sixth forms, to move to a mixed school nearer where she lived. The new routine of post-GCSE life transformed our usual, daily texting into brief catch-ups at random points during the week. A newfound loneliness that arose without her by my side during school hours made these brief conversational moments my most treasured, and I savoured every update.
After a few months of updates about her new school, our weekly catch-ups exclusively involved a confusing boy – a ‘situationship’, but not quite – and all of a sudden the Bechdel Test was the only thing I could think about. It inserted itself into my life, and every conversation I had was threatened to be policed by the test. I saw a notification with my friend’s name pop up and knew the conversation we were about to have for the next hour or so was definitely not passing the test. I was a sorry excuse of a feminist; all we ever spoke about was The Boy, and I couldn’t even get a word in about my certain failure in A-Level Maths or what on earth I wanted to actually study at uni. I tried my best to be a good friend, and I advised as I saw fit. But every time she messaged me, sirens went off in my head, alarm bells rang, and with a sense of dread, I picked up the phone.
In truth, the distance and my aversion to her updates were just symptoms of the bigger problem I wasn’t ready to address. Feeling distant from a girlfriend you were once close to is a wildly confusing feeling, and the chasms created are hard to fix when there’s no communication. At this moment, I learnt that a part of stepping out of pre-teenhood is an unexpected loss of girlfriends, and I would only learn later that it’s often for the better.
Eventually, my friend and I stopped speaking; perhaps the distance got to us. I don’t think about the Bechdel Test much more until two years later, when I’m sat cross-legged on my desk in my second-year university room, chatting to my flatmate who sits on the floor next to me. She insists we were on campus when we had this conversation, but we often recycle the material of our highly intellectually charged conversations anyways, so we’re probably both right.
“We haven’t passed the Bechdel test,” she says, laughing after our daily, extensive debrief on the boy that she’s been seeing. The rhythm of uni life – walking to campus, lecture, break, tutorial, lunch, tutorial, walking home – breaks up any in-depth conversation we can have throughout the day. Our days usually end with an analysis of whichever situation plagues us that evening. Sometimes, more often than not, about a boy. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about the Bechdel Test, and the alarms that used to ring threaten to start again, full force.
Have I accidentally become the worst enemy of my sixteen-year-old self? I’m pretty sure I don’t really care for such seriousness in my self-proclaimed silly-early-twenty-something era, so I dismiss the thoughts. I continue to indulge in the conversation with her, enjoying blaming all of his shortcomings on the Incompetence of Every Man Ever. I revel in the lack of nuance and the flippant dismissal of the complexity of men’s emotions, so easy to do when you imagine that the men casually involved in your life do the same. We raise the same points made the days and weeks before, recycling old ideas into new ones, always punctuating our statements with assertions that we would be much, much less confusing if we were boys.
It’s only the day after, while I’m sat in the Student Centre reading a Vogue Dating Column instead of Nietzsche, where I start to realise my relationship with the Bechdel Test may no longer be the behemothic monster I had made it out to be. It is not a testament of my or my friend’s failures as feminists, as bearers of the knowledge of Meaningful Twitter Threads, as women who are (paradoxically) always trying to evade the male gaze. It’s in this moment that I think back to moments with my closest friends that I treasure most: not the complaining about how men are the Bane of Our Existence, but the moments in between, the moments after. The moments when the women in your life step up as if called to the front lines to be there for you when you’re certain that the world as you know it will never be the same.
You buy your girlfriend a pint of ice cream, a few sweet treats, and sit late at night in your sub-zero kitchen wondering what makes men such cryptic creatures. You watch He’s Just Not That Into You, curled together in bed and laughing at your own expense, but still taking mental notes as you do. Nodding excitedly when you both recount the same quote and apply it with accuracy to the Situationship. You manage the hike up to Primrose Hill and sit in arctic temperatures in your first-year flatmate’s arms after reading the most brutal rejection message ever crafted, and she holds onto you like the end of the entire world lies in her letting go of you in that moment. You feel so small, so completely and utterly controlled by something as trivial as a man’s casual involvement in your life. But the women in your life are always there, to soften the blow of each message left delivered, each Instagram story left unliked, and each ending of a situationship which was never really going to work out.
If I’m being completely honest, I probably am a little bit of a nightmare for my sixteen-year-old self. I could not even start counting the number of conversations I’ve had which don’t pass the Bechdel Test. Though her heart was in the right place, I wish I could go back and tell my sixteen-year-old self that absolutely no amount of meaningful engagement with feminist thought or literature would have prevented her from falling down the same rabbit hole that everyone does in early adulthood. I have rambled and chatted into countless early hours with my girlfriends, leading to some of the most enlightened, rigorously intellectualised and patriarchally-contextualised conclusions perhaps ever made. I know if I put at least half the effort I do talking about confusing boys towards my degree, I might have even got a first last year. But if that meant I would have missed out on the time I spent with my girlfriends, where I saw vulnerability so unlike any other in my life, I’d pass it up any day. Conversations that don’t pass the Bechdel Test leave chaos in their wake, but I live for the moments in between and moments after, where my female friendships flourish.
By Soha Khawaja