Roundtable discussion: Interactions between female characters in fiction and their effect on real-life relationships between women

The Bechdel test is a simple test that determines whether or not a movie is giving equal time to women’s interactions with other women. Is there more than one woman in the movie? Do they talk to each other? About something other than a male character? It’s surprising how many movies fail this test. It’s not a test for how feminist a movie is. It’s just a shortcut illustration to show how women are treated as if men are characters and women are female characters, as a reflection of the way oftentimes men in the real world are treated like people, and women like female people.

This post grew out of a conversation that began on Facebook and spread across several of my friends’ inboxes. We are entrepreneurs, performers, professional women. We are white and we are brown. We are straight and we are queer. How do we feel our perception of our own interactions with other women in real life have been affected by the way fictional women don’t get to interact with each other as frequently as they interact with men, or as frequently as men get to interact with other men?


My main Bechdel-related soapbox is that by having only one female character, no matter how amazing she is — Hermione, Leia, Black Widow — we accidentally teach people that women’s relationships with each other are nonexistent, unimportant, or somehow automatically make a work of fiction too girly for men to be able to enjoy. I’m not just talking about lesbian romance — I’m talking about friendship between women, conflicts between women that aren’t about men, mothers and daughters, women with female mentors, or just women interacting with each other in the same automatic way male characters get to interact with each other, as part of the plot.

If the addition of these perfectly natural scenes that exist in real life would make a work of fiction too women-oriented for men to enjoy, how come women are able to enjoy scenes like this between male characters? One doesn’t have to look far to find a scene where two men are interacting about something other than a woman.


So I’m cis-female and in a lot of ways I present very feminine in how I dress and in some interests I have. But that’s come out more as an adult, as a kid I was more “tom-boyish” and my personality is still very “masculine”. I always thought this was why I didn’t get a long with girls in school. Not talking about actual friends, I didn’t have many of those and they were always based on individuals. But in general, in school, I only hung out with boys, didn’t like other girls, was certain that other girls hated me. Basically, if I was put in a group or situation with all girls, I’d panic, feel insecure, would shut down, get defensive, just overall had a miserable time. Were I put in a group of boys I’d do alright. I’d either have a great time, or we’d all just do the work and it was no big deal. I also had a… complicated relationship with my mom. When at 18 I decided to transfer to an all women’s college, she was SHOCKED, but also thrilled and got me in before I could change my mind. This was the first time I started hanging out with other girls/women and became comfortable being around females and made some great women friends.

Anyway… until your comment, I’ve always just attributed my lack of female relationships to my personality. I wasn’t raised with traditional gender roles in the home, I was very close to my dad so a lot of his interests rubbed off on me and he encouraged them. So basically I grew up with the best arsanal of toys guns and an army of robots, I don’t read directions, I love power tools, and I have yet to find a Bruce Willis exploding movie that I don’t love, I did the heavy lifting and tree pulling in yard work, my brother because he was younger and closer to my mom did the flowers…. things like that. Things that most boys were raised to like or do and most girls weren’t so I’ve just thought, I was different, and that made it hard to connect.

However, your comment made me look at it differently. Female relationships are either non-existant or totally negative in films. If they are positive, they tend to be hyper feminine. I watched A LOT of movies and TV as a kid. I was totally emersed in them. Think Belle in the Disney Beauty and the Beast and how she was about books, that was me about movies and TV.

I’m starting to wonder if I internalized those bad or non-existant female/female relationships and that affected how I dealt with girls in the real world. I knew the hyper-feminine friendships in “chick-flicks” didn’t fit me, so maybe I just assumed that I couldn’t have female relationships since I didn’t see any in the movies or shows that I connected with. There weren’t many female leads to begin with to connect, but there were enough that I was ok. I also had amazing female examples in my life to show me various ways to be a “strong” woman, but I never saw many positive female/female examples in real life either for a lot of reasons, so I’m wondering if without it in RL and without it represented on film (which is where I saw the bulk of my social interactions – i was a lonely kid and my parents weren’t very social), if that affected how I dealt with women… and still do, though I’m much better now.


There’s a British show, Rosemary and Thyme, that I’ve been watching with my spouse. It’s an amateur sleuthing show in which the two lead characters are women who own a gardening business together. It does a great job (so far!) of showing many of the different ways that women interact–I don’t say all, because it hasn’t had romantic love yet–but it’s had mother/daughter conflicts, women becoming best friends, a woman and her academic mentor, women interacting on a professional basis, women questioning female suspects, etc.

The show made me realize something the other night. (Spoiler warning for the episode “The Gongoozlers.”) In the episode we watched, Rosemary was laid out with a broken leg, and Laura had to solve the mystery herself. One of the suspects, Quinnie, becomes Laura’s sleuthing buddy in Rosemary’s place. “Watch,” I said to Spouseling. “She’s going to be guilty, because of her role in the story. It’s a trope–if someone replaces one of the duo like that in a crime show, they’ll turn out to be the guilty one.”

I gained a ton of respect for the show when I was dead wrong. Not only was she not guilty, but she helped Laura successfully capture the fleeing criminals. Rosemary recovered in the end and everything went on as usual.

What did I take from this? I realized that the trope of “the woman who temporarily takes the place of one of the female best friends turns out to be Really Bad” is part of the sinister lie that shreds fictional women’s relationships. Why not, as this show did instead, show that women can have many friends, and that the addition of a new friend might be another positive in someone’s life rather than having to replace an existing friendship?


As a little kid, whenever I watched cartoons, movies or TV, I identified with the female character  – yes, many times there was only one.  Didn’t matter if she was bratty, vapid and helpless (she often was).  Didn’t matter if she hardly ever did anything.  Didn’t matter if we looked nothing alike, or if there was a male character who matched my interests and personality more closely.  “That’s me,” I would say every time she was on screen.

Of course, as I grew older I learned to sympathize with the protagonists, whoever they were, and with well-written characters in general.  But this is why I don’t buy into the common wisdom that girls will watch things meant for boys, but not vice versa.  It may only be because we’re not given much of a choice.

I had a friend back then who felt the same way.  So when we watched things together, we had to fight over who had the right to identify with the girl character – or the prettiest/coolest girl, if by chance there was more than one.  She argued louder than I did, and I always lost.

In some ways I felt I deserved it, that I was a failure as a girl.  Girls, the girls I knew, crimped their hair and had cartwheel competitions and could tell you everything about their favorite member of New Kids on the Block.  I just couldn’t truly care about those things.  Eventually I decided I was a tomboy, even though looking back I don’t think it was ever true.  It’s just that we were all buying into the same narrow constraint of femininity – one that is so pervasive throughout society, we definitely can’t blame it all on entertainment.  Yet I can’t help thinking that if more shows and movies had more than one female character, they wouldn’t have to be so stereotypical.  There’d be more room to reflect the truth, and maybe, just maybe, everyone could learn that girls are just as complex and human as boys.

It’s been a long journey since first grade!  I’ve had my fair share of toxic friendships with other girls.  I’ve said more than my fair share of shitty unfeminist things while trying to distance myself from a femininity I felt had damaged and rejected me.  I realize now how utterly backwards that was.  I learned that while drama queens and frenemies and mean girls are all too real, there are so many ways for women to care for and relate to each other.  This has to be true, because I see it every day.  Coworkers who collaborate and socialize together with no backstabbing.  Employees who actually like their female boss. Women who get along with their mothers-in-law.  Teenage girls who respect their mothers.  Women who have more than one “best friend” and nobody gets jealous.  Women who admire each other’s work or art.  Women who make each other laugh.  Women who give other women help and advice with no sarcasm or judgment or ulterior motives.  Women who love each other, who learn from each other.  It is EVERYWHERE.

And now I’m no longer so frustrated with myself for not fitting into a rigid mold, and instead frustrated with that mold for presenting such a limited and skewed version of reality.  I’d be lying if I said the media version of female friendship doesn’t still affect me in some ways.  For example, yeah I wish I knew a cool group of women and we could all go out drinking together. I don’t.  My female friends don’t really know each other.  But that’s not the only version of female love and friendship that exists.  If anything, maybe I value the true female friends that I do have even more, since I was never taught to expect it.


Looking at female characters was never something I did as a young reader and didn’t really start to dissect until I became more and more self-identified as a feminist. I found strength in all kinds of characters and some of this comes from living in a home where my gender was related to things more like having an earlier curfew than my younger brother.  I never had a feeling I couldn’t be something I wanted to be, thankfully, it just wasn’t part of my upbringing or my self perception.

One of the things I hear from the young women who come through Wild Iris Books is  – I don’t like girls, I’m not like them…  When hearing this from my different perspective of age, I remember saying it myself.  But I also remember the girls who made it through and were part of my circle…  I remember all the new territory we explored and the way we helped each heal broken hearts.  I remember the first one who got her period, used a tampon, had sex, fell in love and how we helped each other chart the rest of our paths with our combined knowledge.  Now looking back, even though I denied it based off of what I thought girls were supposed to feel, we still created this web and we still knew we had to care for each other regardless of how cool we were trying to be.

It makes me wonder where this little idea starts and more importantly how we disarm it.  It is no mistake that we are distracted to fighting amongst each other – weakening our energy and resolve to fight the true patriarchal enemies.  The belief systems that tell us we are in competition with every other woman and internalizes in young women this desire to be more than their sisters, prettier, wittier, smarter, better bodied, richer, anything really as long as there is a competition and someone loses.  It’s part of women still being commodified, being looked at accessories and not moving agents on their own.

Shira Glassman is the author of The Second Mango, a queer feminist fantasy novel that puts a friendship between two women front and center, and its sequel, Climbing the Date Palm, due out from Prizm Books in the summer of 2014.

About Shira

Queer Jewish feminist author
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