Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Writing by the Bechdel Rule—and Not Even Knowing it

by Kay Kendall

Even though the Bechdel Rule has been around for three decades, I never heard about it until seven years ago when it first popped up in film reviews in the New York Times. Now, I love movies and try hard to keep abreast of trends, so I looked it up pretty quick. I don’t like feeling behind the times.
Also known as the Bechdel Test, it judges movies by three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. Cartoon illustrator Alison Bechdel popularized her pal Liz Wallace’s concept in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985. There are now 8,151 movies listed at that pass the test.  
When I first read the test’s definition, I was astonished. Movies I watch and books I read routinely pass this test, even before I knew it existed. The first mystery I was in the midst of writing, Desolation Row, passed as do the two books that followed.
I believe I was born a feminist so it’s no wonder this rule was one I lived by. There are fictional female characters to whom I give credit for prodding me along my way. They include the mighty Jane Eyre, the extremely curious Nancy Drew, and even the tragic Anna Karenina. After all, the Russian woman came to a very bad end indeed by living only for the love of a man and nothing else.  
I recently returned to my treasured copy of Jane Eyre to see if it held up to my current feelings about living one’s life as a female. Again I was astonished because the proto feminism of the novel was laid out on almost every page. For example, look at this passage, written in complete contrast to the fate of poor Anna Karenina: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being      with an independent will.”
While that is the second most quoted passage from Jane Eyre, here is another one, a real doozy, given the era it was written in, the 1850s in Victorian England:
“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
And yet Jane Eyre is also a magnificent love story because of the heroine’s passion for Mr. Rochester. Proving that she could be not only independent but in love too, she most famously stated, “Reader, I married him.”

Second wave feminism peaked in the 1970s and declined thereafter. Feminism was attacked as being anti-male. I always thought that was utter bosh, complete nonsense. I am delighted that has changed of late. We women can stand up for ourselves without trashing all men, for certainly all men do not deserve that, only the ones who seek to hold women down, to keep us, as the Rolling Stones gleefully sing, “Under My Thumb.”
In my second mystery, Rainy Day Women, I quote that awful title from the Stones, and in my third mystery, After You’ve Gone, I have my heroine quote Jane Eyre, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me.”
So books that pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors snared me as a young reader, and they do so today as well. And, dear reader, now I write them too.
 Author Kay Kendall is passionate about historical mysteries.     She lives in Texas with her Canadian husband, three house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. Her second book Rainy Day Women won the Silver Falchion for best mystery at Killer Nashville.

Visit Kay at her website   or on Facebook at



  1. Kay, I had never heard this rule either! Thanks. I grew up in with a feminist role model (my mother who supported the ERA) but I remember when it took on a man-bashing connotation or perhaps what I remember is men sneering at the word/concept. I acknowledge that men and women have (general) differences by biology, but being feminist is not about being the same.

  2. Now that I've learned by watching current manipulations of public opinion by vested interests, I understand better where the backlash to equality for women comes from. It is a fascinating topic, but it saddens me too. People are people regardless of color, religion, gender...or any other notable difference. If someone is raised with that perspective, it is so much easier than having to try to undo deepseated prejudices later. Still that struggle does need to be undertaken if need be.