Since 1985, the Bechdel Test, named for the cartoonist whose characters’ posited it, has been a useful illustration of the stories the entertainment industry chooses not to tell. The test, generally applied to movies, measures whether a story has two or more female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man, and huge swaths of film, television, comics and novels regularly fail it. But in recent years, a crop of shows, movies and books have given us female friendships and partnerships built around everything from the rise of personal computing to a post-apocalyptic revolution.
The popularity of these stories doesn’t necessarily mean that the entertainment industry has magically reached parity: Men still control the creative direction of a lot of these shows and movies, and men are still the overwhelming majority of characters in film and television. But as the Bechdel Test marks its thirtieth anniversary and a new crop of stories earn passing grades, the best way to honor Alison Bechdel’s famous rule might be to use these shows, movies and books to raise our expectations even higher.
Television lost a number of prominent female friendships this year. The end of “Parks and Recreation” deprived us of Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) well-meaning dominance of her best pal, Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), her forceful mentorship of April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and the slow burn of her relationship with Donna Meagle (Retta). “The Good Wife” sent out Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi) on an unsatisfying note after the slow fraying of her ties with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). But while in prior years, these changes might have left us bereft of terrific friendships between women, Kalinda’s departure and the finale of “Parks and Recreation” just serve to highlight how many other great relationships between women are elsewhere on television.
Among the most striking of these friendships is the partnership between tech entrepreneurs Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) on AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire.” That series, a period drama about the rise in the 1980s of the personal computing business, started last year as a fairly predictable anti-hero drama about troubled visionary (Joe MacMillan). But “Halt” slowly shifted attention to Cameron, a gifted software programmer and Joe’s girlfriend, and Donna, the wife of Joe’s hardware engineer, Gordon (Scoot McNairy). By the end of the first season, Cameron had decamped to form her own gaming company, Mutiny, and recruited Donna to join her.
This year, “Halt” has generated some of its best drama from the tensions in their relationship, fueled both by the difference in their ages, and Cameron’s difficulty understanding Donna’s devotion to her children. Cameron has left difficult management tasks to Donna in part because being a parent has equipped her to wrangle Mutiny’s team of young employees. And Cameron, who is just as self-indulgent and volatile as any anti-hero, reacts poorly when Donna acts out the same way she does. If Donna forces Cameron to see the value of authority and organization, Cameron gives Donna permission to be passionate on her own behalf. The result might be both the invention of chat rooms and the rise of commercial broadband service.
Donna and Cameron are the rare female characters to take over a majority-male show, even as series like “Silicon Valley” have added more sharply-drawn female characters. But television’s male anti-heroes have been flanked by the Herlands of “Orange Is The New Black,” which expands its perspectives with every season. This year Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) and Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) find themselves drawn into conflict by an evolving and difficult friendship between their teenage sons. Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) gains new respect for Suzanne Warren (Uzo Aduba) when she finds herself captivated by Suzanne’s erotic fiction. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) team up for a scam, and are united by their taste for sweets.
These friendships aren’t only blooming on television. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is too lean an action movie to spend much time fleshing out its supporting characters, including the fugitive wives of post-apocalpytic dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and the Vuvalini, the leaders of the community where Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) grew up. But the movie is alive to the pleasures of watching women from different generations working together–particularly when they turn out to share a talent for frenetic fighting from vehicle to vehicle in the middle of a high-speed chase.
Other summer hits have more space to develop their characters through their shared projects. One of the strongest elements of Pixar’s “Inside Out” was the way writers and directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen captured the relationship between Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), two of the emotions who help govern Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) brain. Joy initially treats Sadness like an irritant at best, someone Riley needs to be protected from. But as they work together to restore Riley’s core sense of self, Joy comes to realize how integral Sadness is to some of Riley’s best memories; she creates the contrast that allows the little girl to feel real transcendence.
And more grown-up comedies like “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Spy” allow for even greater friction between female characters — and even stronger alliances. “Pitch Perfect 2” might not have had the fizz of the original, but the approach of graduation let Beca (Anna Kendrick) grapple with the tension between her affection for her a capella group and her own rising ambition.
In “Spy,” agent Susan Cooper’s (Melissa McCarthy) move from a desk job at the CIA into the field forces her to reckon with two very different women. Her target it Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), the spoiled daughter of a crime lord who left her a nuclear weapon, and while Rayna and Susan spend much of “Spy” insulting each other, their friction produces sparks. By the time Rayna’s taken into custody at the end of the movie, it’s clear the two of them are going to miss ragging on each other. But Susan won’t lack for female company; she turns down dinner with the suave spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law) to hang out with Nancy B. Artingstall (Miranda Hart), who once rode a desk like Susan only to discover that she’s got a talent for sharpshooting. And a clever credits sequence dispels a popular stereotype; building her friendships with women doesn’t require Susan to abandon sex and romance.
Literature’s in the act, too; the past three years have seen a number of novels that sketch sharp portrayals of female friendships strained by class and artistic ambition. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which conclude with the release of a fourth volume this fall, follow two working-class Neapolitan girls, the brilliant Lila and the dogged Elena, who try to find different routes out of the neighborhood where they grew up. In Emily Gould’s “Friendship,” Bev and Amy, two young New Yorkers toiling on the edge of arts have to reckon with the gaps between their talents and their ambitions. And Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings” tries to untangle the connection between money and talent through — among other things — the friendship between Ash, who is born into a wealthy family and marries a man whose money helps finance her ambitions to be a theater director, and Jules, whose early promise as an actress doesn’t turn into something she can monetize.
These stories save us from the tired spectacle of women fighting over some man or fighting to redeem him. And they show us just how much the world opens up when women stop talking about men, and start talking and thinking about themselves and each other. Cameron and Donna move beyond Joe’s vision of a new computer, and figure out how that hardware and software can help people connect to each other. “Orange Is The New Black” shows us just how much life can happen even in a circumscribed environment like prison. Furiosa rises from a cog in Immortan Joe’s machine to dare to imagine herself as the engineer. Susan Cooper stops directing men through the capitals of Europe and starts striding through them herself. And while many of these stories are fantasies, Lila and Elena, Bev and Amy and Ash and Jules find in each other the rights that are so often and so easily extended to their male counterparts: to fail, to be jealous, to be arrogant and deluded, and to compromise.
As Elena reflects in “The Story of a New Name,” “If nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately. Her rage expanded in my breast, a force that was mine and not mine, filling me with the pleasure of losing myself.” But if talking to other women can make female characters feel fury and despair, those conversations can also make us realize what ought to be possible — in entertainment and in life.