Feb 4 2017 1:00pm

Romance Passes the Bechdel Test—The Stories Are About Love, But Not Always About Men

Conjuring Affection by Elizabeth Davis

Romances are largely written by women, for women, about women. Many people think that because of the romance of romance novels, the books become inherently unfeminist. Elizabeth Davis (Conjuring Affection) is here to make her case that romance passes the Bechdel Test. Learn more below, and thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth!

The Bechdel Test (or, as the creator prefers it to be called, the Bechdel-Wallace Test) is a shorthand feminist critique for pop culture; a bar so low you’d be surprised how few stories manage to even trip over it.  For something to pass the Bechdel Test, it simply needs to meet three standards:

  1. Does it have two female characters?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk about something other than a man?

That’s it.  Most women pass that test before ten in the morning, because women are 50% of the population and our lives revolve around a lot more than just men.  And even if you altered the Bechdel test slightly to account for queer women—who might not be interested in men at all—and changed “men” to “romantic life,” most real- life women would still pass the test before they hit their second cup of coffee.  (Unless like yours truly they need a minimum of two cups of coffee before interacting with another human being.  But I digress.) Women have careers, hobbies, and problems that have nothing to do with romance, and it’s only natural that we would talk to our friends about them.  

SEE ALSO: Is Feminist Romance an Oxymoron?

But back to the Bechdel Test.  The test is a dark joke, pointing out how few female characters we have in pop culture. Harry Potter—a book series I will forever love for giving me nerd-girl extraordinaire Hermione Granger—takes until page 92 of Sorcerer’s Stone for Ginny and Mrs. Weasley to discuss the location of Platform 9 ¾.  Movies fare even worse:  the original Star Wars?  Fails. The Avengers?  Fails utterly.  Pacific Rim? Fails in the most disappointing fashion. And these are all movies that I, a devout feminist, absolutely adore. 

But romance as a genre has a way of subverting popular expectations.  I would hazard a guess that if you asked the average non-romance reader, they would assume that most romance novels don’t pass the Bechdel Test.  After all, romance novels are just about a man and a woman falling in love, right?  So there would be no need for women to talk to each other about anything else, if at all.

Source: Shutterstock

Except I’ve been wracking my brains, and while I’m sure romance novels like that do exist, I’m hard pressed to come up with one that doesn’t pass easily.  One of my favorite parts of romancelandia is that everyone, authors included, fiercely appreciate women and everything that goes along with it.  Instead of thinly drawn straw-women after the heroine’s man, romances novels are populated with supportive, enthusiastic friends.  And what’s more, these side characters often have lives and interests of their own that do not revolve around the heroine’s love life.

Female friendships are intense and meaningful.  Every woman I know has at least one other woman—and usually several—behind her.  We support each other, we laugh with each other, we cry with each other, and sure, we talk about love and men and romance.  But women are about so much more than that and so are romance novels.  Because these novels are, at their very core, by women and for women.

SEE ALSO: Romance Without Slut-Shaming

It shouldn’t be hard for stories to pass the Bechdel Test and yet, somehow, there are genres in which it is nearly unthinkable to have two female characters talking to each other about something that isn’t a man.  In fact, in order to pass the Bechdel test, female characters don’t even need to be friends with each other—they just need to exist in the same universe and talk.  The bar is that low, people.  Our lives are infinitely more complex than stories that fail the Bechdel Test think, and romance—a genre that is inherently centered around women’s experiences—is one of the best genres as a result.

In my own writing, I’m currently focused on a coven of modern-day witches.  They help each other practice their powers, they whine about work, they talk about their fears, hopes, and dreams, and all of those things can exist alongside romance.  This makes romance a far more nuanced genre than most think, and that’s what I love about it.  In fact, I bet we can make a list of romance novels that pass the Bechdel Test without breaking a sweat. So tell me, dear readers: what are your favorites?


Learn more about or order a copy of Conjuring Affection by Elizabeth Davis, available now:

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Elizabeth Davis is a full-time nerd living in Minneapolis, MN. She likes cold weather, coffee, and public television, and is a lot cooler than that sentence just sounded. You can find her on Twitter at @E_Davis_Romance, and keep up to date with her new releases at

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1. carmenlire
I love this post! Last year, I took a class on romance novels in popular culture, and a lot of the topics we discussed were about how romance novels propogate certain ideals and how that contributes overall to reader's ideas of feminism, etc., and the general public's opinion of the genre. I'd only heard of this test in passing, but it struck me how low that bar is. . .and how some books and movies can't even crawl over it!
Elizabeth Davis
2. elizabethdavisromance
That sounds like a really interesting class! I'd love to sit in on a class like that some time.
Sonya Heaney
3. Sonya Heaney
Lisa Kleypas, Robyn Carr, Toni Blake, Anne Gracie, Madeline Hunter - there are a million authors whose female characters matter beyond their boyfriends.

Take a look at Anne Gracie's award-winning "The Autumn Bride". The female connections are so strong we don't even meet the hero until 1/4 of the way into the book!

I am tired of this idea that romance - and women's fiction - isn't about celebrating women in general; it's not just about women fighting over men.

Sure, we've had some appallingly misogynistic fiction become best-sellers in recent years (Twilight, Fifty Shades, Beautiful Disaster etc. - basically YA and NA), but it's no hardship finding female-positive romance books!
Heather Waters
4. HeatherWaters
I couldn't agree more, especially with this line:
"Our lives are infinitely more complex than stories that fail the Bechdel Test think, and romance—a genre that is inherently centered around women’s experiences—is one of the best genres as a result."

@SonyaHeaney -- I think that's what Elizabeth is saying, that romance and women's fiction easily pass the Bechdel Test.
Heather Waters
5. HeatherWaters
@carmenlire -- I am unbelievably jealous! I'd have loved to take a class like that.
Miranda Neville
6. Miranda Neville
Romance is about women so of course it treats them as real people (even if the men can be, uh, a tiny bit unrealistic).
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