There’s a Test for that: The Bechdel and Mako Mori for Women in Crime Fiction

Originally written for the Sisters In Crime newsletter

What draws women readers to crime fiction? All the dead girls? (Kidding, kidding.)

I know it’s a ridiculously unwieldy question. But still. I’m wondering if film and television can teach us something about the answer. Or at least a sliver of it. They’ve got a few “tests” for this. I put that in quotes because Diane Pomerantz, PhD, explained to me that though Hollywood calls them tests, they’re not valid psychological measurements of female audience attitudes. But still, I wonder, can these non-scientific tests reveal anything relevant for crime fiction writers?

Hollywood’s been struggling to fix their woman problem for a while now, especially propelled by work done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender & Media, and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Though it still underwhelms feminist critics, industry buy-in intensified post-2017 in the Harvey Weinstein, #metoo melee.

Some in the industry are trying to respond to what’s been revealed—ta da!—that, even in films released in 2019, women are only lead characters 29% of the time. To rectify this, they’ve mainly focused their attention on literal representation counts: how many female lead characters, writers, directors there are, how many lines they’re given, how many scenes. 

But to deal with it in terms of content, in addition to head- and line-counts, they’ve turned to the pop-culture-based Bechdel Test and Mako Mori Test. (Some also apply the Shukla and DuVernay tests to check on more complex measures of diversity.) At the urging of DC Comics screenwriter Christina Hodson, designers of screenwriting apps like Highland 2, Writer Duet, and now even industry leader Final Draft, have incorporated these tests into their writing programs. The tests are surprisingly simple. Some people think they set the bar pretty low.

First came the Bechdel Test. Here’s its origin story. In 1985, Alison Bechdel (graphic memoirist of Fun Home and Tony-winner for the Broadway version of the book) wrote a comic panel in her “Dykes to Watch Out For” strip, in which two women are on a walk. One says, “I have this rule, see… I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. ONE, it has to have at least two women in it, who, TWO, talk to each other about, THREE, something besides a man.” By 2013, this method was a ubiquitous way of judging a movie’s woman-friendliness. Now it’s baked into the screenwriting process. 

To be explicit, the Bechdel Test asks whether a film has:

  1. At least two women in it, who
  2. Talk to each other, about
  3. Something besides a man.

Now there’s also the Mako Mori Test, with an origin story directly tied to the Bechdel Test. Mako Mori is a character in Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi monster film, Pacific Rim. In the film she wins independence from a protective father figure and achieves her dream of becoming a pilot. The character became a huge hit in Tumblr sci-fi fan girl discussions. In spite of all the fem-fan love, the movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. This fact led to the Mako Mori as an alternative or supplement to the Bechdel. 

The Mako Mori Test asks whether a film has:

  1. At least one female character, who
  2. Gets her own narrative arc, that is
  3. Not supporting a man’s story.

Though it doesn’t often appear in the list above, the Mako Mori also pleases audiences because the eponymous character is also a woman of color.

Producers now apply both of these tests as short-cuts to understanding whether their stories are friendly or unfriendly to women viewers. So, can this provide any help to writers of crime fiction who want to draw in women readers?

It may be that because it emphasizes one woman’s narrative arc, the Mako Mori Test implies the heroic potential of each of us, which is obviously compelling. It’s also not hard to see that women authors of crime fiction often already make stories that fulfill this test. Especially if we have a woman detective, P.I., or avenging crime victim, we have a woman at the center of her own arc. If she succeeds, that empowers the reader. If she fails, at least in part, it reinforces the bittersweet reality that many women readers know. 

Though it seems self-evident that a good Mako Mori score will make stories gratifying to women readers, it doesn’t seem like many woman writers of crime fiction actually need prompting by this test.

On the other hand, the older Bechdel Test may seem at first less likely to provoke what readers want. Writer and prison therapist, Juliette Kelley, calls it “derivative and meaningless.” So it’s not like some perfect litmus test of compelling feminist storytelling. 

It may indeed seem trivial on its surface, too literal. Crime novels that fail to engage two women in conversation about something other than a man may still be totally woman-centered, empowering, surprising, gratifying to the reader. Such Bechdel-failing books may shatter gender stereotypes, providing fresh, nuanced characters, out of the norm.

Crime novels that do pass the Bechdel Test may do so through even one inconsequential, unmemorable scene between two women, a scene that reveals nothing compelling about the story, the theme or the characters. Just checking an item off the list.

In certain crime fiction story-worlds taking place in mostly masculine settings—the military or professional football spring to mind—it would seem silly for the author to shoehorn in female characters just to be able to pass the Bechdel. Though an unlikely what-if in this setting—i.e. what if a woman became head coach of an NFL football team owned by another woman, a team in which a murder takes place—might be fresh and interesting, it may also be more interesting to women readers to read an accurate account of the power dynamic in real-life NFL board rooms they’re not often allowed in. 

Items on the Bechdel list may not reliably provoke a meaningful response from female crime fiction readers, because of the natural differences in individual women. Mary E. Plouffe, clinical psychologist, author, and mother-in-law of Christina Hodson, the screenwriter described above, says preference is, “highly age- and culturally-dependent. Younger, well-educated women are likely more agitated, offended or put off by stereotypes like female conversations only about men, and females always being in supportive roles. Readers often seek affirmation of their life stories unconsciously, so their psychological response will vary according to age, socioeconomic status and cultural beliefs.” So, for instance, female fans of the stock characters in some genre fiction may not necessarily prefer the work of a writer applying the Bechdel test. “Note, females comprise a good number of 007 fans. We know the women are props, but we accept the caricature in context.”

But still. The Bechdel may at least reinforce characters’ authenticity. Alison Bechdel says that her test was partly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” in which Woolf observed, “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. … And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men… And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.” 

To show real female friendship, maybe even frenemyship, may make characters more believable and interesting. Says crime writer Mel McGrath, “We know how deep and complex our relationships with other females can be. And while plenty of contemporary male crime writers wisely reach beyond the misogynistic femme fatale/Madonna-whore tropes of old school noir, few are able convincingly to portray the myriad ways women exert power over and betray each other with the brilliance and dark wit of, say Liz Nugent or Megan Abbott.” Writer and crime fiction fan, Nikki Cardoza, says stories that include authentic female friendship “are often rich, messy and complex in a way that the stories of the ruling power (men) are not—sorry guys—especially if a woman is going outside the boundaries of a patriarchal social structure or operating within it in an unexpected way.”

Female-to-female conversations may also be able to reveal character flaws more completely than female-to-male conversations, which often in crime fiction are tinted by sexual overtones. PhD and crime television fan, Theresa Margetich, says she likes the show Scott & Bailey because the duo female protagonists’ bathroom conversations often reveal the relevant fact that they struggle in the ways male police always do, “they drink too much, take risks, sleep around, regret it.” Those conversations are just the two of them. Usually at the sink and in the stall, where their voices echo against tile, different than their voices in other rooms, with other people.

So, though the Bechdel may at first appear to be an unambitious test to gauge whether a crime story might get something right about female characters, something that may draw in women readers, as author and podcaster Betsy Graziani Fasbinder says, “I agree the bar is low with these questions, but sadly the reality is lower. Itʼs a start in the right direction even to begin to ask such things.”