We all know what the Bechdel Test is. Or, if you don’t, it’s that rule, invented by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, about fiction which describes whether or not a work approaches gender in an appropriate way. Among the many works that fail the test are Star Wars (not a single film in the series passes it so far), The Lord of the Rings, almost anything involving Batman, and roughly 90% of other popular movies, television shows, novels, comic books, etc.
The test is simple. First, does the work contain more than one female character? Second, if there are two female characters, do they have a conversation? And finally, is their conversation about something, anything, other than a man?
It’s worth discussing this in relation to Silicon Valley, the HBO series whose second season concluded a week ago. The first season of Silicon Valley completely fails to pass this test. At no point do two female characters interact.
The second season, on the other hand, passes immediately, in the first episode. The central conflict of the premiere of Season Two is that the angel investor and eccentric billionaire Peter Gregory has died, under vaguely bizarre circumstances. (Note: the character was written off the show as the actor, Christopher Evan Welch, died in real life, while filming Season One.) Only now can the series pass the Test, as his replacement as managing partner of his firm is a female, Laurie Breamer (portrayed by Suzanne Cryer). She and Monica, the only female from Season One, discuss the future of Pied Piper, the legacy of Peter, and various other business matters throughout Season Two.
But the best approach to the Bechdel Test isn’t this casual, seamless passing of it. It’s the sixth episode, in which Jared tries to force a friendship between Monica and Carla, the third and newest female character. Jared is the awkward, tragically well-intentioned CFO of Pied Piper. A regular act of Jared is to push his desires and visions on the rest of the Pied Piper team, ever awkwardly, from corporate brainstorming techniques to streaming live video of a condor egg waiting to hatch.
When Monica and Carla are introduced, Monica utters a nicety and Carla says nothing. Jared fails to notice this failure to connect, and spends the rest of the episode attempting to facilitate a connection, saying “look at you two” the first and only time that the two women share an opinion.
But this is the brilliance: they never actually speak to one another. And for reasons that make sense. The two women have nothing in common, aside from both being connected to the same company, for which they do totally different things.
It’s impossible to see this as anything other than intentional, as Silicon Valley’s first season was bashed for being sexist, for lacking female characters, and for treating women as plot points. The critics ranged from QZ to The New Republic to Mental Floss to The Daily Dot.
And here is why this sixth episode, “Homicide,” is so important. The writers and creators of Silicon Valley are telling us: “Yes, we fail to pass the Bechdel Test. Yes, we heard you, loud and clear. You’re right. But here’s the thing. These characters don’t know women. They don’t interact with women. They lack the social skills, the confidence, the maturity. They know no women. Their world is sexist and so are they. Silicon Valley fails to pass the Bechdel Test because the vast majority of Silicon Valley also fails to pass the Bechdel Test.”
At least, that’s what I think they’re saying. And it’s hard to see another explanation. They have put two women in a room together, given them the chance to speak, and then refused to let it happen, while passing the test in other episodes. I have a hard time seeing this as anything but intentional, and an indictment of the culture that Silicon Valley seeks to mock, criticize and analyze.