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The Bechdel-Wallace Riposte

October 3, 2015

You’ve heard of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, yeah? Set down by Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, from her friend Liz Wallace’s idea, the test asks if a work of fiction contains a) two female characters, b) both with names, who c) talk to each other d) about something other than a man. Passing the test doesn’t mean that the work is feminist or even good, just that it has a reasonable chance of accurately portraying the fact that half of all people are women. More than vindicating the works that pass, the test condemns those that fail–which is most of popular culture.

So I got to thinking, it’s pretty hard to find a fight scene with two women in it–at least, one that conforms to the Bechdel-Wallace criteria. I would also add that the two women must have an explicitly physical confrontation. Sorry, Gwendolyn and Cecily; the question is not “What can we reasonably turn into a fight scene?” but “What does it look like when we don’t have to do that?”

This is the only example I can think of, and it took me a while. It’s from Caryl Churchill’s magnificent play The Skriker:

JOSIE: She’s horrible. There’s something wrong with her.
JOSIE takes hold of SKRIKER to look at her.
LILY: Leave her alone.
SKRIKER: Leave me alone, I’ll tell my mum.
JOSIE: She’s not your mum. You haven’t got a mum.
SKRIKER: Mum! mum!
LILY: Josie, stop it. It’s all right, pet, she’s just/ teasing.
JOSIE: Get out you little scrounger./ Leave Lily alone.
SKRIKER: Mum, don’t let her/hit me.
LILY: Josie.
JOSIE: I know you, you bastard. How you like toads? you like dirt in your mouth? Get away from us. You come in the house I’ll put you in the fire, then we’ll see what you look like.
JOSIE picks up dirt from the ground and stuffs it in the SKRIKER’s mouth. LILY rescues SKRIKER.
LILY: Get away, you’re crazy./ (To SKRIKER:) It’s all right.
JOSIE: It’s her.

Full disclosure: this is not  technically a fight between two women, it’s a fight between one woman and one shapeshifting death-portent currently taking the form of a young girl. That’s the closest thing I have for now, but I’ll be on the lookout for more Bechdel-Wallace-compliant fight scenes!

10/5/15–Edited to add, how could I forget the Lady Cavaliers’ short film Tea Before Honour?! Still counting on one hand, though.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2015 5:33 am

    It is harder to find a fight scene between two women, though in the case it’s down to more reasonable causes, historically speaking women didn’t favour the same format as men, the face to face Monkey Dance, to solve issues of status, dominance etc.
    In the execution of acting a fight scene, to me the goal is to play the intention in a specific context, rather than doing that through a specific gender

    • October 4, 2015 3:38 am

      Sure, there’s the historical aspect — I’m not wondering why *half* of all fight scenes aren’t between two women — but I do want to read and perform more of them. As you say, women didn’t fight the same way as men nor over the same things, so fight scenes between women may may be substantially different from the canon that we’re used to, and that interests me.

      If you’re committed to the context of your scene, how can you do that without including the context that comes with gender? If you’re looking at your given circumstances, that’s right around thing one. No gender is neutral, representative of the whole of humanity — there’s just one that seems that way.

      • October 4, 2015 7:52 am

        Given that it is out of “context” for females to solves their hierarchy, dominance issues under what we consider the circumstances of what we call “fight” then one isn’t going to find many scenes with two women fighting.
        If as you are saying the consideration of context, and the context is one where males rather than females fight then where does the female fight?
        No genders are not neutral, but they can be in certain circumstances, at least to a degree.
        However from the PoV of finding “fight” scenes what is wrong with playing the intent regardless of gender? Art is representation not recreation, actors constantly have to play intents that they have not themselves experienced, or that they would not feel at that time.
        When we start to make the gender important, then we will fall in to the situation where there will be an imbalance in areas because the “genders” approach situations in different ways.
        We also have a notion of gender reflecting exuality in some degree, that is not a universal case or true through all of history. Gender can often reflect role. Males fight, therefore if you fight you are male etc. (ants are ants but some are workers, some are soldiers but they are all ants and either gender neutral or sterile female.) Humans have a more complex intellectual approach)
        There are added notions that roles express different aspects, Shakespeare’s females express emotions and the males actions, completely true or fair? well nothing is.
        If we start making considerations of gender important, then which aspect, physiological genetic aspects, psychological/emotional, cultural, the culture the story represents, the one at the time of the play being written, or the one for the time were are in, Or personal?

  2. October 4, 2015 10:18 am

    I’ve seen many women do fight scenes written for men just because of how hard it is to find a fight scene for 2 (or even just the 1) women (even if you include fight adaptations like the classic Gwendolen vs. Cecily!).

    Not surprisingly, I’ve never seen a man do a woman’s fight scene.

    If you open up the potential for fight scenes to movies & tv, the list grows (slightly. It’s still really freaking hard!). But for the sake of finding a fight scene featuring 2 (or more) women, from a play, both with names, who talk to each other and talk about something other than a man:

    1. Ken Ludwig’s The Three Musketeers features a fight between Sabine (made-up character) and Milady and they fight over Sabine’s brother D’Artagnan and the other musketeers but ALSO over Constance. Constance is a woman, ergo, PASS.

    2. Witch Slap (Jeff Goode) features Jezebella and Minerva, two witches vying for controls of the sisterhood by witch fight. Jezebella was Minerva’s apprentice (and ex-lover?). Several more fights (including a 2 on 1 and whole cast vs. 1) with all women, fighting over more women.

    3. She Kills Monsters (Qui Nguyen) has several fight scenes, but the one particular one I can think of that does not involve a guy has Tilly and her sister Agnes being bullied by the evil cheerleaders.



    Umm…possibly Crimes of the Heart and Ring Round the Moon? I haven’t read either in years but I believe both had fight scenes for two women. Otherwise, I’m out of ideas as I usually am when finding SPT scenes. 😦

    If you wanna talk historical: I can think of fight scenes (including classical, non-Shakespearan) featuring a single women but only two fight scenes total that are woman vs. woman: Helena/Hermia and Kate/Bianca. Both are written by Shakespeare and fought over men.

    Like I said in the beginning, it’s a lot easier to find a fight scene from a movie or tv show; one that was originally written for men or only features one woman; to adapt a conversational fight to include weapons; or to do just a straight up cat-fight over a guy.

    But when it comes down to it…if you asked me to choose a fight that fulfills the Bechdel test but is poorly written with low stakes or to do a great classic fight originally done by two men and is probably overdone, I’m going to choose the second option. Which to me is the greater tragedy, that the few fight scenes we ladies do have just aren’t that emotionally devastating.

    • October 5, 2015 12:36 am

      If you’re going to look into Qui Nguyen’s work, I strongly suggest Soul Samurai, which has a significant climactic fight scene between the two main female characters (who also happened to have been lovers). He has several excellent female fight scenes, in part because he worked closely with some excellent female actor combatants in his company.

      • October 6, 2015 2:17 am

        I definitely did not see enough Vampire Cowboys shows when I lived in New York! Now that you mention it, though, I did see Soul Samurai and I do remember that fight — someone I know must have a copy…

      • October 12, 2015 11:36 pm

        As much as I like Vampire Cowboys and Qui Nguyen’s work, I have not read nearly enough of it. I will add Soul Samurai to my reading list!

    • October 5, 2015 2:44 am

      There is a fight in Ring Round the Moon.
      We also have had two men at LAMDA do the “fight” between Helena and Hermia

    • October 6, 2015 1:37 am

      TV shows and movies help a bit — I didn’t want to specifically exclude them, since some good writing and a lot of pop culture come in those formats. Buffy the Vampire Slayer springs to mind, certainly. But when I originally wrote the post I was struggling to articulate the difference between action pieces where fighting is a social norm for everyone and pieces that are realistic in the sense that violence is transgressive (ie, The Skriker isn’t realistic in many ways, but in that way, it is). Especially in period pieces, there are plenty of times that violence is the expected and correct thing to do (Macbeth/Macduff, Hal/Hotspur), but also situations where it isn’t (Mercutio/Tybalt, Hamlet/Laertes); no matter the genders of the characters, I tend to find the latter more interesting, which is why those Buffy/Faith and Buffy/Glory fights didn’t quite scratch the itch.

    • October 6, 2015 2:29 am

      >>if you asked me to choose a fight that fulfills the Bechdel test but is poorly written with low stakes or to do a great classic fight originally done by two men and is probably overdone, I’m going to choose the second option. Which to me is the greater tragedy, that the few fight scenes we ladies do have just aren’t that emotionally devastating.<<

      Exactly so — well put.

      • October 6, 2015 2:53 am

        Pretty much every culture regards violence as an evil, the difference is whether it regarded as a necessary evil and whether the culture has forms in play that allow the evil doer to be able to reintegrate in to the society.
        So even in the conventional straight fights, Hotspur and Hal, Maccers, etc, The interesting things is that they in general want to fight but rather establish status dominance back to acceptable levels, which make those more interesting to play and more truthful to what actually happens in the scenes and stories.
        Social violence is driven by Hierarchies, boundaries and rule enforcement. men solve those problems through monkey dancing etc, doing that with weapons actually makes them poor choices, women more often solve them in other ways, and when they do use violence they, approach it in different, more effective ways, but that don’t result in the monkey dance situation of the conventional fight scene.
        Why? Because it isn’t the way women generally solve their problems,so people don’t write about it, or when they do it falls in to the realm of “fantasy” if you want the stupid behaviour that leads to that kind of emotional devastation then look at the stupid characters…

  3. A. Physicist permalink
    October 12, 2015 2:02 am

    This is a really good post since it points out exactly the intent of the Bechdel-Wallace test, which is to highlight how often media is told from an overwhelmingly male perspective.

    Just like the original test, it’s the restrictions that make this interesting. TV Tropes (I know, I know…) has two main categories of woman-woman fights, the “Designated Girl Fight” trope ( or the “Cat Fight” trope (, neither of which really satisfy the “emotional gut-punch” you are looking for (if I am interpreting Megan correctly).

    Any other fight that comes to mind occurs in a setting where violence is the accepted I am not as familiar with plays as I am with tv and most of the examples that spring readily to mind occur in a context where fighting is a natural occurence – Buffy/Faith or Buffy/Glory being perfect examples (but also including some of the recent fights on Agents of SHIELD (May/fake-May – or Agent Carter, the disappointingly short scene between Nebula and Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, the fights in Kill Bill, etc.).

    A proposal for the Fight version, pending approval by the board:
    1. A fight containing two women,
    2. In a genre where fighting/violence is not an every-scene/act/episode occurence,
    3. With a fundamentally emotional motivation*,
    4. Over something other than a man.

    *This I think eliminates the big group-vs-group fights where the women match up according to the DGF trope.

    I can come up with one example, but I think I need a fifth rule to disqualify it.
    5. No invoking of the word “Bitch”.

    Sorry, Ripley.


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