Two female characters in a film, television show, or book have a conversation with each other. The conversation is not about a male character.
That’s how the Bechdel Test works. When I first learned about this test, I was horrified that any work of fiction might not pass that test. I mean, typical women’s lives, thoughts, and conversations do not revolve around men. I know this because I actually know women. It seems simple, right? And there are some horrible writers out there who apparently think that female characters only exist to further the characterization or story of male characters. Sickening and horrifying.
The Bechdel test does not always work to determine if a show has quality, obviously. It also does not determine if a show is reasonable in its portrayal of women. I cannot recall a single instance of Hermione having a talk alone with another female character in the Harry Potter series (like I even needed to name the series). This is because the series is almost exclusively told from Harry’s point of view in, primarily, a third-person limited voice. Basically, that means that few things happen directly on the pages of the books that Harry does not personally experience. And yet I think that most people would agree that Hermione is a strong, empowering female character.
The same problem might arise if a book’s protagonist is female but she finds herself surrounded by male characters. She can be a powerful female protagonist without having a female best friend—or even a female friend.
The Bechdel Test still has value, however (a friend mentioned that The CW’s critically panned but totally watchable and fairly enjoyable pilot of Beauty and the Beast, which aired recently, totally passed the Bechdel Test. So far, everyone, including me, loves the female protagonist and her female fellow detective but does not care so much for the Beast part of the story). And it can be applied beyond its original scope. Or adapted, anyway.
For example, two gay characters can be non-lovers and have a discussion that involves neither other guys nor various gay stereotypes.
The problem with sloppy (or just bad) writing is that sometimes characters exist to serve the plot, and so their lines are written to reflect that. If you want to describe a male protagonist’s body without making potential homophobic readers uncomfortable, have two women talk about him outside of his presence in a scene.
But that’s not how characters work. That’s not how good writing works. Conflict drives a story, but above all else, characters and their interactions with each other and their environment should drive a story and dictate the events. Everyone and everything should be well-rounded and complete in order to present the best story in a compelling manner. If everyone is reduced to stereotypes and exist only as shallow vessels for the writers to convey information, it weakens the story and does not do any favors for the sorts of people represented.
PS: I am a writer, and I checked recently, and even just from outlines, my first book definitely passes the Bechdel Test. But also, you know, more than that. It’s good—you should never have to consciously modify your writing to pass the Bechdel Test. There are a lot of interesting things in the world aside from men that women might discuss. And no, I do not mean “like shoes.”