The Case of the Bechdel Test: women and Sherlock Holmes

This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a while. I haven’t exactly been avoiding it. It’s more that, well, I had a book on Kindle Scout, and then there was NaNoWriMo to do, and a book to launch, etc etc… Anyway, a couple of days ago I was reposting a blog I wrote around the ‘rules’ of Sherlock Holmes (as devised by Anthony Horowitz), and when I saw the words no women I decided that the time had come.

You may well have heard of the Bechdel test. If not, here goes. It’s very simple.

A film (or other work of fiction) passes the Bechdel test if:

  • there are two women in it
  •  who talk to each other
  • about something besides a man

There are additional tweaks, like ‘it would be nice if the women had names’ or ‘how about having more than two women’, but essentially that’s it. Not much to ask, is it?

Now, I’m no expert on the Sherlock canon, but I’ve read all the stories at one time or another, and I am racking my brains for a story that passes the test. In fact, I’m struggling to think of occasions where two women speak to each other in the Holmes stories. The only one that springs to mind is in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, where Mrs Watson talks with Kate Whitney. However, Kate has come to see them because her husband is missing, and Dr Watson is speedily dispatched to sort things out. Exit the women.

You could argue that those were different times, and that the way the stories are set up, with Watson as narrator and Holmes as the central figure, makes the conditions of the Bechdel test pretty hard to achieve. But let’s face it, both Mrs Hudson and Mrs Watson could have much bigger parts to play, and they don’t. We see almost everything through the eyes of Dr Watson, and yet his own wife is incidental. The lack of women is one of the things that winds me up about the Sherlock canon, much as I enjoy many of the stories.

So what can I do? It’s all very well me criticising, but do my own forays into the world of Sherlock Holmes pass the Bechdel test?

  • The Secret Notebook of Sherlock Holmes: just squeaks through, mainly because one case is solved through Mrs Hudson’s many chats with friends and acquaintances (all women).
  • A Jar of Thursday: by an even narrower margin, because two women have a conversation about clothes (although I’m prepared to plead extenuating circumstances on this one – read it to find out why).
  • The Case of the Snow-White Lady: in some ways I think this is the most traditional in style of the Holmes stories I’ve written, and therefore it’s probably not a surprise that it fails the Bechdel test. At one point a conversation is referred to between two women, so we know that it happened, but it doesn’t feature in the narrative. In my defence, it’s a novelette.
  • A House of Mirrors: at last I can say yes! As Mrs Hudson tells the story, conversations with other women suddenly become much more possible. Indeed, one of the things which make her situation so hard at first is that she is kept from her normal life, and from everyday socialising. If you want to know why that is, you’ll have to read the book!

And finally, this week I finished the first draft of my NaNoWriMo novel. It wasn’t a massive achievement in that I only had to finish the last chapter (so I actually wrote around a thousand words). However, what does please me is that this book, which is a modern cosy mystery, definitely passes the Bechdel test. It has heaps of conversations between women which aren’t about men. In fact, I might need to make sure that somewhere in the book I include two named male characters who have a conversation about something besides women!

I suspect that my description of the book might put some people off. It might make people think that it’s a ‘women’s book’. But how many mainstream books and films which fail the Bechdel test would be marketed as exclusively for men?

For more on the Bechdel test, here’s the Wikipedia link.

The featured image is Talks by Andrey, which is shared under Creative Commons license 2.0.

4 thoughts on “The Case of the Bechdel Test: women and Sherlock Holmes

  1. Yeahhh the uncomfortable truth about Sherlock Holmes. I’ve noticed that that internalized misogyny can bleed into my own work, too — this year I’ve made a conscious effort to showcase more female characters and, for the love of God, pass the Bechdel test. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that I’ve failed to do it in the past. But being aware of it is soo important!


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