Five essential films that pass the Bechdel test

“Mistress America,” starring Greta Gerwig (left) and Lola Kirke (right), follows two stepsisters-to-be as they navigate college and life in New York City. The film passes the Bechdel test. (Photo from IMDb)

The Bechdel test and its rules were first featured in the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” written by Alison Bechdel in 1985. In this strip, two women discuss films, and one of them tells the other her criteria for going out and seeing a movie: The movie has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.

The films in the following list are included not only because they align with these guidelines, which have become a popular litmus test for feminist film buffs, but also because they go beyond this bare minimum. The women in these films have interesting jobs and interests that go beyond romance. And while part of their stories may be about finding love (with a man or otherwise), in these cases, that’s far from the most compelling thing about them.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

Directed by Nora Ephron, written by Nora and Delia Ephron

Based on the Hungarian play “Parfumerie,” Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” is centered around Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the owner of a children’s bookstore, and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the head of Fox and Sons Books, a large bookstore chain threatening Kelly’s business. Despite their professional rivalry and seemingly extreme moral differences, Fox and Kelly connect and fall in love over email chats with the screen names “NY152”  and “Shopgirl.” The thing is, neither knows they’ve been talking to their sworn enemy. “You’ve Got Mail” takes viewers on a nostalgic trip to simpler days when online dating didn’t require any swiping.

The movie passes the Bechdel test because it focuses on Kathleen running her mother’s bookstore, with the unique pressure of not only trying to sustain the business but also her mother’s legacy. When she is at a professional crossroads, she seeks council from one of her mother’s old friends, Birdie.

Love & Basketball (2000)

Written and directed by Gina


This romantic sports film follows the interweaving lives of Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps), as they both pursue their dreams to be basketball players. As Monica progresses in her basketball career, she also faces challenges controlling her demeanor and temper, constantly getting penalized on the court. Monica also butts heads with her mother’s expectations of her femininity, pushing her to be less of a tomboy and embrace a traditionally domestic role.

The film challenges expectations placed on women to exhibit traditionally feminine qualities, and Monica tries to pursue her own athletic ambition in a time when female athletes weren’t as accepted or celebrated (not to mention the infancy of WNBA). She also  challenges familial and societal expectations to be a certain type of woman.

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)

Written by Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen

“Kissing Jessica Stein” is about two women with very different personalities experiencing sexual frustration who end up finding themselves in love with each other. Jessica (Westfeldt), a neurotic copy editor and aspiring painter, is frustrated after a string of bad dates with men who continually disappoint her. Helen (Juergensen) works at an art gallery and finds herself at a sexual crossroads after stringing along three men in casual relationships. The two women meet after Helen puts an ad in the paper looking for a female friend (plus a little extra). Jessica is hesitant at first, but as she loosens up over time, they grow as a pair.

The co-stars wrote the film as an adaptation of a scene from their own 1997 play “Lipschtick.” Helen helps Jessica break out of some of her anxious tendencies while Jessica helps Helen discover a new, more thoughtful kind of intimacy.

Real Women Have Curves (2002)

Written by Josefina López and George LaVoo

“Real Women Have Curves” explores the life of Ana García (USC alumna America Ferrera), an 18-year-old navigating two very different worlds: Her life at Beverly Hills High School with her posh classmates and her economically unstable life at home with her immigrant parents. She grapples with wanting to pursue a personal life and interests that differ from her domineering and critical mother’s expectations, including applying to college in New York City.

Ana establishes her own identity on her own terms. She not only lifts herself up, but also tries to help her family and the other women she works with in the factory succeed. Ana gives her family ideas on how to keep their business running, and along with her co-workers, she discovers a new acceptance for their varying body types.

Mistress America (2015)

Written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach

Set in New York, this film follows Brooke (Gerwig) and Tracy (Lola Kirke), who connect because their parents are getting married and they’ll soon be stepsisters. Tracy is a new student at Barnard College and wants to be a writer. She applies to her school’s literary society but isn’t accepted. She expresses her frustration to Brooke, who commiserates and shares her own (at times, very scattered) creative interests and pursuits, including opening up her own restaurant. Without revealing too much, the antics pulled, the finger-pointing and reuniting of old friends and acquaintances make for perfectly awkward tension and humor in this film.

In addition to being co-written by pre-“Lady Bird” Greta Gerwig, the film passes the Bechdel test because it showcases the (non-romantic) ambitions of two women in different stages of their lives.