NPR logo Parsing the Bechdel Rule, and Writing a Few of Our Own

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Parsing the Bechdel Rule, and Writing a Few of Our Own

Alison Bechdel's 'The Rule' - detail.

Alison Bechdel introduced her readers to 'The Rule' in 1985. Read on for more; click here to see the whole strip and hear the All Things Considered story. Alison Bechdel/Courtesy Firebrand Books hide caption

toggle caption Alison Bechdel/Courtesy Firebrand Books

Americans watch an average of five hours of TV a day — but how much of it is actually good? Twenty-three years ago, cartoonist Alison Bechdel had one of her female characters cite a simple rule: She'd only go to see a movie if it had:

1. At least two female characters, who ...



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I have the Korny rule. I won't watch any sporting event with the sound on if Tony Kornheiser is in the booth.

Sent by Tim Taylor | 5:26 PM | 9-2-2008

I cannot think of a single television programme available to me here in NZ that meets any of those rules....

Sent by Fee | 5:58 PM | 9-2-2008

I would like the rule where a gay character either (a) doesn't die, or (b) wasn't molested as a child.

Sent by Matt Blanks | 6:03 PM | 9-2-2008


If I had one it would be the "regional bias" in most television shows. Why do most shows take place in either NY or LA? I would love to see a show that takes place in Montana or Arizona.

What should we call it? How about the Bookman Laws.

Sent by Bookman | 6:06 PM | 9-2-2008

I'm a geek. Generally I avoid shows that don't have any "Geek Appeal." If there isn't a technical/sci-fi appeal, I probably won't watch it. Shows like CSI, Lost, and House meet that requirement. My wife is generally on board.
The only exception to that, is if the plot is especially deep and the charecters aren't vapid and self absorbed. In that case I'll make an exception.
That said, I'm generally too busy to watch TV. I watch television via Netflix. No commercials, the show has generally been vetted by someone else and I know if it lasted more then one season. I think Invasion made me more. Well that and I am too busy with night school.

Sent by Jay | 6:10 PM | 9-2-2008

"One of the things I loved about The Sopranos is, I don't think I would be able to hang out with an Italian-American family and get that sense of how they're relating to each other,"

The Sopranos was a show about being in the Mafia, not about being Italian-American. Watching it gives insight into what hanging out with the Mafia might be like. Equating understanding the Mafia, to understanding the Italian-American family is a very derogatory perspective.

Sent by Brian LaRossa | 6:12 PM | 9-2-2008

I try to avoid obviously misandric shows, in particular ones in which domestic violence against men is considered funny. Similarly, I avoid shows in which hitting a man in the testicles is considered funny -- ruling out that terrible America's Funniest Home Videos show and many others.

I try to avoid shows in which the men are exclusively portrayed as idiots, without a moral center, or not engaged in their children's lives. I avoid shows that exclusively show women this way also, but when was the last time you saw a man hitting a women on a show with a laugh track to indicate it was funny? Pretty rare (thank goodness) if at all.

I make an exception for The Simpsons. Homer is just too funny. Go figure.

Sent by Eric | 6:20 PM | 9-2-2008

The Bechdel Rule seems like a good one, but how do you know this about a movie BEFORE you see it? Maybe this should be stated along with the ratings, e.g. "Sex and the City: R, NB." (Rated R and Non-Bechdel compliant.)

Sent by Gary C | 6:31 PM | 9-2-2008

"Bones" meets all three criteria, although since there are no Hispanic/Latino characters, I'm not sure the Morales rule can be applied. There are white men in the cast, of course, but there are three women (one white, one black, one mixed race) who do talk about men, but not that often. Sometimes they talk about dead bodies (it's a show set in a forensic anthropology department), but mostly they talk about life; I like their interactions. Until I heard this piece, however, I didn't think much about the racial make-up of the cast. I just like the characters. I guess that means Eric Deggans would approve.

And Bookman -- ABC had a great show that took place in the fictional town of Elmo, Alaska: "Men in Trees". Unfortunately, it was canceled.

Sent by Anne Shure | 6:32 PM | 9-2-2008

I turn off shows--including news and documentaries--when the EMPHASIS on one word or phrase is just TOO EMPHATIC. I graduated grade school, thanks.
I hate to sound so old fashioned, but too much gratuitous use of the f... word, as verb, adjective, noun has me hit the off button. I don't expect everyone to sound like a nun, but not like a mentally challenged bum either.

Sent by Art Tegger | 6:36 PM | 9-2-2008

I admit that I love salsa dancing and I occasionally call my husband "papi". That said, I wholeheartedly agree with the Morales Rule. I cringe at the one-dimensional, stereo-typical image of the Latino on television. I would love to see more characters like the role of "Carla" played by Judy Reyes on Scrubs. I found it so refreshing to see a Hispanic character that was a person and not just a "latino".

Sent by Olivia | 6:37 PM | 9-2-2008

LaRossa's comment reminded me of impressions I had watching La Dolche Vita, Saturday Night Fever, and Moonstruck, that I was observing Italian family life. That assumed that the writer knew what wherof he spoke.

LDV was a comedy, intended by the writer in Italy to be a characture of perhaps a type of family. SNF may not have impressed some, but imagining a 20-year old living with his parents, criticizing his father for not trying hard enough to get a job, his father slapping the back of his head and his responding as if that was normal, would impress an Anglo.

Then there was MS, in which Dukakis asks Cher personal questions that were none of her business, and Cher simply answers. Mind-boggling to an Anglo, if he considered fitting himself into the picture.

But were they realistic?

Sent by Gene Douglas | 6:39 PM | 9-2-2008

Personally, I try not to watch movies with gratuitous violence, by which I mean violence that's only there because the screenwriters and directors were too lazy to think of a more interesting plot. Equally to be avoided are most, if not all, movies where problems are solved through the use of violence. Finally, there are those "comedies" where the "humor" involves the spilling, throwing, eating, etc. of bodily fluids-- most of those are just too boring and stupid to watch.

Sent by Gary C | 6:39 PM | 9-2-2008

I generally don't watch shows that have an entire cast of idiots. We've gone from funny characters that use humor to deal with life, to totally unreal personalities. I also agree with Jay the Geek, except when the show takes itself too seriously, as do most of the CSI shows.

Sent by kcooper | 6:50 PM | 9-2-2008

I like (actually I crave) shows that feature a meaningful non-sexual friendship/partnership between people of different races.

For me that include The New Adventures of Old Christine, Psych, Law & Order, Heroes (Matt and Mohinder are actually sharing parenting duties) and the brilliant but gone-to-soon Veronica Mars which also adhered to the Bechdel and Morales rules.

Sent by Marcia | 7:07 PM | 9-2-2008

My rules: A "serious" show without the occasional relief of humor shall not be allowed. Angst must be kept to a minimum. No stupid plotlines that have one of the main characters being a temporary lesbian. Also: no doctors, housewives, Charlie Sheen, or anyone's innards allowed.

Other shows I have loved that have two female characters talking about things other than men: Alias, The Office, Big Love, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Sent by Katie | 7:17 PM | 9-2-2008

dear television industry: not all female cops became cops because of OH MY GOD SOME CRIME-RELATED TRAUMA IN THEIR PAST ("cold case", i'm looking at you right now.)

Sent by regis | 7:33 PM | 9-2-2008

Xena: Warrior Princess follows the Bechdal Rule to a T.

Sent by sunny | 7:41 PM | 9-2-2008

This isn't a rule, it's more of a fantasy.
I want to watch a show where a lead character is:
1. A Strong Woman,
2. Who kicks *** (I like action movies),
3. Who is neither neurotic, psychotic, depressed about her ex, stupid, or evil,
4. Who doesn't need to be saved and who doesn't get killed at the end.
5. If she was funny that'd be a definite bonus.
Examples...I'm drawing a bit of a blank. Storm from X-Men has potential, but she's really not a very central character. Anyone else have any examples? I haven't seen Buffy yet...

Sent by Beverly | 7:42 PM | 9-2-2008

I apply the 'You fool!' test: If no one on the show would ever plausibly exclaim 'You fool!'-- well, I won't say I won't watch it, because I'm watching Mad Men now, but it's a hard sell.

(Modifiers attached to 'fool' are fine-- 'meddling' is popular, as are 'ignorant' and 'insolent'-- but synonyms are right out. 'You idiot' is not the same thing at all.)

Sent by Evelyn Browne | 7:43 PM | 9-2-2008

I think Scrubs holds up quite well to scrutiny under any of these rules - female characters who talk to one another about more than just men, minimal discussion of race in a show where the two leading men are of different races (and have a jokingly pseudo-romantic relationship), and a complex latina character who's got depth and intelligence.

I can think of lots of sci-fi shows that hold up well on most fronts, but most of them either have (a) only one prominent female character, even if she's the lead, (b) several female characters who don't really interact much at all or (c) female characters who are never on the show at the same time (thanks, Doctor Who).

Sent by Sarah H. | 7:56 PM | 9-2-2008

While I can sympathize with the desire for diverse narrative, one does not successfully combat tedious formula with the introduction of more tedious formuli.

The greatest disservice done to art, and therefore to those love beauty, is the demand that art follow ideology: that art espouse: that art be right-thinking.

To bind art to an ideology -- even if it is the right ideology -- is wrong; it is perverse; it is a prostitution of art. One could criticize _Sex In the City_ for failing to tell us enough about the characters' politics; or their spirituality; or their hearts' desires.

Instead they are criticized because they talk only about men. That is a narrow criticism: It reflects a narrow view of art, narrowly understood feminism, and a narrow conception of humanity.

My objection to this Bechdel rule is not primarily that it unthinkingly excludes, for example, a work like _Hamlet_, although that doesn't help matters: but that Bechdel, and yourselves, argue for these rules on exactly the wrong basis.

Bechdel, and the others, are looking for more people like them: people they can relate to, step easily and unthinkingly inside of, and presumably live vicariously through. They do not desire diversity, but only their little corner of monotony within the diversion.

In the name of political correctness, you have attacked the very foundation of art and humanity: namely that we learn to recognize ourselves in those unlike us.

Sent by Conrad Cook | 7:57 PM | 9-2-2008

My primary TV rule is no drama for drama's sake. So many shows start out with an interesting plot and characters and then slowly decline in entertainment value as they desperately try to come up with something to keep us watching. They start having the characters do things that are inconsistent, stupid and bizarre. I've really enjoyed shows that stay true to their characters, even at the expense of ending the show: The Wire, Deadwood, West Wing...

Sent by Elisabeth | 8:25 PM | 9-2-2008

I would say I can only watch a show that has at least one relationship where neither of the partners has cheated, is cheating, is entertaining the possibility of cheating, or is repressing a (usually ridiculously huge) urge to cheat. I feel there is a bizarre necessity to cheat in the psychology of every character in tv shows, at least any character who can be deemed sexy and interesting. Is this just a plot device? Can the writers really believe that everyone is wired to cheat, or can they not think of any other way to have their characters break up/have bumps in their relationship?

I was happy with Mad Men for awhile because it seemed there was hope not everyone would have their (seemingly required) torrid affair on the side. That is unfortunately not the case already by season two.

Sent by christopher cole | 8:26 PM | 9-2-2008

I think too many people focus on ridiculous things like the "Bechdel Rule" creating more things to dislike in this world. Believe it or NOT, MOST heterosexual women often ONLY talk about a disgusting monotony that human ears can't stand! Try to have a family reunion and see what "intelligent" conversation pops up. One would think that with all this hype, we'd have more intelligent shows for us to discuss. I guess we're just smarter than the sitcom writers out there.:) So be it, but trying to create limitations in this world and by not exposing ourselves to the 'Pop Culture' surrounding us, we limit our artistic journey, we suffocate ourselves...We must take what we see and experience and convert it into something intelligent people would admirably watch... "An artist (a true one at that) is like a whale, swimming with his mouth WIDE OPEN, absorbing everything...." --- Romare Bearden

Sent by Mariposa | 8:32 PM | 9-2-2008

I object to the assertion that "Sex and the City" and "Grey's Anatomy" fail the Bechdel test. Although romantic (and non-romantica sexual) relationships figure significantly in both shows, both feature the relationships between females as the strongest relationships in the shows. The female characters don't only talk about "boys" - they talk about their careers, their friendships, their hopes and dreams. Just like real women.

Sent by Susanna | 8:35 PM | 9-2-2008

Life on NBC follows the Bechdel Rule. It is also an excellent show to intoduce Zen Buddhist ideas to a population that might not be familiar with them.

Double win!

Sent by Steve | 9:00 PM | 9-2-2008

No show epitomizes the Bechdel rule quite like "Gilmore Girls". There are mother/daughter conversations (crossing two generations), best girlfriend conversations, employee/employer conversations, and probably at least ten more types of woman-on-woman talks that only include men in the context of making them fit into the world that the women create around them. It's fabulous! Any woman looking for witty conversation that has so much zing and pop culture that you'll wish that your brain was compatible with Google in order to even pretend to keep up should definitely join the crew in Stars Hollow.

Sent by Blair Marvel | 9:09 PM | 9-2-2008

Battlestar Galactica follows all three rules. Tons of women talking to each other, rarely about men. Several nonwhite characters in the main cast in a show that isn't about race (Tory, Athena, Tyrol, Dualla, etc). No Spanish, salsa dancing, or calling someone Papi at all. It's my favorite show, for all of those reasons, and I'm sad it's ending. I recommend Netflixing the first three seasons to anyone who hasn't seen it. And, erm, I actually never read sci fi and am not a huge fan of the genre in general. My partner is, and he got me into Battlestar.

Sent by F. McGee | 9:28 PM | 9-2-2008

I think that Gary's idea about a meaningful non-sexual relationship is a good one. So much is sexually charged on TV - I think in part because it's an easy way to build drama and an easy way to give two people a recognizable way to relate to each other. Non-sexual relationships are much more difficult to define in a drama.

The Bookman Law about shows set between the coasts? I'd go for that, too. Makes me think of the Drew Carey Show - Cleveland rocks!

Sent by Sara Sarasohn | 9:34 PM | 9-2-2008

I'm generally of the scifi/tech interest too for TV shows and action for movies. I'm finally getting a DVR next week, so I probably won't watch any new shows (but I'll DVR them) until the reviews come out and I see if the show is going to last more than a few episodes. Raising two kids, I don't have time to watch TV till they are in bed, so don't want to waste what little TV-watching time I have.

Sent by Jeanette | 9:35 PM | 9-2-2008

I've been adhering to a Bechdel rule for a number of years, without being aware of it. That means that I don't watch much TV and don't care for most mainstream movies. The movie I made an exception for, and did enjoy, was
"Master and Commander", though the testosterone overload was wearing after awhile.

Sent by Ginny | 9:38 PM | 9-2-2008

I love The Middleman. I'm thrilled that there is some more good press on it. It is one of the most intelligent and witty shows on tv right now. It's diverse cast, playing roles that are not stereotyped is also very refreshing. I hope to see this show on the air for some time to come.

Sent by Kevin Brennan | 9:50 PM | 9-2-2008

I watch show's if they're good, period. As a rule I don't make race or sex a part of any rule.

Sent by Yon Fu | 9:55 PM | 9-2-2008

1. I am not entertained by self-involved people. I couldn't stand 'Friends' or 'Seinfeld'.

2. I will not watch anything where they destroy a classic automobile. The last episode of 'Home Improvement' I ever saw was when Tim dropped a 2 ton girder on Jill's Chevy Nomad. I almost walked out of 'Pay It Forward' because they destroyed that classic Ford Mustang in the opening scene.

3. I will not watch 'Teenage Fantasies' (movies or shows where all the teenagers are smarter than all the adults.) 'Ferris Beuller's Day Off' is a classic example, but 'Malcolm in the Middle' and 'That '70s Show' also qualify.

4. I will not watch anything where sex is used as a weapon. Anything starring Richard Geer usually qualifies.

Sent by TCav | 10:06 PM | 9-2-2008

I wish for:
Crime drama that does not follow the "most famous guest star is guilty" rule.

Sent by keri | 10:24 PM | 9-2-2008

I refuse to view any movie or show with a trailer showing an ultra-cool character walking away from a massive explosion without turning around to see the fireball. Antonio Banderas was the first one I remember doing this, and I've probably seen a dozen since, with the latest being Christian Slater in an upcoming TV series.

Sent by Roger Buch | 10:26 PM | 9-2-2008

Eric Deggans really had me appreciating his points until he cited "The Sopranos" as a show about Italian-Americans. That would be like Italian-American me watching shows about black "gangstas" to learn about African-Americans. I usually get annoyed when Italian-Americans complain about the stereotypes of us in the media, but now I get it. How depressing.

Bookman: "Medium" is set in Arizona.

Sent by Tracy M | 10:26 PM | 9-2-2008

I thoroughly enjoyed the story about the Bechdel Rule until Mr. Deggan discussed how some stereotypes are 'victimless' and provide insight into a culture which would not ordinarily be available in life. His illustration of his point was how he, as an African-American man could get insight into how Italian-American families functioned through watching the Sopranos. As an Italian-American woman, I would like to point out to Mr. Deggan and others that the stereotypes of the Sopranos are as offensive to me, as an Italian American, as the stereotypes his rule is designed to counteract. The idea that the Italian family is characterized by crime, mafia, and a culture of excess and lack of 'class' and education is offensive to me and my family. Is highly offensive -- but generally considered to be victimless and entertainment. I have never watched the Sopranos or any other films/TB stories of that genre. I do not find them in any way acceptable or entertaining.

Sent by (Dr.) Marie Anzalone | 11:02 PM | 9-2-2008

If Deggans thinks that the Sopranos is like "hang[ing] out with an Italian-American family" he really is sheltered and doesn't know much about others cultures, but his own. For him to say that a fictional mafia family is like a typical Italian-American family is outrageous. In addition, I feel bad that Deegans is so ignorant and embarrassed that your radio station would air it.

Sent by Julie | 11:08 PM | 9-2-2008

Believe it or not, "Star Trek". Uhura, Chapel and Rand never discussed romance. Dr. Crusher and Troi had lots of chats together. Janeway never discussed romance with her chief engineer. Anyway, here's the Richards Rule about old folks in movies:

I will see a movie with grey haired people if:

1. There is more than one.
2. They talk about something other than aging.
3. They act like old people (instead of doing silly stunts).

Sent by Elaine Richards | 11:31 PM | 9-2-2008

Whether for a movie or real life, here is a simple set of criteria for deeper authenticity:
1. Two or more individuals
2. honestly sharing together parts of their respective worldviews
3. including something on which they agree and also something which they disagree about.

The part that is in agreement fosters interpersonal connection. The disagreement reveals how each person's worldview may be unique, and presents an opportunity for respecting differences between people.

Sent by Peter Grossenbacher | 11:52 PM | 9-2-2008

period pieces where men grunt more than they speak, which helps since the plots are usually too thin to support much dialogue.

Prime Example: *Gladiator* Absolutely painful. This is the movie that sealed this rule for me.

I'm pretty sure I didn't see *Braveheart* 5 years before Gladiator, but it's in there too.

This rule kept me from even considering *Troy* (2004).

Really, how many three-word-sentences-while-pounding-heads-with-clubs-while-fire-raging-in-background does one need in a film? Try ZERO.

**Exception made only for vintage Charlton Heston flicks (animating Shakespeare, the Bible, etc.)

Sent by Christy | 12:39 AM | 9-3-2008

What? No mention of 30 Rock?? It follows some of these rules, but not concretely.

Sent by Lori | 4:31 AM | 9-3-2008

How about a character with a disability that is not there to be "AN INSPIRATION!!!!" or to teach a lesson about tolerance?

Sent by Rose | 8:08 AM | 9-3-2008

Haven't seen any dramatic fiction on commercial TV in years that was worth watching after about ten minutes. Even classic films break after about that long for seven or eight minues of inane commercial hype. When will broadcasters learn that unpleasantness and ugliness repel people? Bad spots certainly do not inspire confidence in, and admiration for, the sponsors who support them. Yes, there are occasional clever and upbeat commercials on television, and rarely, even on commercial radio, but the receiver is probably off by the time they show up.

Sent by Bill | 8:25 AM | 9-3-2008

I love the point that science fiction often seems to naturally create room for a range of women's conversations. The original 1983 cartoon strip cites Alien. We talked about The Middleman (fabulous show, if you haven't seen it--I hadn't before working on the NPR report).

But science fiction doesn't always come through. I just ran across a smart blog post that applies the Bechdel Rule to the movie The Dark Knight ...

Sent by Neda Ulaby | 9:30 AM | 9-3-2008

On New Years Eve 1989, I resolved that I would never, ever again watch a show involving doctors, lawyers, police officers, or detectives on the theory that I really knew quite enough about those particular professions. I believe it's the only resolution I ever kept.

Sent by KJ | 9:41 AM | 9-3-2008

As a young, Black woman, I've stopped watching most American shows- simply because of the reasons NOT to watch them as stated in the article.
1)Not enough minorities, and even in this day and age, 2)they still kill them off, 3) make them move away or 4)write them out of the show...
5)and gratuitous behavior

Since I started watching the defunct AZNTV (a cable channel targeted towards Asian-Americans), and Asian films in general, I noticed that the women had a fuller sense of self, even the dysfunctional characters! The women often spoke about their professions, fate, destiny, what they personally wanted out of life. I'm saying this because, unfortunately, I related more to these women and they resembled my friends more (who are Black women as well!) than the Black women characters that Hollywood portrays. Even the men talked amongst themselves as intimately as the women, struggling with themselves, and not bashing or treating women like trash that I often see in American TV. And the villains were three-dimensional!

Sent by Kfai | 10:09 AM | 9-3-2008

Heroes I think is a good example. Passes the Bechdel rule any number of times in the first few season alone (Niki and Tina, Claire and Angela). Passes the Deggins rule with flying colors (3 nonwhite main cast characters in a show not remotely about race, including a prominent multiracial marriage). Passes the Morales rule.

Another example would be Torchwood, though its test scores aren't as pristine as Heroes'. It's got a much smaller main cast so I think it can be forgiven for Toshiko being the only nonwhite - though a case could certainly be made that Jack might in fact be an alien and not human at all. Plus there's Freema Agyeman now in season two. It also struggles with the Bechdel rule, with Gwen and Tosh spending an inordinate amount of time talking about who's currently boffing Owen. But there are "work" conversations in there as well, enough to pass (just). And again, the Morales rule passes. (just what tv shows is Morales watching? she seriously needs to find a better tv station to watch if she needs a rule like that.)

Sent by Kasreyn | 10:12 AM | 9-3-2008

I'll call this the Bechdel Rule Corollary:
1. At least two women who
2. Talk to each other about
3. Something other than their children/families.

Sent by Gita | 10:31 AM | 9-3-2008

I'm not interested in "rules." They serve to exclude the surprising and unique work that seems to follow a formula but then turns that formula on its head.

However, I do crave shows where people are NOT defined by their stereotypical caption -- the white nerd, the strong black woman, the wise Asian elder, the shrewd Jewish lawyer, the flamboyant gay stylist -- but still show us cultures that are different from our own. The fact that a peek into Italian-American culture can only be found in a parody like the Sopranos shows how rare this is.

Meanwhile, most Americans have no idea how a black family from Memphis differs from one with Caribbean roots in Brooklyn. They don't see the difference between a Korean-American and a Taiwanese-American family. Or even how a family of white Lutherans differ from a family of Christian Scientists. America doesn't know, because we don't see it.

So I don't have a rule, I have a plea. There are a million subcultures in America and they all have something to share. Show them to us without pandering to stereotypes or caricatures. Not only will we learn more about our neighbors, we'll learn more about ourselves.

Sent by JaG | 10:33 AM | 9-3-2008

The unfortunately short-lived Women's Murder Club followed all of these rules. The main characters were, obviously, women, and there were 4, with more in the supporting cast. They solved crimes from all angles, talking about motives, forensics, news leads, law, investigative tactics, familial/girlfriend relationships, and sometimes romances but in an organic way. There were two African-Americans and an Asian in the primary (lead and supporting) cast, with many multicultural extras, some of whom were Hispanic/Latino but managed not to speak gratuitous Spanish or play salsa music even once. And even though it was set on a coast, San Francisco has to be somewhat better than NY or LA in that regard. Too bad the TV executives couldn't give it a chance after the strike-shortened season.

Sent by jessica | 10:49 AM | 9-3-2008

BTW... "Sex and the City" is one of Alison Bechdel favorite shows and it must have passed her own test since she went to the movie...

Sent by Laura | 10:59 AM | 9-3-2008

I would agree with most these comments including the "fool" rule, with one exception... I pity the fool who don't watch the A Team. I suppose I'd probably watch a show if they randomly alluded to Mr. T.

Sent by Aaron | 11:01 AM | 9-3-2008

My one and only criterion for watching a show or movie is intelligent writing.

That said, maybe some of us don't want reality in our tv shows. Maybe we want a weird fantasy world like Pushing Daisies as a diversion.

Also - as someone with a big Italian family, I can tell you that Moonstruck is probably one of the most accurate portrayals in my mind. I agree with others about the Sopranos. I always felt that show was more about New York/New Jersy guys than it was about Italians.

And, following up on the "inbetween coasts" talk, Saving Grace on TNT does this well. It is set in Oklahoma, and there is a lot of dialogue that alludes to things about the area.

Sent by Kay | 11:16 AM | 9-3-2008

In addition to the "rules" mentioned I'd like a decent plot and interesting characters no matter what their background. Smart characters and interesting stories-is that too much to ask? Maybe so since most of the shows I will mention are off the air!
I also refuse to watch shows that endorse or promote adultery as one of their central plot points especially to establish a show (which means most ABC shows are out).

Some shows that qualify:
1. Buffy
2. Veronica Mars (she's a PI so the infidelity isn't glamorized, it's ridiculed)
3. Gilmore Girls
4. Firefly
5. Dollhouse, probably (another Joss Whedon, I know)
6. Pushing Daisies

Sent by Megan Needham | 11:32 AM | 9-3-2008

Some great rules posted here. I hope screen writers are taking notes..

Sent by Erick Veil | 11:43 AM | 9-3-2008

I will not watch TV shows or movies in which people are tortured on-screen. Torture is not entertainment. Torture does not illuminate anything about the human spirit. Yes, this means that I have missed every season of "24". Scenes of people being tortured are showing up in so many TV shows - science fiction ("Farscape") and the hourly crime dramas ("CSI" and "Without a Trace"). It is becoming commonplace, and boring, and that should not happen.

Sent by lorimac | 11:47 AM | 9-3-2008

I'd love to see an adopted character who doesn't want to find their birth family and has a normal relationship with their parents. (ie one that's like non-adopted people have) I'd also like to see a character who discovers that their parent(s) aren't their birth parents just recognize that it doesn't matter and the person who raised you is your parent.

Sent by Diane | 11:49 AM | 9-3-2008

A good show that follows the Bechdel Rule, I think, is The Office. Although I don't think it follows the Deggans rule. A good show which follows both however would be "The Fresh Prince"...

"In West Philadelphia born and raised,
On the play-ground is where I spent most of my days..."

Sent by Amy Wuest | 12:24 PM | 9-3-2008

Yes, Alison Bechdel saw the "Sex and the City" movie, but did you see what she wrote about it?
"I knew the movie would be really stupid but I went anyway, and it was even stupider than I'd feared, basically just a series of product placements held together with bad soft core porn."
This was exactly my assessment of that movie, to the letter.

Sent by Gary C | 12:30 PM | 9-3-2008

Morales' fear of 'gratuitous Spanish' seems a bit xenophobic. I guess she would support the 'English-only' proposition? My question is, who gets to decide how much Spanish is 'gratuitous' and how much is just enough?!

Sent by Christina Garcia | 12:42 PM | 9-3-2008

I'd like to submit the "Early-seasons-X-Files" rule:

1. Show/movie must have a male and female character, who
2. Are in some kind of partnership/relationship, which is
3. Supportive, equal, nurturing, and beneficial to both parties, and

Just as not every female conversation is about men, so too, not every male/female relationship has to be romantic. Platonic friendship can be just as devoted, supportive, and nurturing as a romantic relationship.

Naming my rule after the one and only show that I ever saw recognize this (even though it broke its own rule in the last season, but that last season committed a multitude of sins anyway and I argue it wasn't like itself any more).

Sent by Kim W. | 1:01 PM | 9-3-2008

I'd be willing to bet Conrad Cook is a white, het, man. Sure, he thinks we should all be okay with the fact that none of our media reflects our lives -- because 95% of it is written by white, het, men, and therefore is written translated directly into his speak. The fact that the Bechdel Rule was made because of the endless amounts of movie and TV that didn't have even two women with real lines that existed except to talk about the men in it... means nothing to him. Argh. Shouldn't type when angry, but sometimes it's impossible not to.

Sent by sherrold | 1:07 PM | 9-3-2008

My rule would be a Christian character that is not
a) extremely narrow minded, ignorant, overbearingly religious, and fundamentalist
b) but not necessarily totally left wing, nods-along-with-what-everyone-else-says either

Basically, I like to see shows and movies where a Christian character is a person and has some humanity/flaws to them, but takes their faith seriously enough to be convincing, and you can tell that the character really THINKS about what they believe and isn't just some stereotype of a "religious person"

Sent by Fabiana | 1:10 PM | 9-3-2008

It's funny, but the only time I don't really dig the relationship between Natalie Morales's Wendy Watson and the best friend character, Lacey, is when they're talking about men. The whole pillow-lips thing seems a bit forced. I do however love it when Lacey refers to sexy bossman. The Middleman is a great show and I really hope it gets a second run.

Sent by Marti | 1:25 PM | 9-3-2008

I don't know that it's fair to trash Deggans for submitting that The Sopranos provided a peek into a family culture that was in some ways distinctively Italian-American.

There's The Family (that thing of theirs) and then there's the family; and the overarching theme of the show is Tony's attempt to reconcile the two worlds.

The activities of The Family are of course atypical of most everyone, Italian-Americans and otherwise. And sure, anyone who'd suggest that the mafia life is typical of Italians is an idiot. (It may be common for a person to bent out of shape about a joke told at his wife's expense, but seldom do regular folks contract a hit in response. And seldom do mobsters, either, I would think; such are the liberties of entertainment.)

But life at the Sopranos home, with its back-talking entitled kids, parental worrying, and ice cream bowl in front of the tv eating, is pretty recognizably American. Add manicotti as a preamble to Thanksgiving turkey, a deep drawer of deli meat in the fridge, a Tuscany-by-way-of-suburbia home decor, the trappings of Catholicism, and a whole lot of Oh!s, and you've got some idea of the Italian part of the equation. (All right, the Oh! stuff is probably more of a Jersey thing.)

Anyway, I can see how those who didn't grow up in an Italian-American home could get some legitimate ideas from the Soprano household. As with all entertainment, one must exercise care when deducing which elements may be common to real-life and which elements are exaggerated or fabricated for entertainment purposes.

"What, no ---ing ziti?"

Sent by Anthony Jr. | 1:34 PM | 9-3-2008

1- Cast is ethnically diverse by region, can rotate, and lead is not always a male of northern-Euro descent.
2- No stereotypes. Characters talk about more than just main plotlines.
3- Exterior shots set in the city where it takes place.
4- Series last no longer than 4 or 5 seasons (or 6 seasons for comedies).

I think the first would allow us to feel empathy for someone not like us, especially if they might leave or die. The second would add depth to everyone involved. The third would add interest in other American locales. And the last is a number that keeps viewers engaged and writers on-plot (based on past TV series).

Rotating casts? Law & Order and ER continue successfully past 5 seasons because the new/old cast mixture keeps stories multifaceted.

Sent by Semi | 3:49 PM | 9-3-2008

Sherrold, I was thinking the same thing.

Since so much (almost all) comedy and drama have historically been centered around white males, Conrad, we (anybody other than a white male) have had PLENTY of practice "learning to recognize in ourselves those unlike us." Now it's YOUR turn.

Sent by Ashland Avenue | 3:50 PM | 9-3-2008

Eureka is a show with a main character played by Joe Morton who is an incredibly brilliant scientist. The only thing about his character that could be considered stereotypical was his dreadlocks which have disappeared with the latest season. And I'd be willing to bet that's just how Joe wore his hair and not a costume thing.

Sent by Daniel Przybylski | 4:37 PM | 9-3-2008

Gilmore Girls! Any fan of the show knows why. It is one show that has positive role models for girls. Strive to be smart, read, be a good mother, daughter, and friend. Rory is my daughter's favorite tv character. No Hannah Montana for us!

Sent by Audrey LeGrande | 5:39 PM | 9-3-2008

I find it a bit funny that a large number of the commenters wish for:
(insert special class of individual) that acts like a normal person. I personally think this would be pretty darn boring. By in large, people seek to be entertained by television, not educated. Television/Movie studios sell entertainment. If you seek to be educated, turn off the TV and go outside. Otherwise, enjoy the drama - real or not.

Sent by Real | 7:13 PM | 9-3-2008

I follow Marshall McLuhan - Who controls your media, controls your mind. It's the 'You are what you eat' rule applied to awareness.

Sent by Brock Samson | 11:04 PM | 9-3-2008

Sherrold and Ashland, you've mistaken me: I am for diversity in cast, in message, and in narrative: but not for bad purposes.

Diversity in the name of making television, or any artistic media, a better organ of propoganda *still* twists the media into an organ of propoganda: shallow, hollow art is *still* hollow, shallow art.

The dreadful dead formulaically stupid state of American cinema *can* be healed, and part of that *must* include a greater and more diverse representation of minorities, of women, and of the unrecogized. But if we frame it with a multitude of Bechdelesque rules, we will paint ourselves into a corner:

What, everyone tunes into the TV drama designed to appeal to their demographic, makes brief forays into other time-slots as a kind of social voyeurism, turns off and goes to bed?

Did anybody post a rule about a demographic they don't personally belong to?

You are right that, as a white straight man, I have ample opportunity to see fictional heros who share my sex, orientation and race: and I can tell you from long experience that seeing on the screen characters with whom I am therefore supposed to identify does not endear me to American television or cinema.

Rules about the inclusion and presentation of minorities in television and cinema do not address the problem of stereotyping: they only seek to establish new stereotypes.

Sent by Conrad Cook | 12:21 PM | 9-4-2008

I have always admired the British comedy "Chef!" because, although its 3 main charactrs are a black chef, his black wife, and his black assistant chef, they never, ever, talk about race! They talk about finance, and purchasing decisions, and customer relations, and new-hires, and recipes, and marital problems. It's so refreshing.

Sent by Jim Morgan | 1:21 PM | 9-4-2008

I wouldn't want anyone to take these rules as some sort of dreadful dictum. Perish the thought! Maybe they're just a fun, pointed way to criticize and analyze who we see reflected back at us from TV and movie screens. Thanks for a terrific discussion.

Sent by Neda Ulaby | 4:01 PM | 9-4-2008

Men and context? What about women discussing power in relationships? Is this not allowed?

The other issue I have is with the Ms. Morales, the Cuban American, who said she would never play a Hispanic character that used the vernacular "papi". What this young woman meant is that she would never play a character of poor or working-class Caribbean descent. It was a classist, status oriented statement which for some reason young women confuse with feminism. Hating poor women and internalizing classism is not progress. Her profound classism was particularly hateful speech. Much worse was her mention of salsa music, one of the most beautiful genres enriching American culture, as a dirty word.

Sent by Veronica | 6:43 PM | 9-4-2008

Veronica wrote: "What about women discussing power in relationships?"

What a shame that people discuss power in relations with people outside those relationships.

What a shame that it is a criterion that someone uses to choose what to watch or what not to watch.

Sent by TCav | 9:33 PM | 9-4-2008

It seems from reading that we just want to see us portrayed fairly on TV. It's not only too easy to have people living in stereotypes but it's now boring and unoriginal.

I don't know if it's a rule, but it's hard to find a show that has more than one black man and more than one black one. The man is usually gay or a cross dresser.

Sent by Spiegs | 9:44 PM | 9-4-2008

I can't believe that there is no mention of Law and Order here -- Hello, strong black woman as lieutenant of the police dpt?! (Played wonderfully by S. Epatha Merkerson for the past 17 years). What can compare with watching her give out orders to a bunch of white, male, heterosexual detectives who have a tendency to speak with their mouths full of food. Didn't they ever learn the swallow before speaking rule?
But still, Law and Order is a great show -- anything that keeps you guessing until the last 5 minutes is worth watching.

Sent by Talia | 2:01 AM | 9-5-2008

Will Natalie dance the Rumba in a role? The Cha-Cha-Cha? Will she say "mami"?

Sent by Jona | 7:57 AM | 9-5-2008

I was never aware of the rule when I started my work on an online novel about women pirates. All this time, I had no idea I was tapping into a major meme here...

Sent by James Ryan | 9:33 AM | 9-5-2008

Very interesting program, thank you. What I don't understand is that people would even think that men and woman are as one-dimensional in real life as they are portrayed in most TV shows. Both men and women are made to look like they all share the same banal interests. Aren't we all much more complex?

Sent by Nora | 10:15 AM | 9-5-2008

What's with all the criticism of the Morales rule?

She's not saying that listening to salsa music or speaking Spanish (she does speak Spanish when appropriate on "The Middleman") or saying "Papi" is bad, just that those traits tend to define many Latino characters on the big and small screens to show, "Hey, look, this person's Latino!."
The use of these traits, and others, is annoying and insulting.

If, say, a Latino character likes salsa just because they like salsa, or because it reminds them of a specific place they grew up, then that's fine. But it needs to be organic to the character, not just to the person's race.

For example, while Heroes mishandled the Latino twin characters introduced in Season 2, the show did one thing I liked. They set their flashbacks specifically in the Dominican Republic, with a band not playing generic salsa or mariachi (seemingly the only two Latin music styles on American TV and movie screens), but old-style merengue, music typical of the Dominican Republic.

I wouldn't hold so fast to any rules, though. While they are helpful in communicating a lot of legitimate complaints and wishes we have for media, a 100% steadfast rule would exclude some things that might actually become a favorite movie or TV show. You don't have to ignore or dismiss the stereotypes -they should be brought to light, and campaigned against- but that doesn't mean that the work as a whole isn't worth your time.

Sent by Diandra Rodriguez | 1:05 PM | 9-5-2008

and just something to add to my comment above-
it doesn't mean that every Dominican has to listen to merengue or every Mexican has to listen to banda or any person should listen only to the music of their specific origin.
What I'm saying is that character traits, such as music taste, should arise from the character, not only their race. A Mexican character may despise the music he or she heard while growing up, and prefer tango or electronica or chanson or something. Or maybe the parents played classical music all the time. Or maybe that character is an elitist snob and associates banda and cumbia with the lower class.

And, another side note- Latino people don't only perform strictly Latin music.

Anyways, as long as character traits are based on the character first, with consideration of but not confinement to background, then it's refreshing to see on screen.

Sent by Diandra Rodriguez | 1:35 PM | 9-5-2008

Today's high-quality sci-fi is the best place to go for TV that passes the Bechdel Rule- or the Duggen Rule. Two quick examples that spring to mind are Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, both of which have been mentioned here already.

In BSG, Starbuck and Kat talk about who's the better fighter pilot; Roslin and Tory talk about how to win elections while Roslin and Elosha discuss spirituality and religion; Cally and Seelix discuss labor/military relations before Seelix becomes a commissioned officer.

In Firefly, Zoe and Kaylee talk about leadership and battle and their friends' histories (and Zoe is the strongest woman I've ever seen on TV). What's great is that sometimes Kaylee does talk about men with Inara, but less about how to please them than about how different a life built around pleasing them must be from her own (Inara is a professional Companion, similar to a courtesan).

One other Bechdel-rule-passing offering -- this on one mainstream tv -- is Ugly Betty. Sure, Betty sometimes does speak with other women about men and their romantic adventures, but she also talks to women about much, much more than that, too.

For example: She talks to Hilda about how they can keep their family together and how Hilda is juggling being a single mom; she also talks to Amanda about business and fashion -- and for both women fashion is about more than getting a man to pay attention.

After all these comments about Middleman I'll have to try that one out, too...

Sent by Lucas | 5:09 PM | 9-5-2008

I've come up with a couple of rules over the years:

1. I will not see anything that features a serial killer. A character with no conscience is neither complex nor interesting.

2. I will not see anything that depicts a rape. Almost always the depiction is covertly titillating, while purporting to convey horror and disdain. Good drama or documentary addresses rape by focusing on the victim's experience from her/his point of view, usually by depicting the impact of the crime on her/his life afterwards.

Mainstream TV and movie writers seem incapable of conceiving of characters that are members of more than one minority group. How often do we get to see GLBT characters who are also non-white, belong to a non-Christian religion, or disabled? Has there ever been an Asian or Latino disabled character on American TV?

And what's up with the apparent ban on depicting "white ethnics" other than Jews and Italians? I can only think of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mystic Pizza (Portuguese). What about Armenians? Poles? Hungarians? Also, I've never seen a Brazilian of any color in an American movie or TV.

I'd like to commend ER for the portrayal of at least one character who is a member of two minorities at the same time. I forget his name, but he was a Jewish Asian American nurse. ER also had a number of interracial relationships in which race was not a major issue (amazing!).

I also want to commend Northern Exposure for portraying several modern-day, complex native Alaskan characters with a variety (even within the same person) of ways of relating to their ethnic heritage.

Sent by Ruth Wielgosz | 10:41 PM | 9-5-2008

Oddly, Hannah Montana clears the Bechdel rule.

Sent by Gina | 2:02 AM | 9-6-2008

I recommend Frozen River - a movie about two women - one white, one Mohawk - who smuggle illegal immigrants (Chinese and Pakistani) across a frozen river from Canada to New York State, and who do so because their financial and social situations make it impossible for them to provide a safe home for their children through legal means. No cliches in this movie - even the police are real.

Sent by Sara Norquay | 12:39 PM | 9-6-2008

I'm also here to cast a "vote" for Gilmore Girls...although the constantly witty dialogue can sometimes be tiring, overall it is a really refreshing change of form.

Rory, played by Alexis Bledel, is a down-to-earth private school/ivy league student, and there are frequent references to literature, philosophy, the arts and politics. Paris, Rory's schoolmate, is obsessive and overbearing, but also fiercely intelligent and driven, and much of their relationship focuses on the academic competition between the two girls. Rory's other friend Lane is driven to be a successful rock and roll drummer!

Also, with the one exception of Emily Gilmore, all of the women on the show are successful career women, several of whom own and run their own businesses. The family dynamic is, of course, also a major focus, and the cozy small-town New England setting is a nice change from the typical trendy locales.

There are male/female relationships here, but they are definitely not the primary focus, to which I say, yay!

Sent by LKC | 1:21 PM | 9-6-2008

I watched Mystic Pizza. I'm Portuguese, and did not relate to the people in the movie. The cook must have learned to cook pizza in America, since pizza is not a Portuguese dish - I only tried pizza after immigrating to Canada.

I do hate the carelessness with which TV shows portray foreigners and immigrants, sometimes even getting wrong the native language of their characters (once I heard French when the character was supposed to be speaking Vietnamese!) How ignorant do they think the audience is? All these erroneous and stereotypical portrayals can do more harm than good.

I am against gratuitous use of Spanish. Use of Spanish in its own context is fine, but a lot of the time it seems to be used only as a stereotypical flourish.

I am also against gratuitous violence, gore or grossness (like eating spiders) that are added just for the shock effect.

Sent by Mary Jo | 6:10 PM | 9-7-2008

About the only show that comes close for me regarding what I want to see is Numbers: two mathrmaticians, who happen to be women (no mentions of "how odd you are in this fied"), and though they don't talk to each other often, it's typically philosophy and math. The FBI female at least talks to one of the professors about more than just her job. To be complete, I'd love to see a LGBT person who, surprise, is integral to the show whose gender orientation or identity is not an issue.

Sent by Riki Matthews | 9:45 PM | 9-7-2008

Gilmore Girls, which was cancled last season, featured multiple strong, female characters that talked about a wide range of topics. In fact, most scenes in the show consisted of only female cast members. This is the product of it's genius female writer, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and the regular use of various female directors for episodes.

Sent by Nancy M. Tichenor | 2:48 PM | 9-9-2008

A science-fiction drama with:
1. 100% realistic physics.
2. Truly *ALIEN* aliens (as in, anything that evolved on another planet circling a different star is unlikely to look like a humanoid with a knobbly forehead, speaking Californian).
3. Zero tolerance for primetime family-values PG-13 sensibilities.

So that's Star Trek excluded then.

Sent by James Kesh | 11:07 PM | 9-9-2008

I think "Homicide: Life on the Street" followed both the Bechdel and the Deggans rule. I will never forget an episodewhen two Black detectives had a disagreement about a the racial meaning of a case. I was amazed. There were enough people of color in the cast that two of them could actually express opposing nuanced opinions and each of them could still be viewed as authentically Black.

Sent by Barbara S. | 9:42 PM | 9-13-2008