Analysing A Text: The Bechdel Test Part 2. Introducing the Pantomime Test

(image, via CBS.com)

In Part 1, I discussed the social test created by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and its social meaning in determining a shows representation and treatment of women. Today, I continue on with my research on its application to the story of Sherlock Holmes and its characters. This time demonstrating its US adaptation, Elementary where it succeeds and where Sherlock  failed, and also including another social test known as the pantomime test.

As we proved successfully, Sherlock failed miserably at the Becdhel Test, only one episode able to pass (on a technicality no less)  It’s representation and incorporation of women into its ‘modern’ retelling is woefully inaccurate, and this is where Elementary blazes ahead in its retelling of the Arthur Conan Doyle tales.

Female, named characters are not only present in Elementary’s main storylines, but an integral part. From its inception, creator Robert Doherty wanted to create his adaptation of the story of Sherlock Holmes entirely in a culturally and socially accurate light.

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Its main female protagonist is Dr Joan Watson, the writers adamant to alter our perceptions of the classic John Watson but maintain the characters essence, as Doherty explains “ I would like to show that a man and a woman can be friends and do this kind of work and live together and not end up romantically entangled.” (via Collider.comFurthermore, Holmes’ greatest foe, is not only his strong-willed great love, Irene Adler, but Jamie Moriarty as well. Two of the three intergral characters of the show, are women.

(Image, via Tumblr.com)

Elementary continues passing in flying colours. Women constantly interact, Joan with victims or suspects in cases, or Jamie Moriarty conversing with Joan outside of their mutual connection of Sherlock. 

(Image, via Tumblr.com)

With the addition of Sherlock’s new protege, Kitty Winter in season 3, Joan and Kitty share many scenes and stories as Joan helps Kitty with her past traumas.

(Images, via Tumblr.com)

The Bechdel Test is entirely irrelevant to Elementary. The show incorporates women of different colours, race, social status, heroes or villains, suspects or villains. All are treated regardless of their gender. Which is where the Pantomime Test comes in.

Essentially, the Pantomime Test is a play on the theatre trope of pantomime, where the main roles are often gender-swapped, and can be played by either sex (via Wikipedia). The Pantomime Test showcases if the female character of a text can be swapped with a male character, with little or not edits, and the narrative still makes sense(via Tumblr). Or, that a male character can be switched to female and the story will still make sense. Basically, the Pantomime Test is used to determine if a character’s worth is based solely on their gender, instead of their role in the story.

Clearly…Joan Watson and Jamie Moriarty can be switched back to their original male characters, and the narrative maintains its integrity. The same could not be said for Sherlock, as its few female characters and their even lesser screentime means the Pantomime Test barely has any material to work with. To change Molly Hoopers character to Morris Hooper, would make no sense in her/his puppy-love fascination in Sherlock Holmes, as that is Molly’s singular role- to be the adoring female of the great male.

(Images, via Rebloggy.com)

The Bechdel Test is not without its criticism, with many showrunners arguing its superficial worth as female characters are becoming more rounded-out and fleshed out that simply ‘the girlfriend’ or ‘potential love interest’. Exceutive Producer of The 100, a CW show that stars a bisexual female heroine, labels the Becdhel test a “ridiculously low bar, you’re asked to describe a character and gender in its first five traits, you need to dig deeper” (Source, MTV.com)

And this is true, female characters cannot be broken down into simply whether or not they interact with another female character and if their interaction is about a male character. The format of this test does not work particularly effectively for a tv show format either.

We’re seeing more and more, that women characters can have love interests, talk to other women about a man while still having their own independent story-arcs and discussing other topics than hair and men. There is much more potential within The Pantomime, and it can reveal much more. If women are written in a certain, constricted way, because they are women- of course their interactions on-screen with be limited to their gender stereotypes. The Pantomime may prove much more invaluable than Bechdel for representation of women and gender bias. Writing characters, and portraying them based on their qualities before their gender, as many characters can prove- they can maintain their femininity while not being singularly defined by it. 

(Image, junkwire.com)

As producer of the Walking Dead explains, “if you look at a script and the characters- and white out the names and you feel as if one of those roles could only be played by a woman, then it has failed” (Source, MTV.com)


Roberts, S. (2012) ‘Robert Doherty and Carl Beverly ELEMENTARY Interview at Comic-Con’

Murphy, S. (2015) ‘We Need More Badass Women: TV Bosses Tell Us Why The Bechdel Test Isn’t Enough

Bechdel test (2015) in Wikipedia. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test