The Sexy Lamp Test: How to Write Better Female Characters

In the 1985 edition of her comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For”, American cartoonist Allison Bechel invented the concept of the Bechdel test. The test is designed to critique the representation of women in media, and asks if two women in a work of fiction can hold a conversation about something other than a man. While the test is not meant to be used as a be-all-end-all basis for judging female character representation, but rather as a means to understand and critique the presence of women in fictional media. 

The Bechdel test inspired a wave of similar tests to judge the representation of people of color, members of the LGBT community, and other marginalized groups. Among these tests were also more detailed and diverse waves of judging female representation, including the Sexy Lamp Test, invented by American cartoonist and English-language manga adapter Kelly Sue DeConnick. The Sexy Lamp test asks, if a female character was replaced by a literal sexy lamp, would the story change at all?

Many media critics find the Sexy Lamp test to be, in a way, more telling than the Bechdel test on which it was based.  While the Bechdel test questions how female characters are written, the Sexy Lamp test questions their relation to the story as a whole, and whether or not they even matter. Is it better to have two women fight over a man in a work of fiction, or to have one woman who simply exists in the narrative, but doesn’t do anything more than simply exist and be sexy? 

A famous example of a sexy lamp can be found in the character Cosette, from the 1862 literary classic “Les Miserables”. Critics of media have had their issues with Cosette’s character since before the concept of Sexy Lamps, or even the Bechdel test, as she is often used as a blank canvas in relation to other characters in the novel. The story happens to and around her, but she is not an active part of the story.

Others have pointed out that Bella Swan, the main female lead in the “Twilight” novel series, could be considered a sexy lamp, as she has no real character arc that’s independent of her male love interest, Edward. 

How To Avoid Sexy Lamps

If an author wants to include a woman or women in their story, they must first ask themselves what purpose do those women serve, and is the story enhanced in some way by the female character? If her role is to exist solely for being the mandatory female in a story, then this character is contradicting its own purpose. This same line of thought can be applied to other character groups as well, such as people of color and members of the LGBT community.  When a piece of media includes members of such a group only for symbolic reasons or to give the illusion of an inclusive story, it is referred to as tokenism, and it is not helpful to the cause of more inclusive and diverse storytelling.

Every character in a story should serve a purpose of their own, and not just exist to have events happen to them. Not every character needs to be as developed as a story lead character, but all characters in a story should have a cause, or influence the story in some way. If authors can commit to writing more well-rounded characters, especially more well-rounded female characters, then the readers’ experiences could benefit exponentially!