Trends like ‘the bird test’ and ‘the Beckham test’ are part of a wider tendency for TikTok users to scrutinise relationships in unhealthy detail
My TikTok FYP is full of straight women asking their boyfriends to look at birds. This isn’t because women have taken up birdwatching en masse – instead, these videos are part of TikTok’s new ‘bird test’ trend. The idea behind the test is simple: point out something innocuous (like a bird), and if your partner responds enthusiastically, they’re a keeper. If they barely react, apparently, that’s a sign your relationship is on the rocks.
This is just the latest in a long line of TikTok trends that have encouraged users – mainly straight women – to ‘test’ their partners’ loyalty and commitment. Another recent trend sees women play the audio from a video of Tyla dancing to “Water” in front of their partners to see if they’ll try to sneak a look at the singer twerking. ‘The Barbie test’ was huge after the film was released this summer, with some women even claiming they broke up with their partners after feeling alarmed at their unempathetic reactions to the film’s message. Last year there was the ‘strawberry test’, where you were supposed to ask your partner if they’d eat strawberries they found in a field – and if they answered “yes”, that was a sign they were more likely to cheat on you. There’s also the forest test, the Beckham test, the moon phase test… the list goes on.
There is some logic behind a few of these trends. The bird test, for example, chimes with a theory proposed by psychologist Dr John Gottman that people in relationships often make ‘bids for attention’ from their partner (like pointing out a bird), and that in a healthy relationship couples should respect and respond to each other’s bids (looking at the bird). For the most part, though, these trends are pretty stupid, and it should go without saying that your partner spontaneously dancing with you or eating hypothetical strawberries says very little about the state of your relationship. Of course, these trends are often just a bit of fun, and I doubt that anyone is actually breaking up with their boyfriend because they didn’t look at a bird. But it speaks volumes that so many young people – particularly young women – are so keen to ‘test’ their partners at all: at present, on TikTok, #birdtest has 8.7 million views, while #strawberrytest has 17.3 million.
“I think this is representative of the strive for efficiency in what I called the post-romantic era: an era in which people are seeking ways to make love an effective and efficient business,” explains Dr Carolina Bandinelli, associate professor in media and creative industries at the University of Warwick. “These tests seem to me to reflect this cultural pattern whereby we want to make things as clear as possible, in the attempt to reduce opacity and ambiguity to a minimum.” She adds that this is rooted in our contemporary “ideology of productivity”, where ‘wasting time’ is perceived as a cardinal sin. “So, the idea is to find ways to know in advance whether someone is worth our efforts and attention,” she says. “I think that people may not necessarily apply them with full rigour and blind belief, but it is significant that what we look for is ‘tests’.”
Dating advice and tests aren’t a ‘Gen Z thing’, though. The unknowability of men’s inner worlds has fascinated and frustrated women since time immemorial, with the advent of mass-produced women’s advice mags in the 20th century amplifying this desire to understand men’s minds and opening us up to infinite variations on ‘Ten Ways To Tell He’s The One’ style articles. “Overthinking and overanalysing are – to an extent – unavoidable when it comes to love, especially when you are young,” Dr Bandinelli says. “Roland Barthes, in the essay ‘Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse’, says lovers are semiologists in that they are constantly interpreting signs.”
But it does seem as though the pressure on women to do relationships ‘well’ has intensified in recent years, partly accelerated by the rise of ‘dump him feminism’; although I’m wholeheartedly in favour of incredible women ditching boyfriends who hold them back, it’s jarring to see women run from burgeoning relationships at the very first sign of trouble and get the ick over things as arbitrary as seeing their partners ‘struggle to find the end of the Sellotape’.
“I think women in recent years have realised that heterosexual relationships are still very much marked by oppressive patriarchal codes,” Dr Bandinelli explains. “Most of the ethical innovations when it comes to love have been brought about by LGBTQ+ people, so heterosexuality has not yet been structurally redefined. This is to say there are no shared codes available to navigate a heterosexual relationship outside of patriarchal codes, and this has led many women to withdraw, or question the very possibility of finding a man who can be their partner.”
Rightfully, there’s since been a backlash against the ‘single positivity movement’ and ick culture, but the result is a deluge of contradictory dating advice circulating online. Don’t settle, but accept that no one is perfect! It’s better to meet someone in real life rather than on an app, but only weirdos would approach you in the gym! Give everyone a chance, but watch out for these beige flags! Don’t accept weaponised incompetence from your partner, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to do everything ‘your way’! It’s a bad sign if you have different hobbies, but then again, opposites attract! Dump him, but also modern dating is awful and nobody wants to face The Apps so… don’t dump him?
It’s overwhelming. When there’s so much dating ‘advice’ floating around the internet, it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to overthink our love lives. “Love in capitalist societies is an individual matter – this is to say there are not many shared norms and codes, or what sociologists call ‘scripts’ to navigate the dating scenes,” Dr Bandinelli explains. “You are supposed to find your way just by listening to yourself, that is easier said than done. Feelings can be confusing or conflicting.”
With this in mind, it makes sense that we’re drawn to ‘tests’ that appear to offer us quick, snappy answers about the state of our relationships. But I’m not sure if we can fast-track our relationships like this. I don’t think there’s any other way of ‘testing’ whether something will work out apart from taking a leap of faith – especially as priorities and deal-breakers will vary from individual to individual and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ test that will work for every relationship. It’s terrifying, of course: no one wants to waste their time or get their heart broken or, in extreme cases, face abuse. But doubting someone’s intentions because they didn’t look at a bird is not a viable alternative to jumping in feet first and just… seeing how things go.