Whew. So I’ve been gone for a few days. I’ve pulled two all-nighters in four days and taken two ten hour bus rides, to and from London, respectively.
It was a lovely albeit overwhelming weekend. London is all decked out in its Christmas swag, so just walking around was an adventure. And I made a personal pilgrimage to the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221B Baker Street.
Today I want to talk about something I typically wouldn’t bring up voluntarily because, to be perfectly frank, I hear enough feminist rants from my friends and I’m sort of afraid of what will end up in the comment section. But I’m going to swallow my pride and talk about the Bechdel Test.
The Bechdel Test, for those of you who don’t know, is a simple formula for determining gender bias in fiction.
Here’s how to find out whether a given work of fiction (novel, movie, comic book, etc.) passes the Bechdel Test:
- Are there at least two [named] female characters?
- Do they talk to each other?
- About something other than a man?
If you answered ‘yes,’ to all three of these questions, congratulations. Whatever you were using as an example just passed the Bechdel Test.
If it seems overly simple, that’s because it is. However, it’s astounding how many popular books and movies don’t pass this test.
Here are a few notable (yet random) ones that do:
- Gone With the Wind
- Mean Girls
- Pride and Prejudice
- Chicago (but notice that on the poster the leading man is still front and center)
- Moulin Rouge
- The King’s Speech (by the skin of its teeth)
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- The Help
And here are a few major (but also random) ones that definitely don’t:
- The entire original Star Wars trilogy.
- The entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
- 80% of James Bond movies/books.
- 80% of Sherlock Holmes stories.
- The Departed
- The Dark Knight
- Treasure Island
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
- Fight Club
- Lord of the Flies
So these are just a few examples. Does passing the Bechdel Test guarantee that a work is feminist friendly? Absolutely not (Mean Girls, anyone?), but it’s a good question to ask anyway.
I realized, recently, and much to my own surprise, that a lot of my own work doesn’t pass. My most recently completed novel is a dubious pass, because while two of my named female characters do speak to each other, a man is in part subject of the conversation. On the whole, it’s a business interaction, however – they’re not talking about the man in a romantic capacity. So that would be a shaky pass at best. The novel I finished before that was historical fiction and almost overwhelmingly dominated by men. There were at least five named female characters (who all played pretty significant roles in the story), but there’s not a single significant conversation between any two of them that doesn’t somehow relate back to the men and what they’re up to. In my defense, the male-centric nature of society in 1815 is partly to blame. But still. That’s a fail. Looking at the five or so short stories I’ve written in the last two years, only one of them passes, though it does pass with flying colours. My NaNo novel, I’m pleased to say, has already passed the Bechdel Test and isn’t even finished. It’s a solid pass, but thanks to only one conversation. Again, the two main characters are male.
What does this say about me as a writer? I’m not really sure. It’s perfectly possible that I’m simply prone to writing male characters because of the genres I tend to write in: namely, historical and contemporary. Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women didn’t get to do much so there wasn’t a whole lot to talk about besides what the men were doing and who was marrying whom. So perhaps that’s just an accurate reflection of the time and not evidence for misogyny. But what about my contemporary work? What’s up with that?
Looking at everything I’ve written in the past few years and have so far planned to write in the next one or two, I have to admit that my stories are, for the most part, dominated by male characters. I’ve written a female protagonist a grand total of once (and it was for a short story, and a few of the people who read it mistook her for a guy).
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written some kickass female characters, but they’re almost always seen through a male lens. I’m not going to pretend to know why I’m so much more comfortable writing male leads (perhaps because I completely don’t understand women, despite being one of them), but I think I need to give a little more consideration to whether the genders are getting equal representation in my work. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe it’s a symptom of a larger problem – i.e., the gross lack of a respectable female presence in the media.
What do you guys think? I’d love to get some outside opinions on this. How does your work hold against the Bechdel Test? When reading a book or watching a movie, does the male:female character ratio even occur to you? Do you think this is something to give real attention to, or a load of feminist propaganda designed to stir up trouble?
Let me know your thoughts!
Here’s a quick survey for you to take, if you want to help me gather some data. Does your novel pass the Bechdel Test?
In the meantime, I’m off to take a look at the supporting females in my NaNo novel. Becky’s out of the picture at the moment, but Robin’s about to show the boys who’s boss. Let’s beat that Bechdel Test down and make it beg for mercy.