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The Bechdel Test and my books

Novelist kateelliott first introduced me to the Bechdel Test in this post about epic fantasy. The Bechdel Test was originally created for movies, but can be applied easily to books too. As its official page states, the test rates a movie (or a book, we could say) on the following three criteria:

1) It has to have at least two women in it,
2) who talk to each other,
3) about something besides a man.

This test has stuck in my mind ever since reading Elliott's post, because, as she says, it's kind of astonishing how many books and movies don't pass all three criteria. I do believe in basic equality, and those three simple rules seem more than fair.

So naturally it made me look at my own novels. And I'm chagrined to say that some of them barely squeak by, or might even fail. Quick rundown:

The Ghost Downstairs: Passes with full marks. Lots of female characters--in fact, more females than males. They do discuss men (it's a romance, after all), but they also discuss ghosts and jobs and stuff.

Summer Term: Hmm. I do have a number of active female characters, but most of them don't interact with each other, or only meet briefly. The two best friends, Paige and Ky, do chat a lot, but it's almost always about men. Again, in my defense, it's a romance, and of the most frothy sort. Still, they take sidetracks into movies and academics for a line or two here and there, so maybe this book gets a pass.

What Scotland Taught Me: Passes just fine. Of the four main characters, three are young women, who do plenty of interacting. Again, squealing (or squabbling) over boys constitutes a lot of their subject matter, but there are soberer discussions involving family members and career plans and ghost legends.

Of Ghosts and Geeks: (Novella; likely soon to be published--yay!) Highly silly, given that one of the main female characters is an obnoxious ghost, but it does pass. She and the living female protagonist occasionally talk of non-romance issues, but not much, since the whole point is that the ghost is obsessed with romance.

Boy in Eyeliner: (Not yet published. In revision.) Eek. This might fail! But my defense this time is somewhat better. It's from a first-person male point of view, and his main love ends up being with another man. Hopefully that regains some of my gender-equality street cred. Also, I've scattered the characters across the globe--Portland, Seattle, and London--so the three or four important female characters simply aren't in the same location at the same time, on the whole. Still, maybe I should reconsider that.

So. How do your favorites--or your own creations--measure up?


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 30th, 2011 08:21 pm (UTC)
To my shame, my first novel (June) fails in a big way.

But my second one has a nearly all-female cast, and the subject of Boys doesn't come up at all....
Mar. 31st, 2011 10:07 pm (UTC)
As someone else just noted, maybe it's okay if it also fails the reverse Bechdel--male characters who don't talk to each other about anything other than a woman. I think my stories may occasionally even be that way. Should I worry about true equality and try to remedy that, if that's the case? Hmm.
Mar. 31st, 2011 02:30 am (UTC)
I'm no yelling-in-your-face-with-my-burning-bra-scorching-my-hand feminist, but I do believe in basic equality, and those three simple rules seem more than fair.

I think this needs saying: believing in basic equality is feminist. I wish you wouldn't write us off as a bunch of screaming bra-burners. If you mean it as a joke, it doesn't really work, inasmuch as I've read a lot of discourse that uses the same old hoary sterotypes in total earnest.

NB: this isn't a request for you to cut the line out of your post, or anything like that. But you raised the point, and I think you should know my stance on it.
Mar. 31st, 2011 03:19 am (UTC)
Apologies! I meant that in the same lightweight spirit in which I post most things, with flippancy but no true offense intended.

I guess I included it to indicate that, while I'm a feminist in the sense you refer to--namely, of being in favor of equality and harmony--I'm not the type of feminist who has no sense of humor and plans to get angry because of these movie-rating criteria or anything. At the time and place I went to college (Univ. of Oregon, early '90s), there were plenty of such women, angry and in your face and really not fun to be around. Gave me a bad association with the word "feminist" for a long time, which apparently I'm still not over. Nonetheless, apologies to the rest of you who seem truly nice. :)
Mar. 31st, 2011 04:22 am (UTC)
That is thoughtful of you. Thank you.

The heck of it is that lots of people have that association with the word "feminist". FWIW, I think this is also partly the fault of the press, because conflict sells newspapers and because it was fun to circulate the meme that "feminist"="that woman who mutilated her husband with a kitchen knife". In any case, it's certainly ingrained through the minds of a lot of people I know. I wish it wasn't but there it is.
Mar. 31st, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC)
I took out that part of the sentence just now. Really it added nothing to the post. :) I was sleep-deprived yesterday--mothering, the hardest feminine work of all! Yeah, the word "feminist" has almost acquired too much baggage for safe usage. I just want to be an "equalist" or something. That said, I recently read The Moon Under Her Feet by Clysta Kinstler, and religion-wise it has made me want the world to be all Goddessy again!
Mar. 31st, 2011 04:16 am (UTC)
Wow, I should do this with my own stories. I know my latest one passes-- 2 female astronauts talking aliens and biz. My previous story didn't have any dialog at all-- it was an ethereal creature POV. I'll have to look at my novel. Half are females, so I assume at least some of them talk to each other, but it's been a while.

As for fanfic, it's mostly male characters. I doubt many (any?) of my LOTR fics pass. But my Sherlock WIP passes; we got ladies talking to other ladies about possible female stalkers. So that one wins by complete accident. My MASH fics are also 50/50, as I've got Margaret and her nurses trying to solve a murder in one of them.

It's a good test. I think of how often I talk to my female friends about science, politics, health, vacations, etc. It just doesn't end up a lot in fiction. A lot of fiction is (as you demonstrate above) romantic in nature, so we WANT to talk with (or about) the boys. Supremely guilty. Great post!
Mar. 31st, 2011 10:11 pm (UTC)
My instinct is that For the Time Being does pass, given that time/space travel is the main conversation topic throughout, though I don't remember the exact details of all the scenes now. :)

For fanfic, I think we can mostly blame the original authors. LOTR's lack of female leadership roles is squarely Tolkien's fault. To remedy it in fanfic, we'd either have to shove the females into joint protagonist positions (Arwen and Eowyn take over the quest? Cue fans rolling eyes...), or introduce original female characters (cue fans rolling eyes again).

But as kiralademaus says below, it's probably okay to fail the test as long as the reverse fails too--say, when it's nearly always about romance, and the men talking to each other are always discussing a woman. :)
Mar. 31st, 2011 10:00 pm (UTC)
I would like to note that I only worry about a work passing the Bechdel test if it passes the reverse Bechdel test - which is to say, at least two men who talk to each other about something other than a woman.

Because I like equality, but I don't have a particular problem with stories, say, starring one man and one woman, or pure romantic fluff where all characters are continually talking about romantic concerns.
Mar. 31st, 2011 10:13 pm (UTC)
Good compromise! Agreed. I had thought about the reverse test, and was startled to realize that some of my novels may actually fail that too (or fail it for the reverse even if it passes the original Bechdel). Given the focus on romance all around, though, or given a small cast, then yes, as you say, we can probably be forgiven. In epic-scale fantasy and action, though, perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the problem. :)
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )