Passing the Test

I recently stumbled across a concept that blew my mind a little.

It’s not a new concept, having had it’s comic debut a few short years after I was born, but it was still something that was new to me.  The Bechdel test, came from a comic strip in 1985 and introduced an set of three rules to help determine gender bias in movies.  The rule is simple.  The movie must have at least two females, who speak to each other about something other than a man.

Now, before I delve into this idea much more, I do want to preface this a little.  I have never taken a gender studies class, or done much in the way of deep thought on equality or feminism.  I generally go with the idea that people are people, and no one is better or worse based on any fluke of their birth; people become jerks when they are either taught to have a closed mind, and/or they choose to be.  Our DNA is not that different person to person.  It doesn’t seem like something that should be an issue to me because it’s just common sense. 

That being said, I’m sorry if my musings might piss people off.  I’m not an expert on the topic, but I find it interesting.  Moving on.

After I read the description, I let the thought percolate in my mind.  As both someone who reads and someone who writes, this was something to consider.  How many of my favorite books would pass this test?  How much of my own writing would?

I could instantly think of many strong female characters I had admired from my own reading.  I couldn’t remember how many had conversations with other females that didn’t involve men.  I mean honestly, how often was Hermione speaking to other girls?  Her best friends happened to be two boys.  Could it really be argued that she was not a dynamic character?  How often did she  save everyone, or demonstrate her large intellect?  Without this character, the entire series would have fallen apart.

And what about my own writing?  My most recent finished product would not pass.  The only two characters were both women, but they weren’t talking to each other, and they were focused on discussion about a man.  Of the several in progress works I have, the majority would pass, but not all.

It made me wonder, is this test necessary?  Are there acceptable exceptions to this rule?  Do I need to apply this to my own writing?  I mean, really what is the point of all this.  I knew I couldn’t answer the first question without delving into the other questions first.  First, let’s place two scenarios.

Scene one; two women, both lesbians, sit talking about the troubles they are having with their girlfriends.

Scene two; two women, discussing the impact of Stephen Hawking on theoretical physics.

Following the letter of the law, the first scene would pass the test.  The women are together, talking, and no men are involved.  The second scene of course would fail, as they are discussing a male physicist.  If instead, we look at the spirit of the law, the results would be reversed. As I see it, the spirit of the law seems to want to see women portrayed as strong individuals outside of their romantic relationships.  Within the first scene the two women are still spending their time discussing their relationships, focusing on their own validity as it  relates to their partner.  The second scene of course is a discussion about a man, but it is about scientific achievement.  This would presumably be an intellectual discussion that only happens to be about a man.  Even though the second scene fails the Bechdel test, it would be a better portrayal of dynamic female characters.  To me, a situation such as this would be an acceptable exception.

What then, is the point of this?  If the rule does not seem to apply in all situations, why does it exist?  Maybe it does not need to exist as a consistently used rule.  Sometimes it can be applied to showcase the sexist portrayal of a character, but it does not mean it can always be used to show a positive character.  The point should be for writers, either of movies of books to make certain their women are not all throwaway characters who are only used to further the means of other characters.  The point is to show real women.

So is this test necessary?  Maybe not.  Times have changed a little, in positive ways as well as negative.  There are still plenty of bimbos making the rounds in movies, plenty of female characters whose worth is judged by their cup size, not their intelligence or capability.  But there are plenty of strong female characters within movies that don’t pass the test.  I mean is anyone going to say the Black Widow is weak simply because she is in a male dominated film? She does more than hold her own.

Looking at how this works, what consideration should the Bechdel test have in my own writing?  Do I need to always apply this to my works?  When editing, writers are told to be brutal, to remove everything that is not completely necessary to the story, and then, start cutting out things that are necessary.  The story should be as streamlined as possible in order to keep up the pace, and not lose focus on the story arc.  In order to always stick to this rule, a few tricks would need to be played.

First, you could never allow the female to have a male best friend.  While doing so would help to show positive relationships between men and women, relationships that are not dependent on any sort of sexual context, it would also reduce the opportunities for two women to talk.

Second, random scenes would need to be included occasionally at the expense of other material.  Maybe most of the story has a male character involved, in one way or another, and the female characters would likely discuss him.  Sure, they have other interests, but they might not be relevant to the story at hand.  Does it really matter that Suzy always loved horses if she is no where near an animal for the entirety of the story?  Not really.  Including a scene where Suzy and Jane discuss their former hobby, just to give them something to talk about would be distracting from the story.

Finally, extra characters would need to be introduced who may not have any role in the general action.  I personally like streamlined stories, without excess characters.  When there are too many people involved, it is too easy for some to become ‘token’ characters.  There isn’t much time to fully develop them as people, but they show up to give advice and then disappear when they are no longer convenient.  While there are times they work, it is hard to call them necessary.

Instead, it would seem to be a better practice to simply make the female characters more well rounded in general.  The idea is to represent real women, and sometimes real women talk about their relationships.  Do their other interests have to be shown in dialogue?  Throw in mentions of the books she is reading, or the awards she achieved.  Have the romance heroine bring her date to the animal shelter where she works.  Build the character in an organic way, because that is what will make her real.  Don’t be afraid to make her weak at times, or to let her cry.  It is alright to make her traditionally feminine, as long she is not hiding from her own strength throughout the story.  Let her find herself, however that happens.  To me as a writer, it is more important to make the characters real than to pass a test of perceived gender bias.

So tell me, how do you measure the genuine qualities of your characters?  What do you do to make them more real?

There were a lot of thoughts going through my head as I wrote this posting.  I’m not certain this is something I am done with, as it is an interesting topic to me.  I’m hoping I was able to show some of my thoughts clearly, but sometimes when the topic interests me enough, it is hard to explore it fully within the confines of a regular blog post.  I may need to come back one day, and talk a little more about the use of gender bias tests in writing. 

For anyone who wants to see some more Bechdel passing and failing discussions, checkout popular films that failed, the top grossing films that pass, and an examination of the Bechdel test in comic books.

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2 thoughts on “Passing the Test

    • That is very true! Sometimes it is fun to challenge myself to write a character who is completely unlikeable, but still understandable. Someone who is unpleasant, but not a stereotype, someone who is the way they are for a reason. After all, there are people like this in real life. Even the most obnoxious or rude person has a reason for being that way.

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