Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Does Your Writing Pass The Bechdel Test?

Some readers may be familiar with the Bechdel Test and others may not. Before I explain exactly what it is, I want to refer to an article in the New York Times published in 1991 by Katha Pollitt. In the article, Pollitt coined the phrase "The Smurfette Principle". What she argued was that like with the sole female character in the Smurfs, almost all children's television and literature would feature only one female character who would serve the plot in a very stereotypical and passive way. Examples given range from Miss Piggy in the Muppets to April O'Neill in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A link to the article can be found here.

Although written over twenty years ago, it seems that things have not really changed much. This brings me to the Bechdel Test. The test originated in the comic strip Dyke's To Watch Out For by Alison Blechdel. Basically, for a work not to be considered sexist, it has to satisfy the following criteria:

The work has to feature at least two named female characters who react meaningfully with each other and share a conversation that is not centred around men. - There are many variations of the test, but this covers the basic principals.

It sounds simple, yet if passing it was made a necessity we would be seeing considerably fewer releases coming out of Hollywood. We only need to look at some of the biggest blockbusters from recent years. Take the Avengers (biggest box office of 2012), in this movie we have the character of Black Widow played by Scarlett Johansson and er, that's it. Perhaps, the most obvious and extreme example is Star Wars. Two trilogies and each one contains only one female character (Padme Amidala in the prequels and Princess Leia in the originals). How about Lord of the Rings (this was a multiple Oscar winner, so surely cannot be sexist). I can think of two female characters (not a lot considering the three movies have a combined run time of about ten hours!), but no meaningful interaction between them. I could go on, but you do not really need my help - give it a try with movies that you have recently watched.

Of course, I do not want to turn this blog into a rant against Hollywood. Literature can be just as guilty ( I doubt any of Dan Brown's novels would pass the test). What then, about my own novels? Obviously, the majority of writers would not intend to write anything that could be sexist, but are we guilty nonetheless?

I have completed three novels (one published, with the other two to follow shortly). My published novel, The Outback features four named female characters (nine named males, so not as bad as it seems, it is not like I had a cast of thousands (take note George Lucas)). Of these four, two interact with each other and although most of their conversations are relating to the male characters (not only in romantic ways, I add), they do share some meaningful interactions that are not solely about their opposite gender. So, I guess that The Outback passes the test.

David 1 - Chauvinism 0

This takes me to my second novel. This is to be released within the month and I do not want to spoil the plot, but rather ashamedly, I have to say that I have failed the test on this occasion. Although, I do have a strong female lead who is not reliant on the male characters to protect her and can stand up for herself, she does not have any meaningful interactions with other females.

David 1 - Chauvinism 1

It is now all tied going into the final round. Luckily, I do not have to search the text of my novel, Diamond Sky, to find examples of meaningful female interactions. The story features two very powerful female leads and although one of them is sidetracked by a man, they certainly have other issues to talk about when they are together. Several subplots are also fleshed out by named and purposeful female characters that possess more than a one track mind.

David 2 - Chauvinism 1

I passed the test overall, but not as convincingly as I would have hoped. It certainly gives me something to think about. So what about you, dear reader - does your writing pass the test and if not, has this article increased chances that it will in the future?

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  1. Oh, I remember meeting Katha Politt in graduate school. Bright and brilliant at the controversial.

    1. I hate to say it (100% certainty of a flashback to Disney's most demonic ride), but it really is a small world after all!

      On a serious note, hearing something like this is kind of reassuring. It shows that we are not all separate entities sat isolated, each to his or her own solitary keyboard, but part of a Worldwide community, each contributing his or her own part to the global pool of literature. I wonder if anybody has ever tried applying the six degrees of separation principle to the book (or blog) world.