Thursday, September 1, 2011

How to Make Your Stories Pass the Bechdel Test

I'm on vacation this week! Not enough time to whip up any new material, so I've queued up this post I wrote a while back for my own blog. I'm a big advocate for strong female characters, and although there are a lot more of them in YA than in most other genres, I still hope this subject might be useful or interesting to some. See you in a couple weeks!

What is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is named after Alison Bechdel, the creator of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In one of the strips, a character says she will only go to see a movie if it meets the following three qualifications:

1. There are at least two female characters
2. who talk to each other about
3. something other than a man.

Since its inception, the Bechdel Test has become popular in some circles as a quick way to measure the presence of female characters in a story -- movie, book, television show, and so on.

What the Bechdel Test means

Outside of certain genres (mostly targeted at women), works that pass the Bechdel Test are rare. If there are few or no important female characters in a story, and if what female characters do occur are only concerned with men, it sends the message that women's lives revolve around men. Instead of having their own interests, lives, and concerns, they exist in the story to provide a backdrop for the male characters.

If you are a woman, consider how often your own life "passes" the Bechdel Test. If you are a man, let me assure you, women do often talk to each other about things besides men! And yet, fiction rarely reflects this plain and simple reality.

Why it matters

Boys grow up reading stories in which they have adventures. Girls grow up reading stories in which they help boys have adventures. Sound fair to you?

Yes, there are exceptions. But as a general trend, the default hero for a story is male. (And white, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish.) The Bechdel Test matters because girls deserve to see themselves having their own stories, just as much as boys do.

What the Bechdel Test does not mean

A story that fails the Bechdel Test is not necessarily bad. Countless pieces of classic, high-quality, and entertaining literature fail the Bechdel Test. While we can use the test as a jumping-off point to examine the treatment of female characters past and present, the test is not, in itself, a measure of how much a story should be valued.

A story that fails the Bechdel Test is not necessarily sexist. In theory, a story can support and even help to further ideals of gender equality while failing the test.

A story that passes the Bechdel Test is not necessarily good and does not necessarily promote gender equality. Again, it's only a jumping-off point. There are other factors to consider in each individual story.

Two female characters talking about a man is not a bad thing.
Not by any means. The purpose of the test isn't to dismiss men as a valid subject of conversation, but to point out that there are many, many other things for women to be concerned about.

Mitigating circumstances

Some stories are constructed in such a way that makes it difficult or impossible for them to pass the test -- in particular, stories with a single first person, or limited third person, male narrator. In these cases, I like to consider whether the story has "implied" Bechdel Test passing: are there realistic female characters, and do they have relationships with other women?

In some stories, the focus is entirely on the opposite sex, for both male and female characters. In many romance novels, for instance, women never talk about anything besides men -- but the men never talk about anything besides women, either. This drives home the point above that two women talking about a man isn't a bad thing. In these types of stories, however, there is more equality that what you would usually see.

There is also some disagreement on what sorts of conversations pass the test. For example, if two female characters are discussing a male villain in a non-romantic/non-sexual way, does this count as a pass? (I'm inclined to say yes, but it depends on the story.)

Does the conversation need to consist of women only, or if women address each other in a mixed group, does it pass? On one hand, if women are never alone with each other, it can send the message that men must at least be present for a conversation to hold weight. But on the other hand, sometimes only the women can be the primary contributors to a mixed-group conversation, which sends a positive message. To use an example from one of my own stories, I wrote a scene in which two female characters argued with each other about ghosts -- while their two male companions didn't dare butt in. I consider scenes like this to be a pass.

How can you apply this to your own stories?

If you're curious, think about whatever project you're working on now, and run it through the Bechdel Test. Did it pass? It's a good indicator your story contains female characters in important roles.

But suppose you have a story that doesn't pass, and want to examine the reason why. In many cases, I think the problem of Bechdel Test failure can be solved by adding more female characters. Simple as that. Males with speaking roles vastly outnumber females in fiction.

Look at some of the characters in your story, and ask yourself if you could switch their genders. I know it sounds radical, and I'm not necessarily recommending you go through with it, but if the task seems outright impossible then it could be a sign that your female characters are more caricatures than they are people. Why can't your cynical, scarred, badass warrior be a chick?

What if you have a lot of female characters, and your story still doesn't pass the Bechdel Test? Uh-oh. Sounds like you've got a flock of girls whose lives revolve around a boy. The solution here is basic character development -- give them backstories, give them hobbies, give them relationships with each other.

That's another thing. Don't be afraid to have your female characters be friends with other women -- or their sisters, or their moms, and so forth. I often encounter the attitude that girls who only have guy friends are cooler than girls who are friends with girls. It's inherently sexist to suggest that guys are more worthy of friendship that girls. Real women have relationships with each other. Even if they hang out with only guys, they still have relatives, coworkers, and classmates to contend with.

"But why do I have to make my story pass the Bechdel Test? Why can't I just write what I feel like?"

Actually, as it turns out... you can write whatever you want. :) Nobody's going to twist your arm to get you to include more strong female characters. But... you might consider why you'd need your arm twisted to begin with.


jenniferpickrell said...

How have I never heard of this test??? Very interesting, think I'm going to test my latest WIP with this!

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