Navigate / search

Failing the Bechdel Test gracefully

“Two women” by Hokusai
“Two women” by Hokusai

The Bechdel Test is a well-known yardstick used by writers and critics to assess the feminist credentials of a narrative. Taking its name from an episode in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the basic principle is that in order to pass the test, there must be at least one scene in which two women talk about a topic other than men.

Some people define it very strictly, in that the conversation shouldn’t mention male characters at all, but this is (IMHO) an impractically tight definition that excludes a lot of films, TV and books with positive portrayals of women. Taken to extremes, it means that a scene where two female cops discuss their strategy for taking down a male criminal doesn’t count, whereas one where they talk about shoes means a pass (and one could even say that the latter is far less feminist* for being focused on sexual attractiveness, not professional competence). Personally, I prefer a more liberal interpretation: the conversation doesn’t have to avoid all mention of men and relationships, but they should be incidental to the topic rather than the topic itself. For example, if two women talk about their favourite books, should the scene fail just because they don’t restrict the conversation to female authors? Personally I’d say no, not unless the conversation turns to which of the male writers is more attractive!

At any rate,  it’s something I’ve thought about a lot whilst writing my Night’s Masque series, because gender plays an important role in the story. But do my books pass?

I chose to write a novel set in the Elizabethan period for many reasons—the plays and poetry, the gorgeous costumes, and the extraordinary parallels with our own times, for a start—but in doing so I’ve saddled myself with the decidedly un-PC attitudes of the times as well. Elizabethan society was pretty well segregated along social lines, in that a respectable woman had few opportunities to socialise with men outside her own family and her husband’s social circle.

I was therefore faced with a choice between an all-male core cast or trying to fit a female character into the story without totally violating Elizabethan mores. I decided to attempt the latter, not because I felt obliged to include a token female but because I wanted a diversity of point-of-view characters for my own satisfaction as a writer. The character who eventually became Coby started out as a respectable young widow, but as I wrote and revised the early chapters I found it increasingly difficult to believe in her as someone who would run around Southwark with a bunch of, frankly, disreputable young men. So, I decided she was an orphan who had disguised herself as a boy to get a proper job (i.e. anything but prostitution).

All well and good—and nicely Shakespearean!—but as a result, in all of Coby’s scenes with women they are acting on their belief that she’s a boy, at which point I guess the Bechdel test goes out of the window! On those grounds, The Alchemist of Souls is a big Fail. And honestly, I don’t care. The only way to make it pass would have been to write a completely different book.

In The Merchant of Dreams, which has just gone off to my editor, Coby gets to spend some time in female guise at last, and the book just about squeaks a pass as a result. She doesn’t have many conversations with women, and the ones she does have are often limited by language barriers, but as the revisions went on I found myself coming up with more and more opportunities to introduce female characters for her to interact with. It wasn’t a conscious decision; looking back, I think it’s simply that Coby now has a much wider range of options than any other character in the book because she can present as either male or female, and in this historical milieu that opens up more storytelling possibilities than confining myself to one sex.

I’m therefore interested to see how things will work out in the final volume, The Prince of Lies. Whilst I do my best to create an outline for a book before I start writing, it tends to be a rough sketch rather than a blueprint, and new ideas occur to me right up to the last draft. What happens next for Coby is still up in the air, and my focus is on staying true to her story, wherever that might take me. For me, respecting your characters means letting their story arcs develop at the right pace and in a direction that’s believable, not imposing arbitrary rules.

 

* For a sharply satirical look at the extremes of feminism, I strongly recommend Is This Feminist? (thanks to Emma Jane Davies for alerting me to this hilarious Tumblr blog)

Comments

avatar
Paul (@princejvstin)

As it so happens, the Bechdel test doesn’t seem to be known very well outside of a certain strata of fandom. I found myself explaining it to my genre-reading (but not really in the community) friends last weekend…

avatar
Anne

That’s why I was careful to specify “writers and critics” after saying it was “well-known” – I suspect it’s far better known in feminist circles than SFF, for obvious reasons!

avatar
Jen

‘as a result, in all of Coby’s scenes with women they are acting on their belief that she’s a boy, at which point I guess the Bechdel test goes out of the window!’

There’s nothing in any Bechdel test discussion I’ve seen that says this means it doesn’t pass! Nor in Bechdel’s cartoon. You totally pass.

avatar
Anne

Well, maybe in theory, but IIRC most of the conversations revolve around men anyway (can’t be more specific than that – spoilers!). So, probably still a fail :)

avatar
Laura Lam

Great post! For some reason I thought the Bechdel Test was having roughly equal characters of both genders.

Hmmm…I’m not sure if mine passes, either! You know why, Anne!

avatar
Anne

Thanks! As Celyn says below, it’s something of a blunt instrument and not to be taken too literally, especially if you’re already doing atypical things with gender and sexuality.

avatar
Celyn.A

Great post, Anne. IMO the Bechdel test, although interesting, has become something of a Shibboleth that doesn’t help constructive discussion and analysis of gender issues in fiction. It should certainly ring alarm bells if a novel with multiple POVs and a large cast of characters doesn’t pass, but a book could easily have several strong female characters who don’t talk to each other without men present just because that doesn’t happen to fit the story. It would be detrimental to good writing if a scene was inserted just to “pass the test”.

The problem is even trickier with stories with a single male protagonist written in the first person (or a single male POV character written in tight third). It’s hard to shoehorn a scene passing the test into that sort of story without resorting to contrivances – overheard conversations and the like. An example is the scene in Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear that became known as “the Bechdel Scene” in Jo Walton’s read through on Tor.com (although that scene does serve character development, so has a real purpose). It would be a bit odd if those structures were deemed automatically unfit for good, gender-balanced writing.

All of which is to agree, verbosely, with your last sentence. And of course, there are all sorts of other problems with the test that you point out – the shoes conversation is a great example!

avatar
Anne

Thanks! Yes, I see it as more of a catalyst for discussion than a useful rule – you have to start somewhere, and “two women characters who never talk about anything but men” is as good a place to start as any.

avatar
Celyn.A

I meant *Jo* Walton, of course. Stupid ironic autocorrect!

avatar
Anne

Fixed it for you – ah, the power of admin rights :)