Failing the Bechdel Test gracefully
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.