The Bechdel Test is a well-established feminist principle for looking at a piece of art. Named for Allison Bechdel, the artist behind Dykes to Watch Out For, who popularized it, the test is laid out by a character who explains that she only sees movies in which:
- There are at least two named female characters, who
- Talk to each other
- About something other than a man
The test is not a pass/fail on a work of art, of course, but it’s a good lens to analyze how female-friendly a work is. And it can be startling just how many films, books, and TV shows fail the test — from Star Wars to Forrest Gump to My Best Friend’s Wedding, female characters are often shunted aside, there as window-dressing. If they chat about anything, it’s men. Because, you know, women don’t talk about anything else.
The novel I wrote — The Valkyrie’s Tale — passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors — as it should. With a female lead, a female sidekick, and a quest that involves fighting a powerful enemy, the two end up talking about quite a lot of things that have nothing to do with men.
But one thing that struck me upon revising the work was how rarely the men in my book talk to each other. That’s not a surprise, I suppose — my lead is a woman, and the story’s told in Third Person Limited Omniscient, and by that fact any discussions between men are going to have to either be overheard by Lorelei or related to her.
I began to think of this as a sort of Reverse Bechdel Test — a way to measure the reality of my universe. Because, of course, there should be conversations between men when there are a bunch of them in the story. They shouldn’t drive my story, but they should exist. And they did, just not as much as discussions between women, or between a man and a woman, did.
What this drove home to me was simple: many of the Bechdel Test failures are a natural consequence of the gender of the protagonist, combined with a failure of imagination regarding secondary characters. If your lead is a man, most of the conversations will involve a man. That’s natural, and not necessarily evil.
The reason so many films and novels fail the Bechdel Test is not that writers are evil, sexist jerks. It’s because so many films and novels focus on men.
If there was a balance in protagonists, the Bechdel test would be less important. There would still be films, good films, even feminist films, that failed Bechdel because they had a male lead. But they would be balanced by the good films that featured a female lead, where two male characters don’t talk to each other, or at least only talk about women. And nobody would mind much, because there might be three films at the multiplex that fail Bechdel, four that fail reverse Bechdel, and another one that passes both — and it wouldn’t be as out of kilter as it is.
But the underlying message the Bechdel Test continues to expose is simply that we do not have enough works of fiction focusing on women. Given that more than half the population is female, that’s inexcusable.
(Via The Valkyrie’s Blog)