Tag Archives: diversity in literature

The Bechdel Test for Novels?

womenNote: this post is made directly from my reply on a NaNoWriMo thread. I figured my reply was long enough (and hopefully eloquent enough) so I wanted to share it. For full discussion and other opinions, please visit the board.

The board commenter Millie714 made an interesting thread: can/should the Bechdel test be used for novels. If yes, in what form? Namely, is the Bechdel test applicable to novels, how much effort a writer should put into creating characters that represent our world (characters who represent multiple genders, races, and orientations) and if writers should be true to certain settings (for example, predominantly white towns or time periods) even if it means sacrificing inclusiveness.

As a writer who does think about this stuff, here’s my stance on the issue.

I think the Bechdel test (be it original, race Bechdel test, sexual orientation, etc.) is a nice thought experiment when you want to take notice of cumulative works. Such as, all movies released in the US in 2013. You take the list and see how many movies pass the test. I don’t have this list but I don’t doubt most of them will fail. Heck, I bet many would fail even the first requirement (“having two named female/POC characters”) Which is a good indicative that something is wrong and should be changed.

But on an individual level, it shouldn’t be taken as a law or a rule. There are actually many decent movies that don’t pass the test and many bad (and even misogynistic and racist, etc.) movies that do. Personally, I despise Sex and the City and I think it’s full of backwards ideas about sex and gender, but it passes the test.

So I do see the Bechdel test as a valuable tool. Not sure if it can be easily translated to an author’s individual written work, though. First of all, books and movies are different animals. A novel is, for the most part, a work made by one person; movies are, for the most part, a joined effort. In order to have two women talking to each other about something other than a man, all a writer needs to do is to write the scene and put it in the novel. In order to have the same scene appear in the movie, it has to be written by a screenwriter, included by a director, approved by a producer and it also has to survive the editing and the cutting room floor. It just requires more effort and different rules apply to novels.

But yes, I do think people should take the head out of the sand (or their own ass) and look around.

The problem is not having a predominantly white cast of characters in an area that is predominantly white – the problem is that the majority of (published) stories are centered around predominantly white areas and concerning white people only. Whenever something deviates from this “norm” it is labeled either chick lit (if it contains more women than is considered comfortable/acceptable), African-American/POC (if it contains more black people/POC people), gay & lesbian (if it contains more LGBT* characters), etc.

This is why you still have a strong divide between mainstream fiction (that contains just “the right amount” of minority (here including women) characters) and “minority literature”. As long as diverse characters and diverse themes are not normalized and treated as mainstream, we will have this uncanny situation.

For these reasons, I do think it’s important for mainstream literature to be diverse and to include a wide range of themes or characters outside those that often appear and are actually pretty bad (token characters, white saviours, madonna vs whore dichotomy, rape as motivation, lesbians who only need the right guy to become straight, disabled characters with esoteric powers, etc.)

I don’t, however, think a writer should force herself to be inclusive. Especially if her only reason to do so is because she doesn’t want to appear racist and those “angry POC get insulted”. No. If you truly have to be pushed and forced into even imagining a story that might include two named characters of colour/women, then I don’t think you are a writer who can give such stories justice.

So I kind of hope more and more authors will develop a frame of mind that makes them spontaneously envision stories that include diverse characters and themes. Not that they have to be dragged and forced into it.

Also, yes, an author has a right to write whatever he wants. It doesn’t mean he should be free of criticism if he happens to inject his work with sexism, racism, homophobia and other questionable stuff. Seriously, “I want to write what I want, political correctness be damned!” is often a code word for: “I know what I write is unfair and offensive but I am a nice person (honest!) and I really want to write it so I’d like to be exempted from criticism”. It just doesn’t work that way.

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