Tag Archives: the bechdel test

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.

Photo credit: jjay69 via photopin cc

Sexism Annoys Me – The New Way

They say people change and evolve, which is probably true. However, sometimes is difficult to understand the change. For example, look at me. I consider myself a feminist (honestly, I don’t understand people who are proud not to be one), but I never defined myself a a feminist in a political sense of the word.

In short, I agree with the battle and I fight for equality, but the whole feminist movement seems to be so fucked up in certain things, and I don’t want to associate myself with it.

But lately… I see that everything around me reeks of sexism, and I’m slowly becoming that one person I never wanted to be who finds everything offensive.

Now, don’t get me wrong: everything IS offensive, one way or the other. The way our world is set, almost everything IS sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. It’s not an exaggeration; it’s a fact. The sooner people realize these things are not some rare abominations but the everyday stuff that make our world, the better.

However, I was able to control my disgust and not to take it emotionally. I laughed at stupidity. Women’s faces never shown in commercials, just their breasts and butts? Now how stupid is this shit? Media telling me I should be thin in order to deserve respect as a human being? Ask me if I give a fuck.

Part of this reaction, obviously, comes from the way I was raised. I’m the only child, and I never felt like my parents wanted to have a boy. (In fact, my mother was always clear on the fact she strongly preferred a girl). I was never told I can’t do something because I’m not a boy. It went without saying I’d graduate from an University and I was encouraged to have career ambitions.

It also has a lot to do with my country. Yugoslavia was a socialist country (though we had our own, non-Soviet dictated version of socialism), and socialism values a worker regardless of gender. It meant that there were many female workers in traditionally male occupations. Female doctors, engineers, scientists, professors – none of this was seen as strange. Hard science and medical science universities always had about the same male to female ratio (but not the “traditionally female” schools, such as nursing or kindergarten teachers – not many guys went to these schools).

In any case, the economic situation wasn’t bright enough so both parents had to work. Which resulted into working moms. All mothers worked, and the pay was equal to the one men received (the whole ex-Yugoslavia region still has a very little difference in salaries between men and women; it’s less than in Western countries, especially US).

None of this means feminist utopia or gender equality, though. Women with careers and working moms were a norm, but women were still expected to do all the household work all by themselves. So, her husband would come back from work and he’s watch TV or read the newspaper, and she’d have to cook the lunch and clean the house. But I digress.

The point is that I grew up without messages telling me I can’t do something because I’m a girl and not a boy. I suppose it made me a bit unprepared for the real world, because I might not be able to recognize sexism or inequality. But that’s the thing: I was usually able to laugh it off, unless it was something extreme, such as violence towards women.

But lately, I’ve been noticing all those things, everywhere, all the things.  The way women are portrayed in media, still treated as sexualized dolls. The fact there is still not easy to find a movie with two female characters talking to each other about something other than a man. That media still treats a man as a “default human being”.

And it just makes me sick. It makes me sick like it never made me sick before, save for that one time when I was 14. I guess what I find strange is that I don’t understand why. Why now? Why do I care, now? Why can’t I laugh at it and think they’re stupid and noooo way I’d buy their sexist product – and then just go on with my life? Why do I invest any energy into this?