In 1985, Alison Bechdel wrote a comic strip in which a character stated that she would only go see a movie if the following criteria were met:
1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. who talk to each other
3. about something other than a man.
The joke being that because of these rules she hadn’t been to the cinema since 1979.
The comic came and went, but these three rules stuck around and became known as the Bechdel Test. Its appeal comes from its simplicity and its stark illustration of just how poorly women are depicted in mainstream entertainment.
This is particularly apparent in Holllywood movies, but also in television shows and books. Once you start thinking about it, it’s quite staggering how many fictional representations of humanity as a culture fail to meet these rather basic requirements.
And it’s as true now as it was 30 years ago.
I bring this up now because currently there’s a discussion about a particular summer blockbuster in relation to the Bechdel Test. That movie is Pacific Rim, in which the female protagonist, Mako Mori, is a Japanese woman trying to prove herself the equal of her fellow (male) giant robot pilots.
It’s a positive and progressive depiction of not only a female character, but also one who isn’t Caucasian. All very commendable, but... the film still fails the Bechdel Test.
Because of this, and Mako Mori’s popularity as a character, there have been suggestions of amendments to Bechdel; a Mako Mori Test that allows for a single female character if that character pushes the feminist agenda forward in some other way. But people have tried to co-opt and “improve” Bechdel many times over the years and what they fail to appreciate is the real power of Bechdel, which is its crude simplicity.
There are plenty of stories that fail the Bechdel Test that are great stories. And there are also many stories that pass the test that are goddam awful. Bechdel isn’t about quality. It doesn’t offer a way to improve a narrative or increase the level of entertainment. What it does is remove the grey areas and give you a look at the worlds we create in our imagination in black and white.
This is the world we live in. Quite a few of its inhabitants are of the female persuasion. A lot of them, generally speaking, are quite chatty. Now, what planet is your story set on again?
This isn’t just a matter of men imposing their phallocentric view of the world. Women writers are also guilty of surrounding female characters with men. And audiences are more than happy to accept it as the norm (and maybe it is).
In fact, when writers try to produce a broader range of interactions in their stories they don’t sell as well. The truth is we like the familiar world where men roar into action and women swoon in their arms.
At its core the problem isn’t really one of poorly realised characters, it’s one of narrative function. Characters aren’t real people, although we do our best to make them appear to be. In reality they are a very superficial representation of what a real person is like. They have to be in order to fit into a book or a movie.
Even though you may not be aware of it, each character you create or read about is there to play a specific role in the story. If the cop finds a bomb and calls in the bomb disposal guy, that guy isn’t there to talk about the football game or the weather, he’ll talk about bombs and how to dispose of them. That’s his function in the story. Other character roles may not be so obvious or explicit, but they’re as specific.
You can try to flesh a character out (and indeed you should), but if you get too far away from what that character’s purpose is in the story you will sense it, both as a writer and as a reader. It will feel forced and irrelevant. That’s not to say you won’t find those sorts of passages in books or scenes in movies, but they will most likely be the sections you skim and the scenes you nod off during. Much more likely, those will be the parts the writer cuts during revisions.
If the purpose of a character, as in Pacific Rim, is to prove she’s as good as the boys, then that’s the world you need to put her in. Surrounding her with female peers would undermine this purpose. And many stories, say one set in a16th century monastery, would not work with an influx of women. It would be inaccurate.
But the Bechdel Test isn’t about forcing women into scenarios where they don’t belong, it’s asking why they’re consistently sidelined in scenarios in which they already exist. Why they seem to need a reason to talk to each other rather than needing one not to. Why the subject of conversations tend to be limited to boys, boys, boys.
And, most importantly, it provides a way to gauge how these things change over time. Or don’t change.
It’s very easy to throw up a smokescreen about how things have improved and how laws are in place to ensure rights and liberties, but it’s only when we ask the same basic questions now as we did then that you get a clear cut picture of how far we’ve come as a society. And how far we still have to go.
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