Monday 26 August 2013

Female Characters in Fictional Roles

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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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I admit there aren't many women in my books, but in the first one, they didn't exist in the scenario I created. (As in, they weren't pilots for a reason I reveal in the second book.)

mooderino said...

@Alex - there is no reason why a story has to have women in it, but it's surprising just how many go that route.

Beverly Diehl said...

The Mako Mori premise isn't new - this is how women have been able to get around the "woman in a man's world" meme for thousands of years. "I'm not like other women," "An exception that proves the rule," type of thing. Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, Eva Peron, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher - we can have ONE powerful woman, but ONLY one, and she has to be seen as being different from other women (though NOT as a lesbian) and surrounded by men.

Why? In real life, I find women quite interesting - and so do most men. But can you imagine Harriet Potter, with two female sidekicks and a single male, non-gay friend, being such a blockbuster? For whatever reason, men/boys are uncomfortable with female-centric stories and movies, and women are willing to accept whatever crumbs that fall from the table. IMO, this is why the romance genre is so huge; most stories feature a strong woman and her friends, as well as love interest, not simply a boy and his toys. (Though some of the older romances and even some more recent ones feature a helpless dithering female "saved" by the hero.)

Jay Noel said...

Huh. That's is so very interesting and sad. I do know there is a double standard that Beverly above talks about.

When I was a high school English teacher, my female students had no problems reading a book where the protagonist was a male. Yet, the male students had major issues reading a book written by a female and/or had a female protagonist.

I think it's because females are better able to relate to whatever is put in front of them. Guys just are not.

Leigh Covington said...

So interesting and crazy how it's so true.

Brandon Ax said...

When I went to write Elemental, I went to write someone who happened to be female. I get asked a lot is it hard to write from a female perspective. I always think...they are people too, just like me.

Not saying there might not be certain things that will happen to a women character that won't happen to man or vice versa. I still think that we all are happy, all fear and all go through a gambit of emotions. I always try to write people as people.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Interesting post Moody. I had heard that books that have just female characters lose out on the male audience as most men do not want to read women-centric books.

For me personally I don't believe in that theory or follow it in my writing. I have written two books: one has a female protagonist and the other a male one.

Beth said...

Well said! I'm guilty of creating settings that are almost exclusively male, but I think that's at least partly because I relate to them more.

I've been trying really, really hard to make my stories pass the Bechdel Test anyway, but you're right in pointing out that it isn't necessary. If it doesn't move your plot forward, cut it.

Unknown said...

I'd never heard of the Bechdel test or really thought about it in terms of what I write. I hate swooning women. Perhaps this is why the Alien series is one of my favorites. Resident Evil, too. I'll think about this test more in the future. Thanks. Great post! :-)

mooderino said...

@Beverly - it does seem that in real life this also happens, for example Margaret Thatcher did nothing for women.

@Jay - i think it's also got to do with the romance quotient that is sometimes de rigeur in female led stories.

@Leigh - so little change after so many years is the really startling thing to me.

@Brandon - female characters do turn up (now and again) but they tend to be isolated, which is the strange thing.

@Rachna - i think it is true that men don't enjoy female romantic fiction, which a lot of female led stories have.

@Beth - it isn't necessary, but there should be a reason why the women don't talk to each other.

@Lexa - coincidentally the 1979 movie referenced in the original comic strip was Alien.

Julia Hones said...

This is a thought-provoking post.
The root of this bias that you expose here starts in childhood. Think about the story of Cinderella and other fairy tales that I think are ridiculous. What is the final outcome? Each woman seems to need her "prince" to feel complete. We all have been raised with this nonsense in our heads.
Dare I say it? I'm sick of it.

Karla Gomez said...

Going off what Beverly said...
There's something that makes guys uncomfortable or disinterested in when it comes to reading/seeing something that has a female MC. Maybe they think they can't relate to it. However, females are more apt to reading/seeing things that have a male MC. It might be because this world is dominated by males and we are so used to it that it is almost natural or maybe we just go with the flow.
My brain is shifting to Rom-Coms. Centered on females, mostly, right? When they interact with other females, you're right, it is about boys, boys, and boys. This is very unlike male-centered movies where the men engage in various other conversations. You know...I didn't watch the movie Spring Breakers (with Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens), but I have a feeling it was the female version of The Hangover. And if that was the case, how did it challenge the notions of today?
Great post!

Lydia Kang said...

I hadn't heard of this test, but I confess I like it. However, I agree that some scenarios it just isn't a proper test, like Pacific Rim.

mooderino said...

@Julia - i agree but the most influential person in a child's life tends to be a woman, which is the sad thing.

@Karla - Men aren't interested in the things women are. It's nothing to do with being uncomfortable, they just find it boring. That's not to say women are boring, I'm talking about the stuff they get up to in books. Dan and Bill both want to go out with you? Make a decision and move on.

@Lydia - Hopefully one day most films will pass the test.

Elise Fallson said...

This is the first time I've heard of the Bechdel Test but I'm happy to discover my wip passes with flying colors, though I understand this has no bearing on the quality (or lack thereof), of my ms. Nonetheless, it seems I can now kiss off the larger part of male readers for my unfinished-and-probably-never-to-be-published book. Maybe I need to add a dragon and some bacon in there—or not. And yes, we still have a long way to go as a society. Sometimes, I feel like we're going backwards.

mooderino said...

@Elise - Dragon with smoky bacon breath? I imagine people would be lining up to get breathed upon.

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