On the Bechdel test and other fictional assumptions

Many of you have probably already met the Bechdel Test. It’s the one that asks if a work of fiction:

– Includes at least two women
– Who talk to each other
– About something other than a man

There are exceptions, but in general I see this as a fairly bare minimum standard for treating female characters like, well, characters, and for a story’s having enough real women on stage that they can engage with one another about a full range of subjects, just like the male characters do.

By the time I was even aware of the Bechdel test, I was passing it as a matter of course. But I went back this week and looked at my early short stories, and I found something interesting: That it took me four published stories before I passed the Bechdel test even on a technicality. It took ten stories before I passed it again, and only after that did I begin doing so as a matter of course.

Not coincidentally, it also took me four published short stories to get to the first story of mine that had a significant female character in it at all, though after that female characters were part of my stories as a matter of course, too, and these days, strong female characters (for all the varied definitions of strong) are just what I do.

As a reference point, I began publishing short fiction in the early 90s and sold my first novels in the mid-90s.

I remember, at some point after I started publishing, wondering how some of my favorite female writers could have been so blind to the female characters in their early works. (Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books are a classic example. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s earlier Darkover books are another, though there are other tangled gender issues there that persisted even as female characters were included more consistently.) I put this blindness down to these writers working in the 60s and 70s, surrounded by silent assumptions I didn’t share … yet here I was, in the early 90s, writing with no idea that I was doing more or less the same thing.

I can’t remember ever thinking, “Wow, there are only guys in my stories!” When we’re doing this sort of thing, we’re not necessarily doing it because we’ve thought about it and decided we just don’t care enough to do anything else. At least as often, we’re doing it because we’re simply not thinking at all, because it’s not on our radar that there’s even something to think about here.

I don’t honestly remember why or how my fictional assumptions and expectations changed, though by the mid-90s they clearly had. But there are many groups that we can exclude without thinking, and gender is only one of the many lines along which we can bring our unthinking assumptions to our work. So my takeaway from this is not simply, “Hey cool, I learned better!” but also/especially this: that I need to stay on the lookout for the unknowing assumptions I may still hold, and remain in the habit of asking myself, very consciously and on a regular basis: What are the things I’m not thinking about now?

8 thoughts on “On the Bechdel test and other fictional assumptions”

  1. Janni,
    I was fascinated by your post. I had never heard of the Bechdel test. When I applied it to my own books I was relieved to see that my characters didn’t fail. Then I watched two popular TV shows back to back: Dexter and Breaking Bad. Bingo! Women are so utterly secondary. Thank you so much for your thought-provoking post. I am looking at all sorts of media with new filters.

    1. In movies and TV alike, it’s astounding how hard it is to find stories that do even this much! And children’s movies are often some of the very worst in this regard, which I find geniunely disconcerting.

  2. I have something I like to call “The Alien Test”.

    You see, the script for the film Alien was written so that all the characters were gender-neutral.

    If you notice, in the film, they only ever refer to each other by their last names.

    It was Ridley Scott who decided that by making Lt. Ripley a woman, the entire tone of the film could be changed, but the script was not modified.

    1. I’ll have to think about that.

      I’m not sure I feel like characters always need to be gender neutral–I’m okay with a given character only working as a man or a woman, depending on the specific character–but I feel like female characters need to be as real and fully developed as male ones (and thus have enough going on in their fully developed lives as a matter of course they don’t only talk about men), and also that there need to be, except in specialized situations, roughly similar numbers of men and women on stage (enough so that they randomly will wind up talking to each other without it being a stretch or taking work).

      1. Indeed, I would agree that characters don’t have to be completely gender-neutral, but it is an interesting approach, which, in that particular case, worked in the final product’s favor to impressive effect.

        Certainly it’s a better approach than “this character is female, so she like shoes…”.

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