For those who may not be familiar with it, the Bechdel Test is a gauge of whether a work of fiction features independent female characters. The requirements are that there must be two women who have at least one conversation together in which they don’t talk about a man. The idea is that women should be able to have meaningful conversations with each other (and not just with male characters) discussing something besides “guys.”
It’s a logical standard for real life, as women should have female friends and should talk about more than just their relationships with their boyfriends, husbands, brothers, sons, etc. But what exactly does this look like in fiction?
Well, here are some books that would pass the test:
Anne of Green Gables
And here are some books that would fail:
The Lord of the Rings (and the movies would equally fail)
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Throne of Glass (women do talk, but as near as I can recall, they talk about stuff that is related to men–the contest, politics, etc.)
Divergent (I remember the girls talking, but the conversations quickly included men, either in topic or in the dialogue itself)
But the funny thing is, what makes the first group of books pass are conversations about books, fashions, jewelry, and birthday gifts. It’s not because the women are more strong, powerful, and independent than those in the second group (in fact, I think Eowyn, Lucy, Celaena, and Tris would be far more resilient than Anne, Amy, Dorothea, or Catherine). It’s because the pacing allows for somewhat trivial conversations, for discussions about things that aren’t central to the plot. And when you have enough time, you will hit topics that don’t involve men, just as men will eventually talk about something that doesn’t involve a woman (even if women are running things in the country, I’m sure they’d move on to something else eventually).
So what could two women talk about? What can any two characters talk about, male or female?
- Relationships (and to pass the Bechdel test, it’d have to be about mothers, sisters, and daughters)
- Politics (but men would have to not be in power, trying to get into power, or causing any trouble anywhere, even as the villains…at which point, would you have a very believable story? Because even if women are running things, there’d surely be a man, somewhere, who’s trying to do something, as a friend and ally or a troublemaker)
- Religion and Philosophy (but again, unless this is literary fiction or a story with a slower pace, how is this going to pertain to the plot?)
- The Weather (but this is a clichéd no-no, in general, as who wants to read about that for pages on end?)
- Finances (but again, like politics, chances are men are involved in some way, even in a world run by women)
So basically, the Bechdel tests asks authors to either slow down the plot to include real life conversations about periphery things, or it requires women and the world of the story to be exclusive to where there are no men doing anything important, significant, or interesting. And while I’m all for strong female characters who are interesting, capable, and multi-faceted, I don’t think changing things to where men are left on the fringe and everything about women is the answer.
I think we should strive, not for “Female-focused Fiction” but for balanced work that yes, does have at least two named women in the book, and does have those women involved in conversations that are vital to the book–where they aren’t just sounding boards for the men but provide valuable insight and contributions of their own.
But then, I think we should leave our female characters free to interact with men and women both, to carve out their path in life without having to drag in very specific topics into conversation just to show their independence. Because honestly, isn’t “I can’t talk about men or it’ll show that I’m not independent” just another cage to put our female characters in? Shouldn’t they be free to talk about whatever they want as the plot and their character arc allows?
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by hotblack, Creative Commons