Sunday 29 September 2013

The Bechdel Test

"Don't talk about him..."

On a writer's forum I frequent, someone posted the topic: Does your writing pass the Bechdel Test?

So what's the Bechdel Test?

Here, in summary, is a popular rendition of the Bechdel Test that should be applied to any story:
1. Are there at least two women in it?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?

This test has become something of a cause célèbre among people who feel that women are under-represented in fiction, be it in movies or in novels. On the forum in question, it generated a lot of talk about how women are ignored or marginalised in movies or genre fiction, about the injustice to women in general, women being 50% of the population, and the need to apply the Bechdel Test (if you believe in doing the right thing) to your work as a writer and to question whether you are doing enough to solve such injustice.

That's right. Women are 50% of the population, but the test should be applied to all fiction. Because clearly there is no such thing as different genres for different markets. No, everything should be skewed to what a woman would find interesting. And according to some, that means that, if you're writing a thriller, then you must write it for women as well as men. Because otherwise you're part of the problem, rather than the solution.

This is possibly one of the dumbest, most one-sided interpretations of 'the rule'. That's like me approaching it from the other side and saying that Romance novels really need to cater for men more. I mean, c'mon, enough with the drippy will-he-won't-he stuff, how about a little bit of action, car chases and fist fighting too so that men can enjoy Romance novels as well? Aren't men 50% of the population and a little more deserving of love and respect, instead of just catering to what women want?

Uhm, no. Writing, or film making, isn't about social justice. It's about genres.

What's a genre? It's a particular style, subject or context that appeals to a given number of people, who self-select according to what they like. Neither writers nor critics create genres. Genres are created exclusively by consumers (readers or viewers). A writer, critic or marketing guru may recognise a genre, i.e. detect a grouping in the market (society) that has this or that preference, and they may then try to cater to that genre, but they cannot create that group of people or force them to generate a particular preference, though lord knows, if they could, they would. Marketing consultants, publishers and film studios would love to have that ability, and some may even kid themselves that they do have that ability. But, in the real world, the consumer rules, and is as difficult to predict as the weather (as many a bankrupt business can attest).

So if I'm writing a novel about, say, a ferocious battle in some valley in WWII, it would be pretty obvious that I'm looking to aim it at the guy market. A few women might want to read it, but I'd be a fool to hinge my marketing strategies on that slim possibility. And having two women talking to each other in it isn't going to affect who the book is likely to appeal to. In fact, it would be seen as a distraction. As would a car chase and knife fight in a romance setting. And neither of these two (overtly simplistic) scenarios would have any bearing on whether an author respects women (or men) or sees them as equals in society.

As for women being under-represented in fiction, it should be hard to make that case when romance is the biggest and most lucrative genre in the publishing industry. And always has been. Women read more fiction than men. It's a $1.350 Billion industry.

And that's only counting romance, which is a narrowly defined genre. Women's fiction in general, which includes 'chicklit', erotica, 'new adult' and recent innovations such as fictional women working as nannies, midwives and nurses in the 50's (which is all the rage in the UK at the moment), accounts for an even bigger percentage of the share.

But hey, never let facts get in the way of your ideology.

There's also the problem that the 'test' was never really a test. It was a cartoon:
by Alison Bechdel
The Rule was a cartoon that Alison Bechdel drew for her series Dykes To Watch Out For in 1985. It was a humourous aside about lesbians struggling to find anything worth watching in an era bursting with cheesy action movies. And if you look at the second to last panel, it also kind of mocked 'the rule' itself.

In other words, it was never meant to be taken that seriously.

You wouldn't think it from googling the subject though, where the rule has become set in stone and waved by crusading authors, critics, columnists and bloggers everywhere. And if you think about it (you know, really think about it) the 'test', as applied rather literally by such crusaders, is in fact a shallow interpretation of the spirit behind Alison Bechdel's cartoon.

Bechdel was a lesbian, and the comic was very much an illustration of the isolation a lesbian woman might feel in a largely heterosexual world which, thanks to multimedia technology, was celebrated at you from every angle, avenue and air-play. To a lesbian, anything to do with men would be a massive turn off. She is interested in women, and in women being interested in women, so a lot of romance or women's fiction would fail 'the test', because the driving force in their narrative is women wanting, thinking about or talking about men, with issues about men being somehow involved in the resolution of the story.

In that vein, even Thelma and Louise would fail the Bechdel 'test'. It may have been celebrated by many as a feminist statement, and, applied literally, it may have ticked the test boxes, but the story is essentially about two women and their relationships to men, about running away from men, taking their revenge on men and, finally, getting away from the world of men, though they achieve this only by committing suicide (nice positive message there).

To pass the real Bechdel test, the movie should be about two women who find each other, develop a relationship and then go on to develop a cure for cancer, with triumphs and frustrations over funding, results and perhaps a natural disaster thrown in, but with the women emerging triumphant at the end, their relationship battered but still strong, and their contribution to the world held up in a test tube. Without the opinions of men being in any way involved.

You see, the whole issue about women in fiction is not just about doing, or box ticking, it's about BEING.

That's the thing about an inspiring story. That's what a person who reads or watches it wants to get out of it.

And what a lesbian woman wants to be differs not only from what a hetero guy would want to be (would like to see themselves as), but from what a hetero woman wants to be too, and that there is the tragedy that laces the humour in Bechdel's cartoon. That, when you see different from the majority, or feel different from the majority, you're going to feel isolated, no matter what.

A poignant message, and a very old one. And one that can be handled with grim breast beating, or, alternatively, a little dark humour.

That, and not the depiction of women in general, is what The Rule is all about.

Alison Bechdel's graphic compilations are available at

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