I don’t know whether it’s the controversy over the character Turiel in the upcoming The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but there’s been a big swell of interest lately in the Bechdel Test. You know what that is, right? Generally applied to movies and TV shows, it determines whether women are represented equitably. In order to pass the test, there must be two female characters who have names; they must at some point speak to each other; they must speak about something other than men. Seems simple.
I remember my father once telling me that Treasure Island had no women in it. He seemed to think this was a good thing. He was wrong, of course, except that he was also right. What he didn’t realize was that the film he was familiar with had no women, but that wasn’t also true of the book. Jim Hawkins does have a mother. We could argue, however, that the film guys got it right, since Mrs. Hawkins does little or nothing to forward the plot.
So Treasure Island, whether print or celluloid, fails the Bechdel Test.
Most films/shows don’t pass the test, even the ones we fantasy and SF lovers love the most. Big Bang Theory doesn’t pass, even though there are three named female characters (and not because Penny, as my friend Jim Hines has pointed out, has no last name). Stargate passes, at least SG1 – they were smart to make the doctor a woman, since that gives plenty of room for non-guy related conversation. It’s been a while, but I believe that Star Trek: Voyager passes (between Captain Janeway, B’lanna Torres, and Seven-of-Nine) and TNG as well – remember, the doctor’s a woman.
LOTR fails, both versions. As does The Princess Bride, both versions. I’ll admit it’s been a while since I read the print versions of either of these, but I have read them multiple times and I think I’m remembering correctly. I might also argue that if, after reading something multiple times, you can’t remember whether two named females talk to each other about something other than men, it has to be considered a failure of some degree.
Let’s see. Aliens passes. And at least the first two books of The Chronicles of Narnia. Agents of Shield seems to be doing a good job of passing the Test and provides us with a clue as to how we can improve the numbers.
Okay, we could do this all day, so let me sum up: according to a survey done by Entertainment Weekly, eight out of ten recent movies actually fail the Test. (They give Gravity a pass because the character is so rich, but it fails the actual test) So, 80% fail. The percentages are a little better if we narrow the films down to the seven fantasy or SF movies on the list, which include the same two movies that passed in the first place. So, only 60% fail. Feeling better? Yeah, I hear you.
How do we make sure that we pass the Test ourselves? I’m pretty sure I do, most of the time. But I’m writing novels, not screenplays. It’s easier for novels to pass the Bechdel Test, I think, which makes it all the more remarkable when they don’t – at least when we’re talking about modern novels. I don’t expect people who were writing even 50 years ago to hold opinions that would have been unlikely for them to hold at the time, let alone to write about them. One of the reasons that there’s even a Bechdel Test in the first place is the increasing number of female writers, directors, and producers.
And those people are interested in writing, directing, and producing stories about strong female leads, who, given another woman to speak to, have reasons to discuss the advancement of the plot – I mean the solving of the problem, rather than the men in their lives. Most of us, as I pointed out last week, aren’t writing romances.
Female doctors can speak to female characters about health issues. Females captains and leaders can speak to their female crew and followers about the events at hand. Female workers of any kind can speak to each other about the job at hand. It’s that simple, isn’t it? Women can talk to each other about their jobs; all we have to do is give them jobs.
One thing though. Almost all of the examples I’ve cited as passing the Bechdel Test have ensemble casts. I believe that’s the “recent” artistic innovation that makes passing the test easier than it might have been even thirty years ago. Female protagonists can interact with each other if there’s more than one of them, and that’s much easier to do with a group of people working toward a common goal than with just a single protagonist or star.
That’s a hint for us if we want to see more works passing the Bechdel Test: we’re a group of people, let’s work toward a common goal.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website www.violettemalan.com.