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The Bechdel Test Is a Joke. Literally.

A few days ago, I learned something that is likely common knowledge among people considered educated members of society: the Bechdel test is a joke. Literally.

Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip

This popular acid test for representation of women in fiction originated in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel in 1985, almost three decades ago. For some reason or another, it cottoned on and became the standard by which critics and scholars measure gender inequality in movies, books, and TV shows.

The problem is, it's a lousy one.

The three criteria of the Bechdel test, as originally written in the strip, are:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something besides a man.

Some people add bells and whistles by requiring that the two female characters be named, that they never talk about a man once during the length of the work, etc. But none of these modifications correct the central lousiness of it.

Because this "test" was intended as a joke, it was written to be glib and pithy, not useful. Its lousiness isn't the fault of the comic artist, but the fault of the people who took the joke and ran with it as if it were a serious model.

The problem with this test is that it doesn't measure what it seems to measure. The number of female characters and the contents of their conversations are only symptoms of the real problem, which is the shallow portrayal of women in fiction. It's a cursory arm-chair analysis, the equivalent of trying to figure out if you have cancer by checking your ailments against the list of symptoms on WebMD. Feeling achy and tired does not mean you have cancer. Having cancerous cells means you have cancer.

Likewise, failing to feature two women who have at least one conversation that's not about a man doesn't mean a work is sexist, and succeeding doesn't mean it's sexism-free.

A book I read this week technically passed the Bechdel test. It featured two female characters—the protagonist's on-and-off wife and his on-and-off girlfriend—who had an awkward conversation without mentioning the man who linked them together. But both of these characters were seriously underdeveloped and were defined entirely by their relationship to the hero.

Another book I read this week probably failed the Bechdel test. The central characters were two competitive middle-aged sisters, and in every conversation they mentioned a man at least once. But I considered this book one of the very rare ones that was hardly sexist at all. Every character, male or female, was fully fleshed out, and the two sisters had their own goals and drives that had nothing to do with the men they happened to be married to.

When women talk to each other, they talk about the people in their lives, and many of the people in their lives are going to be male. Fathers, husbands, sons, daughters' boyfriends, coworkers, bosses, neighbors...Unless your characters live in a dystopian fantasy world in which males don't exist, several of them are going to be men, and they will need to be talked about.

The Bechdel test judges characters based on one aspect, and one aspect only: biological sex. But in a fictional world that's truly sexism-free, sex doesn't matter—people are people, and their sexes are merely an accident of birth. Sure, gender affects the way people dress and behave, but their identities shouldn't begin and end with "she's a woman" or "he's a man."

It's time to move on from the Bechdel joke and start evaluating fiction with real questions, questions that measure genuine sexism in either direction.

Are the characters defined by more than their looks?

In fiction aimed at men, the answer for female characters is usually "no." And in fiction aimed at women, the answer for characters of both sexes is usually "no."

In thousands of books and movies, a woman is good and lovable if she's pretty. A woman is evil and unpleasant if she's fat, ugly, or too sexy. A man is heroic if he's tall, lean, and handsome; he's a villain or a loser if he's short, chubby, and has bad skin or a big nose.

The first book I mentioned in this post, about the hero caught between his wife and girlfriend, frequently answered this question with, "No, no, and no." The girlfriend's character could be neatly summed up as, "She's tall and stacked." The wife's character was, "She's not as tall or stacked as the girlfriend." The two were so barren in personality that if you'd swapped the women's names in random scenes, I wouldn't have detected the difference. (One guess which one the hero chose. That's right, the stacked one.)

A second example is Carl Hiaasen's Star Island, written for a male audience that enjoys crude humor. The two leading ladies are pop idol Cherry Pye and her body double, Anne. How do you know which girl is "good" and which one is "bad?" Well, Anne weighs five pounds less, her hair is a shade lighter, and her breasts and face are naturally lovely, while Cherry had to have plastic surgery. Obviously, since Anne was born more beautiful, she's the better person.

And it's not any better on the other side. In most books for women with romantic elements, how do we know who's the hero? He's the hottest guy in the room. The heroine falls in love with him because his chiseled jaw, piercing eyes, and bulging muscles make her heart go thumpity thump. She's never passionately drawn to him because of his wit, his sense of humor, his generosity...it's the pecs, pure and simple.

Appearance can be a good way of conveying character, if the elements described were a choice. No woman can will her breasts to grow larger or her legs to grow longer. But we do express ourselves through clothing, jewelry, makeup, the way we carry ourselves—these are valid descriptors of personality.

But when genetics substitute for character—when writers demonstrate that a man is foolish by going on about his big ears, or that a woman is uptight by making her bony and beak-nosed—we have a problem.

Do the characters conform to rigid gender-based stereotypes?

A formula for a likeable heroine:

  • Weak
  • Shy
  • Humble; believes she's undesirable when she's really attractive
  • Passive; does as she's told and suffers in silence
  • Adorably clumsy and/or airheaded, especially in the presence of hot guys
  • Good at cooking and/or baking
  • Incompetent in the face of science and technology, has a poetic heart and loves the arts but thinks computers are run by little green elves who live in the hard drive
  • Cries at the drop of a hat
  • Traumatized by physical/sexual/emotional abuse committed by a man who was supposed to protect her (husband, boyfriend, father, teacher, etc.)

A formula for a likeable hero:

  • Strong
  • Aggressive
  • Confident; knows his worth and commands the attention of the whole room simply by standing still and looking dignified
  • Active; goes after what he wants and gets it
  • Smooth and suave, especially in the presence of beautiful women
  • Good at sports and/or fighting
  • Has a sharp, rational mind and little patience for the arts
  • Rarely shows his emotions, but when he does he's not all sappy about it
  • Traumatized by the loss of a woman he was supposed to protect (mother, little sister, lover, wife, etc.)

These templates were established sometime in the Middle Ages, and you can still find them in many published novels today. When I start to think up examples, I quickly get depressed by the sheer number of them.

Imbuing a protagonist with one or two gender-prescribed traits doesn't make a writer sexist—but if the character has several from one list and none from the other, they're in questionable territory. It's especially questionable when a writer portrays a character as unlikeable by giving them traits that would be desirable in the opposite gender, which brings us to...

Do the characters promote gender-based double standards?

Bad books push a system of morality that's heavily gendered. The heroine is good because she's humble and bakes divine brownies, the second female lead is bad because she's confident and career-oriented. The hero is good because he's strong and arrogant, the second male lead is sub-par because he's weak and sentimental.

Or if the trait is considered universally desirable, a more subtle form of sexism is to make a big deal about how a character has it despite being a woman/man. The heroine is a rare and coveted specimen because she's the only woman in the cast with some semblance of a spine and a brain. The hero shocks the fictional world by being chivalrous and decent, unlike all of the heartless jerks around him who grope waitresses and laugh loudly at offensive jokes.

Some questions within the question:

Is the hero a good guy because he's strong, aggressive, and promiscuous, but the second female lead is an evil slut because she has the exact same qualities?

Is the villain a bad guy because he's violent towards women, but the heroine is awesome because she kicks men in the crotch and threatens to chop off their balls if they call her a "chick" one more time?

Is the heroine's lovable best friend a liberated feminist who rants that all men are idiots, while her hateful boss is a chauvinist pig for saying the same about women?

And so on.

Are the characters of the gender opposite the protagonist mere decoration?

Many heroes across genres are deep, well-rounded, and complicated. But then their wives serve no purpose other than to welcome them home in the evening with a smile and a fresh-baked apple pie...and then maybe get murdered later. Their female secretaries exist to sashay around in pencil skirts and do as they're bidden. Their mistresses exist to dole out the lovemaking and disappear without fuss. The plots these heroes act out concern only fellow men—male detectives, male criminals, male warriors and leaders and friends—and the women are only there to freshen the place up a bit.

And many heroines across genres are equally deep, well-rounded, and complicated, but their supporting male characters are thinner than tissue paper. Love Interest #1 is fiery and sexy and sweeps her off her feet, and then he goes off to do whatever it is menfolk do. Love Interest #2 is kind and generous and takes her to romantic dinners, and then he obediently waits for her to decide if she's going to stay with #1 or not. She has complex relationships with her mother, her sister, her friends, and her enemies (female, of course), but the men simply wander in, give the readers a bit of eye candy, and exit stage left.

***

You should avoid writing a book that answers "yes" to any of these questions not only for moral reasons, but for the simple quality of writing as well. If you write to gender stereotypes, your characters will be flat, dull, and utterly artificial. How many people living on this planet fit neatly into the "masculine" or "feminine" ideal? None.

If you write realistic, complex characters, you'll naturally break the stereotypes and standards. Then you won't have to worry about whether two women have a conversation in which they don't mention a man, or any other arbitrary test; your books will be rich enough that nobody will have grounds to accuse you of sexism even if you "fail."

Comments

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt (October 1, 2014, 12:16 am)

I can't write stereotypes. I'm re-reading John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee stories, and finding that, thought I still love McGee, I'm noticing little things about his female characters that I didn't see before.

Let me say this: MacDonald's female characters are incredibly varied - compared to what you find in similar fiction. Some are fairly young, others quite a bit older (a woman ex-client in Nightmare in Pink is 72, and tell Trav that she wishes she were 30 years younger so she could take him on).

They don't all need to be rescued (and he rescues both women and men in his salvage operations over the series). Not all are skinny and beautiful - though Travis can be pretty savage about what he sees in individual women.

I'm quite enjoying it.

I haven't read a lot of Romance stories because I can't take the basic premise (and yes, I know there are more complex ones), but I'm writing what I refer to as a 'mainstream love story' or 'The Great American Love Story,' and I don't think you could find a stereotype anywhere in there (which is why it's so long - it takes space to detail complex characters).

I think I've passed the Bechdel 'test' by the end of the first scene without compromising the story.

Readers will tell.

(Will not be shown)


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