Have you heard of the Bechdel test in fiction? Basically, if two named female characters in a work of fiction have a meaningful conversation with each other about something OTHER than a man or men, then it passes. Try it on a few of your favorites. I was surprised how few of mine pass. Try it the other way around, and you’ll see that nearly every work ever has men talking to men about something other than women.
I feel angry about this. What is wrong with our society, that our fiction shows such a strong bias in this way? I feel angry with the authors too. I adore the Hunger Games but guess what? Fails the Bechdel. I mean, you could argue that Prim and Katniss qualify it, but it’s rather thin. They love each other, but they don’t seem to actually TALK to each other much. Harry Potter… doesn’t really qualify either. I mean, Harry and Ron and Hermione talk to each other on screen (by which I mean, on the page) all the time. Ginny and Hermione and Mrs. Weasley, presumably, have conversations… but not with each other, not on screen. Lord of the Rings? Nope. Star Wars? Uh-uh.
Shouldn’t our young peoples’s literature reflect a more balanced view of humanity, of what it is to be female? Don’t we owe this to our young women?
So anyway. Here I am plugging away in my own novel. I hit the 57,398 word mark today. Big milestone, right? I mean, you don’t hit 57,398 words every day. The first Harry Potter book had only 76,944 words, so I’m like, 74.59710958% of the way there. I’m cheerfully counting words (not that I’m obsessive about it or anything), and patting myself on the back for a well-planned plot that proceeds beautifully scene to scene…
…until it hits me that my novel DOES NOT pass the Bechdel test.
So, what is it do you think? I just don’t know. Is it a sign that I am not a “liberated” woman? That I harbor some resentment toward my fellow women that makes me not want to talk to them, or have my characters talk to each other? Furthermore, as I noticed yesterday, my female characters all seem to defer to their male counterparts. What the heck?
I gave this a great deal of thought over the course of yesterday, turning it over and over in my mind. Does it make my novel weaker, or is it a natural part of what it is? If I work to change it, to grow stronger female characters, to make them talk to each other, will that stilt my novel, ruin its integrity?
I really don’t have answers to this. I started to write a scene introducing a new companion to one of my main characters, a named sister, so they could walk through the woods together, having lovely non-man-centered conversations, but that did NOT turn out well. For one thing, their very first conversation was about the brothers they’re trying to find. Right. It wasn’t about a BOY, exactly (I mean, it was, but not in THAT way), but it was still about a BOY(s). More importantly, it’s stilted. There is just no particular reason why this new character needs to play any kind of central role in the story.
Is it a problem that I’m even thinking this way? Should I be focused instead on just letting the story come out the way IT wants to come out and stop worrying about my own inner journey and what it says about me that I can’t seem to get it to pass the Bechdel test?
So then I asked myself whether the story passes the reverse Bechdel test, and the answer to that is “no, not really.” There are some boy and boy conversations, but they’re minor and not among major characters. So maybe it’s just that I don’t like same-gender conversations.
Or maybe it’s just that this particular story is not about boys talking to boys and girls talking to girls. It’s just about what it is, it’s just the story. And so far, the boys haven’t been talking to each other, and the girls haven’t been talking to each other.
And, it turns out, further on, that is going to happen. Some of these groups are going to meet up, and there are going to be main character girls and main character boys all in the same room.
And some of the girls are going to find their voices and their power, and take the lead. They will come into their own.
And so. Two things:
1. Maybe I can just let the story be what it is and stop meddling, and that will probably be best for all.
2. And maybe at the end, THEN I can analyze what exactly happened there.
And one more thing:
3. And maybe all those stories that fail to pass the Bechdel test, or that show female characters in second-fiddle roles, maybe they’re not trying to show how things SHOULD be, but how they ARE. Maybe it’s pointless to feel so angry at the authors, and instead we can work on changing our society?
Yeah. I think that’s it. Also, it’s clear to me that we females, we have to work pretty hard to have our voices heard. Even when we’re fictional characters.