Friday, July 5, 2013

The Bechdel test

So, an online writing group got into a discussion about the Bechdel test, which is supposed to "identify gender bias in fiction." For those of you that haven't heard of it, here's how it works: A work passes the test if it features at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Now, on the surface, that sounds like a good thing, a benchmark to try to hit. And yet, if you think about it, it is at once over-broad and limiting. And I'm going to use my own work in progress, Eternity's Price to demonstrate why I say that. For the record, it DOES pass the test - however, as you'll see, it passing this test is also NOT what makes it not gender biased (which from here on out, I will be referring to as sexism, since I think that's what the test is supposed to be about.)

So, I'm going to start with some of the scenes that are NOT part of why it passes this test:

On two separate occasions Catie stands up, looks a man that can kill her with little more than a thought in the eye (and on one of those occasions, the man in question has not only the physical ability to kill her but the legal right to do so, and on the other the man has already shown that he is not above killing to get what he wants) and basically told them to go fuck themselves. But because she was talking to a man, neither of those scenes make the book pass the test.

She goes off on one of the younger members of her Clan about his impulsiveness. Giving him a solid tongue-thrashing, and is essentially acting as Eli's second-in-command in Clan politics. But because she's talking to a man, it doesn't count.

She and two other women plot serious bodily harm to the father of the youngest girl's child. One thing to keep in mind is that this man is a werewolf. So, nearly as strong as a vampire, but without the biggest obvious weakness. But because they were talking about a man, it doesn't count.

The young girl in the previous example happens to be under the protection of one of Catie's (male) friends, and is worried that when he finds out that she's pregnant he'll make her lose the baby - and then make her forget that she was ever pregnant. Catie's response? "He'll have to answer to me if he does - and trust me, he does NOT want to have to answer to me for that." The older woman replied "He'll only answer to you if there's anything left of him after he's done answering to ME." But because they're talking about a man, it doesn't count.

I could go on and on. Examples of her strength, courage, intelligence, conviction, leadership ability. All extremely positive qualities, and all qualities usually associated with men. But because men were involved in these conversations in some way - they don't count in this test for sexism.

So, what DOES make it pass the test?

A conversation with another woman about the uses of stilletto heels as a weapon - which was really as much for Eli's benefit as anything else.

A shopping trip where she and a friend are looking for dresses. This is probably actually the most sexist scene in the entire book - but because they're talking about clothes instead of men, it passes the test.

There are others. The two examples I gave about the pregnant girl both followed a discussion about what the girl planned to do about her pregnancy. Catie was also acting as her doctor, since carrying a werewolf baby she couldn't really go to a conventional doctor and being under the protection of a vampire made the werewolves' territory off limits to her, so there were the medical exams and such. Probably others that I can't think of off the top of my head.

But what I found amusing is that in a test for sexism - the most sexist scene in the whole book passes, but scenes of women standing up to men don't. I get it as simply a way to get writers to think about their characters and the way they're portrayed. But taken by itself, at face value, it is extremely flawed. Why is a discussion about clothes and make-up less sexist than a woman telling a man to go fuck himself? Or her taking charge of a situation? Why is a woman acting as a man's SUPERIOR sexist, but giggling over clothes isn't?

What are your thoughts on this?

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