A friend of mine recently posted a rant about how the Bechdel Test was BS. She pointed out that there’s no reason women shouldn’t be allowed to talk about men in movies. It can be a topic that develops their characters and has a valid place in moving the story forward. She thought it was stupid that female characters had to stop talking about men to pass the test. This is my response.
The Bechdel Test is not about women talking about men. It’s about women talking about nothing, but men. So long as they also have a conversation about something else they pass.
For a long time the test really annoyed me too. I mean really, really annoyed me. Once I knew about it, it was often in the back of my mind when looking at other things like books and comics. Several works that I really loved didn’t pass it and one that I adore passed like 10 pages from the end. The whole thing made me wildly unhappy because it seemed so arbitrary.
Then I started looking at it the other way around. What do male characters talk about when they’re alone? They talk about women sometimes (it depends on the story how much). They also talk about all sorts of other things: the weather, the road to X city, where the suspect lives, how to recover the data from this damaged computer, the list is endless. Most male characters have a neutral role in plots that lets them deal with all sorts of things that are not cross-gender relationships. Even male characters who are immersed in romantic plots, often have some other goal they’re pursuing during the story.
Then I thought, well, there weren’t that many women in X or Y so I can see why they never “got around” to having neutral conversations. It didn’t seem wrong at the time that there weren’t more women in there. But, isn’t everything that happens in this story something the author chose to happen? Why did the neutral roles need to go to male characters?
So I went back and started examining the roles the male characters took. The number of those roles that had no link to gender, that could have been changed with nothing but different pronouns, absolutely appalled me. I was forced to wonder, why weren’t women cast into some of those roles? Why didn’t I find it strange that women weren’t cast into any of those roles? What has my culture made me blind to?
In the real world, women do all sorts of things, many of them practical normal things, not related to how we deal with relationships (with men or women). I don’t spend my day chatting about my husband. I write software, read email, learn new programming languages… if you wrote my story, would I just be replaced with a male character unless I needed to be a romantic foil? Why? What’s the point of not letting women also do normal things in stories?
The conclusion I came to was, the Bechdel Test is not about men. It’s about clearly highlighting a lack of women. It’s about token women in only romantic roles and constantly casting neutral characters as men, when there’s no reason they need to be.
At it’s core it’s about seeing women as nothing beyond partners for men. We fill no other role in many stories and that’s really sad. I have no problems with having characters (of either gender) in a story for purely romantic reasons. There should also be characters of both genders that move beyond that role and the gender balance shouldn’t be the mess that it is now.
I struggled with this revelation. I know it sounds stupid simple, but when you’re reading or watching an actual story, there seems like there’s always a plausible reason for the characters to be the way they are: the order of sword-mages is all male, well he’s a janitor, it’s just one more hacker guy, this scene is handled by the romantic male lead. I forced myself to remember that each of those reasons is a choice the creator made. They could make different choices and often the work would be just as compelling. The order could be mixed gender or all female, janitors and hackers can be women, and there’s no reason why the female romantic lead couldn’t push that part of the plot forward instead.
Everything in fiction is the way it is because someone made it that way. They can choose to make it a different way. Despite what some high-muckety mucks think, having more female characters won’t drive audiences away. Having more women in the world certainly doesn’t make men hide in underground bunkers.
If you want a view of this from a different angle, I’d highly recommend Katie’s article on the Reverse Jane Austin Principal. It captures part of the phenomenon of “rewriting stories to include romance” and it’s alarmingly apt.