The Bechdel Test

I said I'd blog about this yesterday, so here it is: The Bechdel Test.  If you haven't heard of it, it's a quick test to measure presence of women in movies.  A movie passes the test if it…

  1. it includes at least two women
  2. who have at least one conversation...
  3. about something other than a man or men.


If that seems easy enough, try to work out whether your favorite movie passes.

The reason I keep it in mind is, having been raised in a male-dominated culture and surrounded by largely male-centered entertainment, it's not instinctual for me to account for the existence of women in my work.  I tend to need to take a certain amount of active measures to ensure that there are women in my fiction for reasons other than dating the men.  I hope I'll get better at this over time, but for now, aiming to pass the Bechdel Test is a good way to ensure that I have women in my fiction who've been characterized beyond who they're attracted to.

I also want to pre-emptively discuss a criticism of this approach that comes up slightly more than I'm comfortable with.  Often, when I explain to people why I make certain decisions about my writing, this being one of them, they'll say something to the effect of:

But isn't that artistically dishonest?  Shouldn't your art flow from your mind in its most pure state?  Aren't you corrupting your artistic vision by trying to shoehorn it into these cultural pressures and litmus tests?

Well, no.

First of all, my artistic vision is not to promote the gender roles I happen to have grown up with.  Representing women in my work is part of my artistic vision, and when I'm focusing on some other aspect (such as terrifying the reader, or making a point about robot rights) I don't want that to fall out of focus because, hey, if it's not specifically a feminist story there doesn't need to be women in it.  Avoiding that mentality would, in fact, be exactly the point of the exercise -- if I didn't do that, women in my fiction would end up being exclusively present for sex or for feminism, which would make it way too easy to read into my work and come to the conclusion that I think women break down entirely into 'well-behaved, feminine objects' and 'angry, horrible feminazis.'  I don't believe that, and I don't want my writing to make it seem like I do.

Secondly, the purity of the first draft is a myth that I think deserves to be done away with on its own.  The thing that springs into my mind when I start writing is not necessarily (in fact, virtually never is) at all polished or worth reading.  It's the raw materials I'm going to carve into a good story.  And aiming to meet standards like the Bechdel Test gives me better raw materials to work with when I start shaping the next draft, because it means I'm less likely to have to work engagement into a story about a bunch of dudes sitting around a poker table drinking whiskey and talking about their conquests.

I will probably blog more on this topic later, but those are my initial thoughts on the Bechdel Test, and on consciously aiming for non-stereotypical standards in fiction.

Later today:  Quotas! Is this one?  Do they help?