Just play along for the ones who don't know, okay?
The Bechdel Test is a series of three questions that is meant to determine if a work of fiction, originally just movies, is women friendly. I say originally just movies, because the Test is now being applied to television, books, comic books, and all fictional mediums. The three questions are as follows:
- It has to have at least two women in it,
- Who talk to each other,
- About something besides a man.
Now, right away, I want to point out, possibly for the millionth time, that I'm the first person to say women don't get treated even remotely fair in any medium of fiction. Regular readers of my blog, and anyone who has read anything I've ever written, will know that I'm not okay with that, either.
I feel I need to say that, because I'm probably going to make a lot of people mad in a minute when I point out everything that's wrong with this test.
Which isn't to say that I don't agree with it. In a lot of ways, I do. It raises all the concerns and brings to light all the problems women face in the fiction arena. Namely, the role of love interest or damsel in distress. In other words, The Object.
This is true of most all fiction, too. Fantasy has a bad habit of making the women the object of entire quests. Rescue the Princess is a particularly big infraction that comes to mind. Pretty much all genres and mediums have a similar grievous breech of belief that women are capable of being anything other than objects for a man to acquire or protect.
My problem with the Bechdel Test isn't really the test itself, but rather, the utter lack of common sense that is displayed in how people use it. I think the Test is a an excellent guide, but without a little common sense, it becomes a set of rules that severely limit what can and can't be done within the confines of writing.
The largest breech of common sense comes in the form of context. As most of you will no doubt agree, context is everything. Things heard out of context can sound truly horrible, but in context, can be quite mundane. So, applying a set of rules without using a bit of common sense to judge the context is not just absurd, but unfair.
Allow me to give an example, taken from something I've written myself. Three reasons I'm doing it this way that I need to cover to shut up all the twatwaffles that love to argue. First, it's my blog, so I'll use what I want. Second, it's a perfect example. Third, I know the context, because I wrote it, so I don't have to listen to anyone whining about how I'm misinterpreting someone else.
Okay, here we go.
"Can I ask," Bunny said as they headed down. "What's the deal with Marco. I mean, he is one of them, isn't he?"
Rosa stopped and looked back up the stairs. "He is, yes. I don't know why he's different, but he is. Saved my life when everything was going insane last night, too."
"Can you trust him?" Bunny asked her.
"Marco? Oh, I'd say he's pretty safe. All things considered, he seems to have whatever this is under his thumb. Regardless, it's not him you should be worried about," Rosa admitted as she started back down the steps.
"Who should I be worried about, then?" Bunny asked as she trailed after her.
Rosa looked up at her, eyes dark. "Peyton."
So, without any context, at least for those who have never read the book this comes from, that is a clear fail of the Bechdel Test. While it does have two female characters, and they are talking to each other, they are talking about a man. Not just one, either, but two. So, it doesn't make a total pass.
Now, I grant you, two out of three is not bad. Most people would call it good enough. That isn't the point, though. The point here is how context changes the entire exchange. Allow me to fill in the blanks.
First thing is Marco, the guy they talk about at first. Yeah, he's a zombie. To make it clearer, he's a very intelligent zombie, but he is a zombie. He's a dead guy, who is still the same person he was, just more dead than he use to be. He's also missing half his face, in case you were wondering if he's a pretty good looking dead guy. He's not.
The reason this matters is because the point of the Bechdel Test is to measure how much women are being used as objects. To that end, most conversations women have with each other are about the men in their lives, or about The Man the story revolves around, usually in the love interest capacity.
Which brings me to my second major point of context. Bunny is a lesbian. Like, very much so. Not on weekends, or when the 'right guy' isn't around, but all the time. Like most actually are.
Out of context, the excerpt only gets a two out of three on the Bechdel Test. In context, it's suddenly not such an easy matter to judge it. Bunny isn't interested in Marco as a love interest. She and Rosa aren't discussing how cool he is. Bunny wants to know if the guy is suddenly going to try and kill and eat them.
Forgive me, but I think that's a valid conversation to have. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it a necessary one.
Which is where the application of the Test falls down. It does not take into account necessary conversations. Like when a friendly zombie is wandering around inside the safe haven you've made against not friendly zombies. That sort of necessitates a conversation about him.
So, in context, and with necessity being a factor, does the conversation still fail to pass the Test? A lot would say it does.
The problem here is that while the Test itself is trying to do the right thing, too many people are applying it blindly, using zero common sense, and not even attempting to measure whether or not there is necessity or judge things within context.
Likewise, Rosa was right to warn Bunny about Peyton, who turns out to be dangerously psychotic. Does that make her warning a failure of the test? Should I have not written that? Seriously, a little common sense would be nice.
Sometimes, as a writer, you have to have these sorts of scenes. Two women can talk about a man and it not be romantic. It is possible. It is often needed to advance the plot or develop the characters. If we are suddenly not allowed to do those things, we aren't writers anymore. We are bureaucrats ticking off requirements.
Last point about the above excerpt. It's taken from my book Bunnypocalypse: Dead Reckoning. Bunny is the central figure of the story. She's in every scene. If it doesn't happen when she's not there, the reader doesn't know about it until she does. Marco appears in about half or less of the book, while Peyton is even less. The guys are the supporting characters.
Does this change anything? The Test doesn't make it clear if it does or not, and people slapping the 'rules' down without a thought don't either. Context, necessity, and common sense go right out the window in the frenzy to measure everything against a yardstick that isn't even a yard long.
This doesn't help. Slapping a pass or fail mark on something without even weighing the extra factors isn't advancing the cause of equality. It's limiting writers.
Before I get to my next example, I'd like to back up a moment and talk a little about the history of the Bechdel Test. This is relevant because my next example is a movie, the very thing the Test was originally meant to measure.
The first instance of the Test being mentioned was in the 1985 comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. In the strip, one woman explains to another her three rules for whether or not she is going to watch a movie, setting the basis down for the Test. At the end, she mentions that the last movie she was able to watch was Alien.
Not to be a party pooper, but I've seen Alien. Ripley and Lambert do discuss some of the other cast members, all of whom are men, so technically, that movie doesn't pass the test either. That's neither here nor there, but it is something that bothered me.
The movie I really want to mention is Pacific Rim. It's taken kind of a beating because of the Bechdel Test, and is again a victim of nobody applying a little common sense. This is something I do not think is fair, and as you all know, I'm big on fairness.
The argument against Pacific Rim is that while it has more than one woman in it, they never talk, giving it a generally failing grade. What nobody ever asks or even looks at is the question every writer has to deal with when crafting a story. Namely, was there a compelling reason for them to talk.
Every scene in a work of fiction has to develop the characters, enrich the story, or advance the plot. These are the only three considerations that go into writing every single scene in any work of fiction. It's the Holy Trinity of Writing, you might say. If a scene does not fulfill at least one of those requirements, it's a wasted scene and needs to be cut. It is not doing anything but bogging down the story in useless words.
So, with that in mind, lets look again at Pacific Rim and ask, was there any good reason for the two women to talk? Only one comes to mind. Right after Mako and Raleigh have their first Drift. It is reasonable to me that Mako may have wanted to talk about it with someone beside Stacker or Raleigh. Another woman perhaps, since she had just shared not only minds with a guy, but exchanged first person narratives of both of their past traumas.
Oh, wait. They would have been talking about a guy. Nope, that won't work.
Except it should. There is no compelling reason why she wouldn't seek another woman to talk about this experience with. Well, there is one, and it's kind of a big one. She didn't know that other woman at all. Like, not even a little.
Which brings me back to my original question, what would they have talked about?
Now, to be clear, I'm not saying there couldn't have been more women in that movie. With the exception of Idris Elba, Burn Gormen, and Ron Pearlman, I think they could have swapped out any other cast member for a woman and been fine. The reason I say except those three is because the actors did such an amazing job, I can't seem the characters being played by anyone else.
I mean, come on. Who would you trade for Idris Elba and Ron Pearlman? As for Gormen, he's just such a wonderful actor. I adore him.
That's not what they did, and the movie is what we got, though. So, within the context of that, inside the confines of the film we got, what possible reason would Mako have to talk with another woman she had only met in passing?
Because, outside of some small scene that's over in a moment about the state of care the Jeagers are getting, I didn't really see any good motive for it. Nothing that would enrich the story, develop the characters, or advance the plot. Which it would have to do, because in movies more than books, anything that doesn't do that, gets left on the cutting room floor.
The biggest problem with the Bechdel Test, however, comes in the fact that it just isn't very realistic. As a tool for trimming out outdated misogyny in fiction, it's a great scalpel, but as an actual set of rules, it misses the mark very badly. Mainly because real life can't pass the test.
Ladies, how often in life have you had a conversation with another woman about a man? Raise your hand. Yeah. You just failed to pass the Test. Your life doesn't pass the test on gender bias.
Let that really sink in a minute.
This is the problem. There exists an excellent tool for weeding out ingrained misogyny, but due to the lack of common sense in application, appreciation for context, respect for the three major rules of writing, and a basic understanding of reality, it's being abused and misrepresented, which is not helping anything, or anyone.
I'm really not okay with that. I don't get how anyone is.
Before I close, I want to mention the Russo Test, a derivative test that was born out of the Bechdel Test. It applies to gays instead of women and goes like this:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
- The character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- The character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.
In a twist that is possibly ironic, while Bunnypocalypse doesn't quite pass the Bechdel Test, it passes the Russo Test with flying colors of rainbow stripes. Go figure that one out.
The world is such a strange place.