Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Bechdel Test and Male POV, Part Two

Thanks to all of you who commented on the first post on this subject. (If you haven't had a chance to read it yet, you can find it here.) I hope you don't mind if I refer to your comments. In this post, I'm going to look at ways to help a story pass the Bechdel Test, even if it's told from a male POV.

More is More. It probably sounds obvious, but the more women there are in a story, the greater the likelihood is that they'll talk to or interact with each other. However, as Tara and Ted pointed out, sometimes you have situations where there are few, if any women around. There may be extreme situations where this can't be changed. (I should also point out that it's perfectly OK to have stories with all men or all women, though I personally wouldn't want every story of mine to be like that.) However, sometimes it may be possible to find women if you look closely enough. For instance, Ted mentioned that his first book had few female characters because it mostly dealt with a war. An army of men would attract camp followers and possibly employ women as cooks and laundresses. There may be women working in support positions, serving as soldiers (either openly or disguised as men), or acting as spies. Finally, soldiers might encounter women in civilian positions, especially when they're on the march or stationed abroad. They may take a lover--or claim one as a war prisoner. Not all depictions of women in this scenario are positive, unfortunately. Still, their presence may make the setting seem more complete or even take the story in an unexpected direction.

Let the Women Meet. Again, an obvious point--they can't talk to each other if your hero encounters one woman every fifty pages. Sherry mentioned in her comment that in one of her books, there are several female characters, but they're physically separated over great distances. Are there places where people, particularly women, might gather? Pamela suggested a tavern as one possible meeting place. If a woman is going somewhere, is she by herself, or does she have relatives or other companions with her?

Develop Character. The more we know about a particular character's interests, the more that character has to say to other people. Character development also allows secondary characters more stage presence. This is important if your main character is male, but you still want a strong female presence in your novel.

That's all I can think of for now. I'm considering submitting this topic as a panel idea for WisCon next year. In the meantime, let me provide a few caveats, courtesy of (my thoughts are in parentheses):

The Bechdel Test is not meant to give a scorecard of a work's overall level of feminism. (emphasis in the article) It is entirely possible for a film to pass without having overt feminist themes - in fact, the original example of a movie that passes is Alien, which, while it has feminist subtexts, is mostly just a sci-fi/action/horror flick. (As if there's something wrong with that!) A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. Conversely, it's also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. What's a problem is that it becomes a pattern - when so many movies fail the test, while very few fail to show male characters whose lives don't revolve around women, that says uncomfortable things about the way Hollywood handles gender....It can be interesting to apply the Bechdel Test in a wider context. ... This can be especially jarring in Speculative Fiction, which often claims to be about aliens, vampires, Klingons, or what have you, but they only ever talk to or about humans.


chandra said...

Please provide me the link of the first part.The second part was interesting, so i need to read the first one! Thanks for sharing!

Ted Cross said...

In mine the women do meet and have quite a long conversation with each other. I do have lots of minor characters who are women, as you mentioned camp followers and such. The three that I mentioned previously are simply the ones who have real roles. One of them is actually the finest warrior of any in the book, though she has an unfair advantage, having lived for more than 40,000 years.

Because of the cultural differences, I get to explore the patriarchal society of mankind against the very balanced society of the elves, where there is almost no distinction between males and females.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Chandra: I can't access your profile to give you the link directly, but you can find the first part here:

Ted: Thanks for clarifying! That sounds like an interesting contrast between the societies. I'm curious; since your elves live such a long time, do they have very low birth rates the way other elves do? If the female elves don't spend a lot of time rearing children, that could be one of the reasons their society is balanced. (Or perhaps this is a shared job too.)

Ted Cross said...

That's exactly right. They do have very few births. They have no marriage. The relatively miniscule amount of time devoted to child rearing makes it so there is no good reason to differentiate between male and female. The wife of my main character simply can't wrap her mind around these concepts, even when they are explained to her. She just wants to know why the heck this elf lady would want to go traipsing around with a sword on her hip getting into danger.

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