Monday, August 16, 2010

The Bechdel Test and Male POV

Last Friday, Krista analyzed her writing projects to determine if they passed the Smurfette Test (the work has more than one woman) and the Bechdel Test (it has more than one woman who talk to each other about something than a man or men). These tests are important because many films, TV shows, novels, etc. still feature a token female character or put the female characters off to the side. Krista's post made me think about some of my projects to see if they would pass these tests.

The Season Lord Trilogy (Day of All Seasons, Fifth Season, and the unfinished Summon the Season Lords) featured a group of four female magic-users who have to work together to save their country. This definitely passes both tests.

My short story "A Reptile at the Reunion" is about a woman going back to the University of Magic to meet her friends, one male and one female. The two females discuss magic, not men.

My novella "Move Over Ms. L." featured a young woman who talks to her mother, her labmates (who include two lesbians), the director of the time travel program, and her ancestor's aunt. While some of the conversations are about men, others aren't.

This leads me to my current project, Across Two Universes. While there are several female characters--Paul's sister Cass; his love interest Yvonne; the ship's psychiatrist, Dr. Stern; and the ship's captain--they don't talk to each other as much as my female characters do in other stories. They tend to talk more to my main character, Paul, instead. And even when they do talk directly to each other, they talk a lot about Paul or his plans. I wouldn't say it completely fails the Bechdel test, but it doesn't pass as strongly as some of my other stories. Why?

The answer has to do with my main character, Paul. Almost all of the story is filtered through his perspective. As the main character, he has the most at stake, and his actions drive the story. It's not surprising that the other characters react to him. Paul isn't sexist; he was raised by a strong-willed mother, and he encourages his love interest to pursue her own interests. But he's also a teenager and an actor, so he has a strong ego too.

Another reason that there isn't as much female-female conversation in a book with a mostly male POV is that the women talk more to each other when Paul isn't around. There are at least three spots in my book where Cass and Yvonne (who are friends) are alone together, but since Paul's doesn't hear them, we don't know what they talk about. There are also topics women don't feel comfortable discussing in front of men. For instance, Yvonne and Cass aren't going to discuss 20th century tampons vs. 22nd century menstrual cups in front of Paul. (That's assuming they still bother with a period, that is.) Finally, during the scenes when Paul is having a conversation with more than one woman, the dialogue focuses on plot points (where speakers address the entire group or Paul in particular) instead of developing character (which would allow more sharing between secondary characters like Cass and Yvonne, rather than one of them talking directly to him).

Is a male POV always an obstacle to having a story pass the Bechdel Test? Are there other reasons why this would happen? And are there strategies we writers can use to increase female-female conversation in these stories? This topic is too important for one writer to tackle alone, so I'd like to invite you to comment on this post and offer your insights. I'll return to this topic on Wednesday, hopefully with ideas to help male POV stories pass the Bechdel Test. Stick around!


Tara Maya said...

It's a good thing to think about, but I don't think it's always necessary. Lord of the Flies did not pass the Bechdel test, but does that mean one shouldn't read it? Naw, there lots of other much better reasons to avoid reading it! :)

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Tara: Good point, but I don't think Lord of the Flies even had any female characters. There may be times when it's appropriate to have a story with predominately men or women. What I'm interested in here are ways in which a male POV can show respect/equal treatment for female characters.

Ted Cross said...

My current WIP passes, because the main character is a woman and she will interact with several others, such as her mother and friends.

My first novel has only two women and one girl, but that is because it is in a highly hierarchical fantasy setting where only men normally go off to war, and much of the novel is set in the 'off to war' part.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Ted, I'm curious: do the females in your first book interact with each other when they are on stage?

SherryT said...

Thanks for this blog entry, Sandra!

I've been wondering--somewhat uneasily--about the difference in casting between my first fantasy novel, "Seabird" and its sequel, "Earthbow".

Seabird is told exclusively from the POV of Cara. She has conversations with a female fighter, the female head of a different race/species, a female sorcerer & two female enchanters, and a female (sentient) seabird. Passes the test all over the place. :)

Earthbow has multiple POVs. The three main POV characters are all male. Female characters include a servant, a teen girl from a different race/species, a sentient tree (pretty short conversation), a female enchanter and a female sorcerer. None of these characters ever have a chance to talk to each other. To all intents and purposes, they can't since they are separated by fairly large distances.

So, while Earthbow has plenty of "supporting cast" women, I guess it doesn't pass the Bechdel Test. I kind of suspected that.

My upcoming book, will have at least two women talking regularly to each other. Whew! That's a relief!

Sherry Thompson

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Thanks for stopping by, Sherry! I think it's great that you include female non-human characters too. You also bring up an important point; characters can't talk to each other if they never encounter each other.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I was never interested or concerned at any level as to whether male characters or female characters interacted with others of their sex so long as they interacted with whatever character is necessary to the story/plot. ((shrug))
However, having read your post I have now given it some consideration. My fantasies always feature a male protagonist, but there is also a strong female lead. I use multiple pov's, so some chapters will be in her pov. BUT, to respond to your specific point, I realized I do, indeed, have scenes where two or more females are interacting and having a discussions while in the male pov AND without the main conversation being about him.

The first to come to mind involved an inn/tavern scene. Much action, discussion, and lots of both character development and forwarding the plot. This type of scene could be used in many similar public settings in many types of stories with equal success.

In order to make conversation between two or more women plausible in a male pov just look at where and how such situations occur in real life. In the office, on the subway, traveling, during sporting events...get a group together and see if women aren't perfectly capable of having a conversation that does not involve men, sex, cooking, or kids :)

As long as you can provide and opportunity for two or more females to be together, conversation shouldn't be too difficult to arrange.
Have fun!

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Thanks for your comments, Pamela!

Anonymous said...

I think the Bechdel test is worth considering, but not all-important. Some stories simply aren't about women. It's wonderful to have some that are, but not all of them need to be. I think you're right about the effect of a male protagonist, and especially a male viewpoint. If the goal is to get two women talking about something other than men, make one or both of them the main character and give the story a nonromantic plot. I've written those before. But I like being able to write other stuff, too.

Ted Cross said...

Sandra, yes they do.

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