Tuesday, June 07, 2011

WisCon Panet: The Bechdel Test in Books

(This is a panel I proposed. It was inspired by this blog post.)

The Bechdel Test—to pass, a movie (or book) must 1: contain two female characters who 2: talk to each other about 3: something that isn’t a man

It’s harder to pass this test than you might think

What does this test tell us about a work? Is it a pass/fail? Can we judge the work by this? It does tell us how complex the female characters are

For example, the exceptional kick-ass woman may have no female friends

Prior to 1800, women were limited to a female, domestic world

In the late 19th century, only one woman would be included in an action novel

The test devalues what women do when interacting with men

The test measures woman-woman interaction

Smurfette—only one female in a group of hundreds of men

In Game of Thrones, the two sisters are very different

The Bechdel Test shifts your perceptions

Are domestic stories devalued?

The exceptional woman has lost her femininity

Need to think of more roles women could play in stories besides kick-ass warrior

Modesty Blaise—spy woman who has relationships with other women

Movie marketing is very gendered, but books and SF/fantasy are different

Publishing does very little market research; they use the spaghetti model (throw everything against the wall and see what sticks)

Why does fantasy have so limited models of anyone other than a white male?

Most of the bestsellers work within this paradigm

Many fantasies based on Western, medieval setting

History was more complex than you might think (for example, you might find women business owners, women like the Wife of Bath, abbesses, that are written out of the simplified medieval world)

Game of Thrones looks at women in different roles

POV affects test: a POV woman should talk to other women, but if it’s told from a male POV, then he may not always see female-female interaction

Pride and Prejudice—the women almost always talk about men (but the men represent money and power)

If two women are antagonists, does an interaction between them count as a Bechdel test pass?

If two women get catty with each other, they very rarely develop a deeper relationship (compare to male-female or male-male hatred at first sight); instead, the heroine will undermine her opponent

The part about women talking about men assumes that men are the heroes and the women the love interests

Is the man important, or are they giving backstory on him?

Movies are dialogue based, whereas books provide internal thoughts

If a woman is thinking about an absent friend, does that count as dialogue?

Does the gender of the author make a difference in how the dialogue is written?

Male writers may be afraid of misrepresenting women’s dialogue

Is there a better test for feminism in a work?

Do the women have their own stories, or are they just set decoration?

Do the women have emotionally important relationships with other women?

What makes a work feminist to begin with?

Do you have two women who are allies?

Are the roles gendered, or can they be filled by either a man or a woman?

Literature starts at a different place than other types of entertainment (other types may be more sexist)

Books and book series are longer

Does it matter if the man the women are talking about isn’t a romantic interest?

The Left Hand of Darkness would fail this test because there aren’t two females in this book (the narrator’s bias affects his view of the world)

What about a racial Bechdel test?

You can’t assume there’s a natural alliance between two nonwhite people (people are more likely to ally by gender instead of race)

The nonwhite character shouldn’t be magical and shouldn’t die

Avoid the Smurfette problem

Are the number of books who pass this test increasing/decreasing?

It has potential to improve because we’re paying attention to it

People tend to write to market which may not be helpful

The rise of YA is creating books that pass this test

Having two women who interact may peg a book as “women’s fiction”

Think about this as you read/write

As a comsumer, where you spend your money matters

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