Anybody who has known me for more than ten minutes know I’m not a feminist. I’m not an anti-feminist, either. Mostly I’m a “can’t-be-bothered-ist.” Yeah, I like being able to vote, get a paycheck, inherit, etc., all those lovely things that being a 21st century female make possible. But I have too many other things to do to spend my time and energy being political.
But, for all that Appalachian insularity, it is possible to get my dander up. And this article I read the other day did just that (original article is here). In a nutshell, the article says that back in November, Swedish cinemas were introducing a rating system that indicates whether or not a movie passes the Bechdel test. (I can’t find anything saying how successful this rating system has been so far; I’ll report back when I hear something)
I seriously doubt it’s possible to be online nowadays without knowing what the Bechdel test is. But for those who failed to get the memo, the Bechdel test is allegedly a barometer for how well women are represented in a particular film. It originated back in 1985, in a webcomic called “Dykes to Watch Out For” by Alison Bechdel. The test, in short asks whether one simple thing happens in a movie: do two named female characters (no nameless redshirts allowed) talk to each other about anything other than a man.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think having more female characters in fiction is a good thing, and having them being rounded, fully fleshed characters is even better. I don’t think I can stand one more Dejah Thoris in the world (no offense, Burroughs fans, but she really is just a Tootsie Roll with boobs; a treat to be fought over, not a person). But I honestly think the Bechdel test is worse than useless; it actually makes things harder to find good female characters.
I’ve been writing for a long time. I’ve been a woman for a longer time. And I’m here to tell you, there’s more to writing a good female character than what the Bechdel Test measures. “Sex and the City” passes the Bechdel test, times a thousand. But that TV show and the movies that followed are pure fluff. Two chicks talking about Jimmy Choo shoes may pass the Bechdel test, but that doesn’t make the characters anything more than vapid life-support apparatus for a set of boobs.
On the other hand, the original Star Wars movie fails the Bechdel test; there are only three women in that movie (Aunt Beru, Princess Leia and Mon Mothma, one of the Rebel Alliance leaders). None of these women interact in any way, which is an automatic test fail. But you cannot sit there and tell me that Princess Leia even vaguely resembles Dejah Thoris (yeah, I’m gonna keep harping on her, she annoys me). Leia is nobody’s victim; she kicks ass, she has depth of character, she has flaws, she has feelings. She’s a living, breathing, fully fleshed person, and, more importantly, she contributes significantly to the narrative; she’s not window dressing in any way, and without her input, the heroes would not win. If she fails the Bechdel, that’s proof in my mind that the test itself is flawed.
Some examples that annoy the crap out of me:
- FAIL: Aliens. Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley talks to the child about monsters, but beyond that, the flick is a boy’s part. Ripley isn’t a rounded character? Give me a break!
- FAIL: Harry Potter Series. Hermione is the only girl who’s more than a recurring part, and she mostly interacts with the guys, not other girls. Hermione kicks ass before puberty! She has the most intelligence of the leads, and has more depth than either of the boys, IMHO.
- FAIL: Lord of the Rings Trilogy: There are only three named characters in the series, and none of them interact with one another. Okay, they might have a point with this one, at least as far as Arwen is concerned. But Galadriel is a strong leader with depth, and Eowyn (my personal favorite of the three) is more than a match for the guys in any category you care to name.
- FAIL: The Avengers: Only a couple of female named characters, and they don’t interact. Really? Do I really have to defend Pepper Potts or Black Widow? Okay, Black Widow isn’t terrifically developed, but still!
“Now wait, Allene!” I can hear my detractors scream. “You’re not being fair! That’s not how the test is supposed to be used!” Don’t flame me, I already know that. The Swedish cinema decision, and the general position of proponents of the test say they want to broaden awareness of the role of women in fiction. The Bechdel Test is supposed to do that very thing, by calling attention to the women in a film and pointing out when she’s just window dressing. From there you can open a dialogue.
The problem is that NOBODY IS USING IT LIKE THAT! What you intended to happen, and what actually happens are always not the same thing. People are using it to dismiss a movie as un-feminist or anti-women or whatever. They don’t discuss the merits of the movie itself, or the characterization of the women in the movie; they just say, “It fails Bechdel, it’s crap!”
So if Bechdel fails to examine what really makes a female character good, and people are using the test in an unproductive way, what can be done? Well, how about the Mako Mori Test? Here‘s a good article on it. For those of you who don’t want to go look, The Mako Mori Test is named after the character Mako Mori in the movie Pacific Rim. It is intended as a more sensible alternative to the Bechdel Test. The requirements to pass the Mako Mori:
- Does the work have at least one named female character…
- Who gets her own narrative arc….
- That isn’t just a supporting strut of the man’s narrative?
This makes sense! When a writer sits down to pen a story, he doesn’t ask himself, “Wow, should I have my female lead talk to her roommate about shoes?” No. He asks, “What is this character about, and what is her story? How does it feed into the main narrative?” Bechdel doesn’t ask this; it doesn’t care.
Does Aliens pass the Mako Mori? Hell, yes! Ripley is a named female, who not only has her own narrative arc, but is the primary arc, and in no way is it merely a secondary support to a larger male narrative. What about Star Wars? Leia is female? yep. She has her own story? Yep. Is it only supporting the man’s story? Well, sorta kinda; I think it stands on its own, if you hold your mouth right.
(Would Dejah Thoris pass Mako Mori? Ummm, NO! Yet another reason to despise that character)
Mako Mori isn’t a perfect test either. (Sex and the City would pass the Mako Mori, but that doesn’t make it any less fluffy and vapid). But I think it’s a much better barometer of the roles of women in fiction. It opens a dialogue about women in movies, and it actually points at what needs to be discussed — character and story! — rather than some arbitrary “did two girls talk to each other” measure that tells us nothing substantial about the involved characters.
Final question: why am I bringing this up on a blog devoted to Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp? Well, honestly, because our beloved genres do not have a great track record on its depiction of women in film, books, games. Again, I must trot out Dejah Thoris, who is my prime example. Granted, all three of our genres either come out of a more patriarchal past, or purposely re-immerse us in that past. But that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to our readers. But we’ll examine this in more depth next week.
Okay, I think I can safely put away the soap box for the week. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get some comments on this topic and I definitely want to hear from you, even if we disagree. I only ask that you keep it clean and polite, or else I’ll loose the Swedish Chef on you! Please do share, tweet, comment. Come find me on Facebook, Twitter or email (you can find those links on my About page). And if you have any contributions you’d like to share with our Fun Fridays, email me! I can’t have all the fun, you gotta join in!