megwrites: Reading girl by Renoir.  (Default)
[personal profile] megwrites
I was reading a rather interesting dissection of the urban fantasy genre by Carrie Vaughn (who wrote Kitty and the Midnight Hour amongst other things) and in item number #6 of her "When Things Go Wrong" list, she mentions the Bechtel Test.

Brief recap: the Bechtel test states that for a movie should have:

a) At least two women
b) Who talk to each other
c) About something other than men



I think the Bechdel Test is a good thing, but I can't help but thinking that's it's sort of horribly inadequate when it comes to giving authors, viewers, and other participants in popular culture a rule of thumb when deciding if something is actually offensive/dismissive of women or not.

My first problem is with the "at least two women" clause. Because I can think of many movies, TV shows, and other creatures that have two or even three women, and thus pass the letter of the Bechdel Test, but not the spirit. I think rather, the number of women should be proportional to the number of men, relative to the situation. Meaning? If there is a cast of eight main characters, I think at least four should be women. Women make up a smidge more than half the population of Earth, so there really isn't any place where there aren't women involved somehow. Their situations and treatment varies, but women are always there. Even in the most repressive, misogyny laden cultures, women are there and they are integral to life as people know it. They may be repressed and abused, but they're there dammit, and they're important and they have stories, too.

Not to mention that the only requirement of the women's actions is that they talk to each other about something other than men. That doesn't fly with me. I've sat through far too many movies and TV shows and read far too many books that also seem to pass the Bechdel test, but it's clear that the female character has one purpose for their existence, and that's to be a romantic counterpart to the male protagonist. Sometimes, there are even more than one of these characters, who may coincidentally talk about work or fashion or something - but it doesn't make them any less frustrating, stereotypical, or demeaning.

In addition, the test doesn't state how much talking or interaction these women should have and what kind. Sorry, but male-centric "lesbian" (there's gotta be another word for this type of situation, because my understanding of lesbian is not it) scenes with horny cheerleaders making out with each other does NOT constitute scoring an A on the Bechdel test, thanks much. I'm not sure that's what the creator had in mind.

Third, just not talking about men is not enough. I don't think a piece of cinema or literature should score points for having two women talk about washing dishes or dresses or hairstyles. Not that it's wrong to show women talking about this, but when that's all you do, you're still not following the spirit of the test.

I propose a better test one that requires that

1) There be a proportional number of women to men in the leading cast. 50/50 is a good start.

2) Who have a proportional number of scenes/lines to the men in the cast. Again, 50/50 and tit-for-tat (no pun intended) is a good place to start

3) Who have not only substantive, important, relevant conversations with each other about things other than men, but relationships of all kinds (sexual, platonic, familial) with each other. They can't just talk to each other on a bench in one scene. They have to interact meaningfully.

4) Who have plotlines, plot points, or actions that are not solely based on a romantic or sexual relationship with a man (ie, they are not just there to be the girlfriend or love interest) and who are allowed to go on outside of a relationship with a man

5) And who are not kept from any action that men are allowed for any reason, textual or subtextual, excepting historical story lines where it is perfectly valid to show that, for instance, women were not allowed to vote once upon a time.

Except, when I look at my own rules, I realize that there are still things I'm leaving out, or works which wouldn't meet my criteria, but that I would consider to be perfectly acceptable from a feminist stance. I think there are even shows which are mostly female shows which still horrify me and demean other women. I think sometimes the things we women say are for us, by us are still working against us - but that is a whole other entry.

The point is, it's about not just checking a list, but about quality. Not to mention that I'll trade a movie that has one outstanding female character for one that has ten horrible, stereotyped, underdeveloped, insulting ones.

Which is what I think was mostly Carrie Vaughn's point about Urban Fantasy. It isn't just about having a heroine which checks the boxes, but actually stands up to close reader scrutiny. It isn't just about having physical prowess, but about possessing actual strength and power, some of which stem not from being able to shoot or punch someone's lights out, but from being able to deal with your own issues.

Date: 2009-01-09 05:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingthedark.livejournal.com
One, I'm always willing to disqualify myself from this topic because gender is very blurry for me, but I'm definitely an Alison Bechdel devotee and I feel something witty that a character said took on such a life because it shows (via the original reference to Alien) how rare it is for a major film to address the problem of male gaze and phallocentric storytelling. To me, the film High Art functions as a great example of what is possible. I was going to skip the Vaughn, but now that I know she's covering that kind of ground, I'll try to read it tomorrow when I'm not sleepy. Thanks for mentioning it.

Date: 2009-01-09 07:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ladyslvr.livejournal.com
So as the permanent antagonist to your arguments, I have to wonder why the proportion of women and men in a story must always be 50/50 for the story to pass the test. Yes, women are always there, in reality, but there are any number of stories wherein there are good, character-driven reasons for a gender imbalance. Should this, then, automatically disqualify that story? For that matter, there are plenty of situations in the real world where there won't be a gender equity for all kinds of reasons, some of which aren't even based on discrimination. Should one not be allowed to write about those?

Why should the scenes/lines be split 50/50? Doesn't this enforce artificial constraints on a story of exactly the kind you want to see eliminated?

Then, you say women "who have not only substantive, important, relevant conversations with each other..." and I have to wonder by whose definitions? Because now you're coming dangerously close to defining substantive and important by the historical male rules, which are the very ones that say that women talking about babies and sewing aren't substantive or important. Shouldn't the women in the story be the ones who determine what conversations are meaningful to them?

OK. That's enough for one night. Have you recovered from Christmas yet? :)

Date: 2009-01-09 01:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fiction-theory.livejournal.com
I have to wonder why the proportion of women and men in a story must always be 50/50 for the story to pass the test.

To be fair, I didn't say that it *has* to be 50/50, I just said that 50/50 was a good start. I'm not going to get any hackles raised just over number if, for instance, in a cast of five characters, two are women and three are men, provided the women are well written and well portrayed in their roles.

Yes, women are always there, in reality, but there are any number of stories wherein there are good, character-driven reasons for a gender imbalance.

Oddly enough, I'm having trouble thinking of one. I'm sure you can, so I'll ask you for an example.

To my mind, even in historical situations where women were excluded from certain areas of society or certain places, I mean even on a *battlefield*, women can be found. Either as camp followers, or sometimes disguised as men, fighting. The question is, does the story (and thus its creator) value women enough to look at what they were doing at the time, if they were physically excluded from a certain place?

Why should the scenes/lines be split 50/50?

Because the amount of scenes/lines given is almost always (notice the almost, I'm sure we can find exceptions) an indicator of how valued the character is within the story. And again, it's not a hard, fast rule. But giving the women a few scattered lines here and there and leaving the vast heaping rest of the work to the menfolk clearly isn't getting it done.

Then, you say women "who have not only substantive, important, relevant conversations with each other..." and I have to wonder by whose definitions? Because now you're coming dangerously close to defining substantive and important by the historical male rules,

The definition is relative, and it depends on the situation and the story line. Yes, talking about children, sewing, etc can be relevant and substantive and important in some contexts, but at the same time? If you have a heroine who supposedly has the power to kill creatures of the night and use a semi-auto, but yet the only discussions she seems to have with other females are about shoes and purses, then you have a problem.

But it's like I said - even my own rules have holes and exceptions and other flaws, because it's all about quality in context.

Date: 2009-01-09 04:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ladyslvr.livejournal.com
Oddly enough, I'm having trouble thinking of one. I'm sure you can, so I'll ask you for an example.

The one that immediately springs to mind is the superhero story I'm working on that's about teenage boys. (Whether you want to accept this is a *good* example is up to you). The main character is male and just a touch self-centered. Aside from his mother, the only people he has yet chosen to have play significant roles in his life are also male. There are females in the story but, aside from the mother, they're all bit players, which means there's no substance to the roles. Teenagers tend to group up by gender, so writing about a male character will net a story with more males, while writing about a female character will net a story with more females. (Obviously this isn't a rule, as I was the girl with all the male friends, but that still validates my point: if someone were writing a story about my teenage life, there would be precious few substantive female roles in it.)

On a more practical note: the classes I teach are all male dominated. I get at least once class every semester with one female besides me in the room. This last semester the most balanced class was 19 males and 5 females. Is this discrimination? Perhaps. For the males. It's an intro class in English, and due to historical gender inequities in how *guys* are taught humanities classes, they are the ones who don't test out of the class.

does the story (and thus its creator) value women enough to look at what they were doing at the time, if they were physically excluded from a certain place?

What if what women were doing at the time isn't relevant to the story? Why must ever story be bent and twisted to showcase the women? A story should be about what the story is about. Shoehorning a particular group into the story to emphasis their importance/existence is also a negative as it gives attention to the character only for being a member of a group.

If you have a heroine who supposedly has the power to kill creatures of the night and use a semi-auto, but yet the only discussions she seems to have with other females are about shoes and purses, then you have a problem.

Why? If you had a hero who supposedly had the power to kill creatures of the night and use a semi-auto, and yet the only discussions he seemed to have with other males is beer and football, a lot of people would view him as a rounded character.

Date: 2009-01-09 02:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] denoue-moi.livejournal.com
The B test sounds to me like a lesbian movie test. :P

And it really depends about the 2 women rule. What if it's a movie/book/whatev about a boys' boarding school?

Au Revoir, Les Enfents wouldn't pass - if I remember right - and it wasn't anti-lady. It was just about a bunch of boys and men.




July 2013

S M T W T F S
 123456
789 10111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
282930 31   

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 2nd, 2014 05:20 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios