hradzka: (unfair to batgirl)
[personal profile] hradzka
For a while now, I've been doing some thinking about the Bechdel Test, mostly as a background process. For those who haven't heard of it, the Bechdel Test was created by Liz Wallace and immortalized (with credit and by permission) by Wallace's friend, cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Wallace's rule is to not watch a movie unless it contains 1) two women 2) who have a conversation 3) that's not about a man. It's a simple test, and movies and TV fail it often.

If the test itself has a failure, it's that whether something passes or fails it is as far as the discussion usually goes. On those occasions that a conversation does turn to why a work fails the Bechdel Test, there are basically two ways that conversation can go. It can turn into an activist discussion of sexism and society, or it can turn into a discussion of the mechanics of writing. There have been a lot of the former, but there haven't been all that many of the latter. And while I don't want to interrupt any of the former, I think the latter conversation is worth having, too.

The activist approach is necessarily a wide-ranging and, at base, fundamentalist approach, the chief objective of which is to produce change by creating more activists. It can be likened to missionary work, in that it requires writers to make an essentially religious conversion that leads them to constantly question their own state of original sin. Sometimes this is expressed in bouts of fannish self-flagellation, with fans confessing themselves to be sinners and vowing to read and write more female characters (or queer characters, or characters of color) like they're promising to eat more vegetables. I realize that modern progressivism seems to have an intense hair-shirt quality to it, but I don't think it's that hard, or should be. Nor do I think that turning more fans into progressive feminists is the only way to get more people writing fanfic that feminists will like. I'm not a feminist, but I've learned a hell of a lot from feminists on my flist about what they want in stories. This does not give me feminist bona fides of any sort; I'm not trying to make a bullshit claim to them, because I don't have one -- hell, I'm a registered Republican with a concealed carry permit; I *am* The Man, ok? -- but I do try to write stories that a fairly wide variety of people will enjoy, feminists included. And if there's one thing I've taken away from the discussions of feminism and queer politics and anti-racism that I've read, it's that I don't have to agree with people to learn how they would like to be treated.

For people like me, who aren't progressive feminists and aren't likely to become such, a mechanical approach may be useful. Even issues with complicated causes can express themselves mechanically and so are subject to mechanical checking and correction. Also, when you look at mechanics, you see different things than you see when you look at theory, and sometimes these differences are interesting.

For example, even assuming full gender parity in lead roles, which does not exist, the single-hero story will likely fail the Bechdel Test close to fifty percent of the time right off the bat. This is because the hero is so much the focus of the story and the narration usually takes or follows the hero's perspective. Sometimes the hero even narrates it. When one character dominates like that, the other characters often aren't talking to each other much; they're talking to the hero, and if the hero isn't in the scene, the odds are really good they're talking *about* the hero, and if the hero is male that blows the Bechdel qualification right there. So a certain degree of compensation is required; you need to focus on the other characters' individual interests, to flesh them out beyond their relationship to the hero.

There are a number of issues involved in why a lot of properties fail the Bechdel Test, but on the mechanical front I think two major issues are 1) Stock Roles and 2) Need for Contrast. Let's take stock roles first.

The best way I can describe a stock role is to say: "picture a beat cop." I don't mean "create a beat cop character of the sort you'd like to see to star in a new TV show." I mean, when I say, "beat cop," picture the first thing that comes into your head.

If I bet every American reading this a nickel that your imaginary beat cop is a large-framed Irish male, I would, on the whole, probably not lose money.

I've known lots of police officers. Hell, I've *worked* with lots of police officers. Men and women, all ethnic backgrounds, all ages, and when I think "beat cop" I still think of a burly Irishman who's crusty but has a heart of gold, because when I was a kid I watched a bajillion TV shows with burly Irish cops.

That's a stock role. The stock role is a stereotype. Often, it's a positive or amusing one. Ethnicity or some other group identification is often involved. The stock agent is a Jew. The stock beat cop is an Irishman. The stock lower-class guy who's undereducated and works hard at a tough job is Italian. The stock hairdresser is gay. But the stock role is more than just an emblematic occupation; it evokes previous iterations of similar characters. This makes the stock role especially useful in small, bit parts -- the audience fills in the characterization, so the writer doesn't have to.

Why are stock roles important to the Bechdel Test? Because *men fill a billion of them.* There are many more stock roles for men than for women. As a result, the more thinly drawn a character is, the more likely that character is to be male. But the problem caused by stock roles goes farther than that. Many characters exist in order to perform a mechanical function: to provide information, to fight the hero, that kind of thing. They're not created to be a person, but to do a job within the story. This means they tend to start thin, and be fleshed out. But the fact that they start thin means that a whole lot of characters begin as some variant of a stock role.

Men are, from a dramatic perspective, incredibly useful creatures, because they fit into all manner of preconceived slots -- stock roles -- that come in handy to writers. Need a character to do something dangerous/flamboyantly stupid and risky? Men, especially young men, are great for that (when I worked in a medical examiner's office, the young men who came in fell overwhelmingly into one of two categories. Their last words were either, "You motherfucker --!" or "Hey, guys, watch THIS!"). Need a character to convey established authority, i.e., "this bank has been in business for five million years" authority? Older men, especially older white men, get that across without opening their mouths. And so on. There are all kinds of things that men are great for, and more to the point, *men are easy for.* Because we have seen men doing those things in a billion books and novels, and we have vague memories of a billion similar characters, and that makes filling the role easier -- and often, more effective -- for the author and the readers. This requires work to overcome.

By contrast, women have fewer stock roles, and most of these revolve around their relationships to other people. Male stock roles embody roles and personality types; female stock roles tend to embody these as functions of personal relationships. (The Meddling Mother would be one such stock role, as would The Voice of Reason.) Another is The Person Who Cares. Consider Eileen Jones's review of PREDATORS in EXILED ONLINE:

The least amusing scenes involve the female character having to carry the burden of femaleness, i.e., having to care about people, and harp about it at the least convenient times. You know somebody’s got to do it in these kinds of films, and if there’s a woman or a girl, she’s automatically stuck with it. If there’s no female, the nominal hero himself usually has to deal with it, far more grudgingly. You know the type of sequence: when somebody’s horribly wounded in a chase scene, for example, do you drag them along, leave them behind, or shoot them and put them out of their misery before running like hell? When it’s an all-male action film, there’s some serious tension around these questions, because it will involve a real moral test. But when there’s a female there, it becomes strictly a gender issue; she’ll want to drag the wounded along purely because she’s a girl.

It's surprising how often stock roles come into play, even in the most basic character dynamics. Let me give an example from my own writing. For Yuletide 2009, I wrote an ALIEN universe fanfic called "Killing Elvis." The premise is that a tiff between a Weyland-Yutani executive and a high-ranking scientist leads to the scientist's laboratory being tasked with stuffing and mounting their (very much alive and dangerous) xenomorph specimen; wackiness ensues. All of the characters are original to me; one is based on (and related to) a character from the second film in the series, James Cameron's ALIENS.

The high-ranking scientist is Dr. Liu; her labmates are Anne and J.D. Dr. Liu and Anne are women, as are the Weyland-Yutani security chief Col. Fetterer and the Weyland-Yutani Chair's assistant Ms. Winterbourne, both of whom appear briefly. J.D. is male, as are the Chair and Liu's antagonist, Weyland-Yutani executive Philip Burke, who is the brother of (the late) Carter J. Burke, as played by Paul Reiser. The alien, named "Elvis" by Dr. Liu and the labbies, is actually a sexless drone, but Liu et al. call it "he."

What I found interesting about writing this fic is that when I asked myself, "Could this character be a woman?" I was surprised several times to find how reluctant I was to say "yes." And a lot of the time, stock roles had something to do with it: having the character be male added a subtext that made my job as a writer easier.

I knew pretty quickly that I wanted Liu and Ann to be women. (It's perhaps noteworthy that they are the most deeply-portrayed characters in the story; we see more sides of them than of any of the other character, and they're not stock roles.) What about J.D.? No, J.D. was male. J.D. has a hunting background; yes, women hunt, too, but hunting enthusiast is a male stock role. Also, J.D. is the comic relief. Men are well-suited to comic relief, because they tend to get enthusiastic and do gloriously dumb things without thinking them through (as J.D. does at one point in the fic). So he's a guy.

I also asked myself if I could make the Chair of Weyland-Yutani a woman. The thought felt wrong, and it took some doing to understand why. The Chair is a cipher. The only time he appears in the fic he's literally on a stage being described by someone in the audience. He has no dialogue, no personality, and essentially exists only as a plot device. He is a somewhat remote and overwhelming power; he is not an authoritative character so much as he is Authority. You are now picturing an older male, probably with white hair, like the Old Man in ROBOCOP. Me too. Stock role to the rescue.

Could I have made Burke female -- movie-Burke's sister, rather than brother? I briefly entertained the notion, but tossed it out, because of another stock role rule: *men are better assholes.* Burke is not just an asshole; he is *an asshole with power that he has not earned.* That's a stock male role.

The usefulness of stock roles can be illustrated by considering an (extremely minor) character about whom I did say, "yes, this character could be a woman:" Weyland-Yutani's head of security, Colonel Paula Fetterer. At one point in the fic, Liu is looking for information, and Fetterer is dismissive. Their exchange makes for an interesting case where the lack of a stock role for a woman in this position makes a shallow character shallower, and in fact essentially nonexistent. If Col. Fetterer is a man, then his dismissal of Dr. Liu fits into a preconceived dynamic which automatically makes Fetterer easier to imagine as a person. As a woman, her dismissal of Dr. Liu does not register as much as a character-defining action on her part. I would have had to do more with Fetterer to flesh her out, which I didn't.

So the stock role discrepancy benefits male characters far more than female characters. The solution to this problem is not "get away from the cliches." If TV Tropes (no link -- I just saved you half a day; you're welcome) has taught us anything, it's that tropes and cliches are useful. My argument is that *we need more new cliches.*

But there's a second big part of the equation, because another major mechanical factor at work is the Need for Contrast. Why does the contrasting figure to the female hero or the hero of color so often wind up being a white guy? It's not just that American popular imagination, stock roles included, is pretty dominated by whites and pretty dominated by guys, though that's part of it. This is where Need for Contrast comes into play. The natural inclination of the writer is to draw a strong contrast between the heroes and the villains, and the problem arises when sex and ethnicity are treated as the hero's defining feature.

To give an example, civic-mindedness vs. profiteering is a contrast that props up all the time. Indiana Jones sells his looted artifacts to a museum; Bellocq sells his on the open market. In TWISTER, the heroes work on shoestring government grants while the bad guys have a "fat corporate contract." In (the film version of) THE A-TEAM, Hannibal and crew are poorly-paid Army Rangers, while the evildoers are well-paid mercenary contractors. But when the hero is a woman, the defining characteristic that is chosen for contrast is "she's a woman." Ergo, male adversary. This problem actually gets worse the more bad guys you have. If you have a female hero *and* a female villain in the movie, odds are really good that the villain's henchman is going to be male because of Need for Contrast: she's the cerebral/social power, he's the physical threat. (The physically threatening thug, of course, being a male stock role). Which means, of course, that every time the villain talks to her henchman it's not a Bechdel Qualifier.

Combine Stock Roles and the Need for Contrast, and you've got a self-reinforcing mechanical problem. So here are my three mechanical recommendations for countering them.

1) *Make more properties/stories with two women in the lead roles.*
2) *Make more stock roles for women.*
3) *Fill as many inconsequential roles with women as possible.*

The first is the splashiest issue. If you asked me to name teams from male buddy shows I would go on for three days, and if you asked me to name teams from female buddy shows I would say, "Cagney and Lacey, Rizzoli and Isles, and Xena and Gabrielle." The second recommendation is the one that'll be hardest to fix, because it requires writing a lot of different kinds of women for a long time and finding out what kinds of characters have the utility and appeal to become new stock roles. The third, though, is the one that I think is the killer. The lack of stock roles for women is a long-term problem, but increased inconsequential roles for women are, in the short term, the single biggest difference that could impact Bechdel Test passage rates for television and film, in particular. Think about it this way: on CSI, say, we have two heroic leads (two male or one male and one female) showing up to investigate a crime. They duck under the tape, walk on scene, and maybe have a quick obligatory exchange with a patrol officer ("The wife's in there if you want to talk to her." "Thanks.")

That patrol officer's a guy, isn't he?

So make the patrol officer a woman. Make the manager at the crappy hotel a woman. Make the person they ask for directions a woman. Make the witness who says, "Sorry, I didn't see anything" a woman. Make the customer who complains about poor service a woman. All these pointless, thankless, one-line wonders? Make them women. And then let the female leads talk to them. Boom. Instant Bechdel qualification, and also we're seeing a lot more parts for women, and we'll get to see some of those parts eventually becoming stock roles. More female leads and supporting roles are critical, but in my view the biggest argument in favor of deliberately female-heavy (and chromatic-heavy, for that matter) casting is not that it makes this casting a new standard, but that if you see it enough, it doesn't come across as a minor surprise anymore. And I think that's a bigger factor than anybody's mentioned.

Fans can do the most with regard to #1 and #3. Team up women in your fic, and have them do interesting stuff. And when they have to interact with a throwaway character, make that throwaway a woman more often than not.

And, y'know, it's not hard. It's fun.

Love stories...

Date: 2010-10-28 08:43 am (UTC)
zornhau: (Default)
From: [personal profile] zornhau
If the story is about a f/m romance, and if it's short, then isn't it entirely reasonable that each romantic lead should only be seen talking to their same-sex buddies when discussing their feelings for the other romantic lead?

Re: Love stories...

Date: 2010-10-28 10:39 am (UTC)
azurelunatic: (Queer as a) $3 bill in pink/purple/blue rainbow.  (queer as a three dollar bill)
From: [personal profile] azurelunatic
The test was originally showcased in the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For". While in many ways it's a very tidy tool for measuring the presence of women in a piece, and is therefore useful for feminists, in its home context it's a tool for feminist lesbians to rate their likely interest in a piece.

So even considering a short piece where the romantic pairing is a m/f couple, and the female romantic lead is talking to another of her female friends, and it's about the male romantic lead -- women (feminist or not) with a romantic or sexual interest in men may find the story inherently interesting. Women with no romantic or sexual interest in men may well be left completely cold.

It's reasonable that a short piece might not pass this test and still be very good for many other reasons. But Ginger still wouldn't feel quite right about watching it.

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Date: 2010-10-28 09:38 am (UTC)
andrewducker: (Default)
From: [personal profile] andrewducker
This is terribly well written, and nicely thoughtful.

I have one question (and if you don't want to get into it then that's fine) - but when you say you're not a feminist do you mean that you do not believe in "The social, political, and economic equality of the sexes."? Because many people I've heard not-defining as feminists _do_ believe in those things, but think that to be a feminist you have to believe in stronger things than that.

Date: 2010-10-28 02:17 pm (UTC)
bliumchik: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bliumchik
I think [personal profile] hradzka probably means to say he's not a feminist activist; I also know a lot of people who assume feminist=activist on the basis that what one might term "passive feminism" could be renamed "being a normal decent human being" and ought to be a default. Personally I don't think our society is advanced enough to be able to assume that just yet, but it's a reasonable and common if occasionally confusing position. And it's likely to be the one in any true post-feminist society's history books, to boot.

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Date: 2010-10-28 12:12 pm (UTC)
nagaina: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nagaina
Speaking strictly as both a feminist and a writer, I do not feel that a story fails the Bechdel Test for two females having a plot-relevant conversation about a male character. Knowing as I do the precise origins of the test in Dykes To Watch Out For, I tend to operate the test as a metric of heteronormative romance enforcement in a given work than anything else. In this regard, bog-standard mainstream romance-comedy works tend to fail harder than any other work or genre, for the obvious reasons. Everything else I give more of a pass to, as it's completely possible for two women to talk about a man in a way that is non-romantic and the work should not be penalized for possessing realistic character interaction.

This is, indeed, a thoughtful and well-thought-out post.

Date: 2010-10-28 12:24 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
That's a very good point. John Scalzi, when assessing the Bechdel-Wallaceness of movies, despite not being _the_ authority on political correctness, I thought tackled it very well with "technical pass" and "technical fail" categories, if a movie had at least two strong female characters who talked to each other a lot, but coincidentally about a man, or had a brief interlude of two women talking about something that wasn't technically a man, but was still very gender stereotyped.

After all, it's ultimately futile to agree whether a single movie passes: the implication is that too few movies pass, and those that technically fail are potentially outnumbered by those that technically succeed. Even though even in an ideal world there will be many movies that are legitimately about one major character and no-one else, or similar.

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Date: 2010-10-28 12:31 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
That's a really interesting post. Your fundamental point, that it's possible to understand something without a priori agreeing with it is really good, both because (a) it's good to understand what people want, in case you may be able to give it to them and (b) you may be more understanding if you understand what they'd like, rather than how they try to describe it.

But on the other hand, while I agree switching small roles to me more diverse is a good idea, I suspect it will also annoy people who feel that's just emphasising how the middle and major roles aren't.

I agree stock characters are very useful, and it's natural that many of them end up being white men. But also, my instinct is that a large portion of that time, making a slightly-less-stock character is actually likely to make the character more interesting. That may be idealism and optimism more than objective enquiry, but it rang true to me. Even if a big Irish guy is easier for people to grok immediately, I would hope that a lot of the time, someone else, even fulfilling the same role, would be evocative partly because they're different.

Date: 2010-11-01 09:11 pm (UTC)
alyndra: (Elizabeth Swann)
From: [personal profile] alyndra
That's why switching the tiny roles is only one bullet point, not the only solution. :) Making more movies with two female leads will take care of the major characters problem, and I'm not entirely sure but I think the middling characters may have less gender disparity than major and minor. At any rate they should follow along if all three points are followed.

Yes, if an out-of-balance state is maintained for too long people will notice and comment, but that doesn't mean it's wrong to start in that direction.

I like your point that you can often do more with a slightly-differing-from-stock character.

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Date: 2010-10-28 01:01 pm (UTC)
beatrice_otter: Miss Piggy in a superhero costume: Were you looking for flying pigs? (Were you looking for flying pigs?)
From: [personal profile] beatrice_otter
I liked this essay, and you had some very good points in it. But you know what my favorite part was? "I don't have to agree with people to learn how they would like to be treated."

Damn. I wish more people realized that, the world would be a far better place.

Date: 2010-10-28 01:06 pm (UTC)
macavitykitsune: (opinions)
From: [personal profile] macavitykitsune
Hello! Your article was linked, over at [community profile] bechdel_test and I just came over to see...

Very thoughtful, and this line in particular: If Col. Fetterer is a man, then his dismissal of Dr. Liu fits into a preconceived dynamic which automatically makes Fetterer easier to imagine as a person. As a woman, her dismissal of Dr. Liu does not register as much as a character-defining action on her part. made me very, very happy to read!

Thanks for sharing.

Date: 2010-10-28 01:19 pm (UTC)
lian: Klavier Gavin, golden boy (Default)
From: [personal profile] lian
right, I tend to think of the Bechdel test as a sort of...feminist BMI? As in, it's terribly flawed, but it's a useful short-hand in some situations. I like that this goes the necessary further step and says, okay, how can we work this. (and hey, even though I disagree with your, ahem, incendiary description of the activist approach [I tend to self-select the celebratory aspects *shrugs*] we've just had this tragic example of how it can go terribly, horribly wrong. Yes, some stereotypes are loathesome and should diaf, and stock character + loathsome stereotype [your example of The Automatically Caring Girl] makes me twitch, but not every character *needs* to be a scintillating 3-d person either. That's just not how stories work. @_@)

fwiw, #3, the random gender parity, can already be pretty powerful in a story. (I've heard more than one person remark about Brust's Dragaera novels some variation of "...and then I realized that this random officer was a woman. Wow! Just like that. @_@" Heh.)

Date: 2010-11-07 06:05 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I agree about your comparison the BMI. Used out of context and without any further analysis it can be less-than-useful or misleading, but within context/with additional analysis it can be a very helpful tool.

My main problem with that flowchart is that it's implying that stock characters and tropes are wrong and mean you're writing a bad female character (yes, even including author's notes 4 and 5 which admit they're important in fiction and that the list is meant to draw attention to whether an author is giving lots of development to male characters and using thin, stock female characters). Even if stocks/tropes can indicate laziness on the writer's part (particularly if overused and/or totally flat), they make stories easier for the writer to create and for the reader to digest. Many of the characters pictured on the chart are great female characters; I mean, for goodness' sake, Ripley is on there.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending lazy writers who exclusively use stock female characters instead of actually giving some thought to any of the women they write, and I'd prefer to see far fewer tired female stereotypes in fiction. My complaint is that this chart seems to be far more about originality than feminism.

- megalomaniageek from livejournal, linked from metafandom on LJ

Date: 2010-10-28 01:49 pm (UTC)
musesfool: eucalyptus by stephen meyers (it's something i have to do)
From: [personal profile] musesfool
That patrol officer's a guy, isn't he?

Not on Homicide! One of the many (many) things to love about HLotS was Sally Rogers, who was on the scene as the "The body's over here" or "We've got the witnesses over there" cop in a bunch of episodes. HLotS didn't always do well by its female characters, but I always appreciated that there were women in supporting roles where on other shows there would be men.

Anyway, great post.

Date: 2010-10-28 02:19 pm (UTC)
bliumchik: (fight the system)
From: [personal profile] bliumchik
It's true that Bechdel conversations really need to go further than they do. For one thing, when it's applied without the caveat of its origins it serves pretty effectively to marginalise the female-author-dominated Romance genre, which is a little bit ironic.

Date: 2010-10-28 04:49 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] wysteria
I came here from bechdel_test, and I have nothing more to say than this is brilliant, very well-thought-out.

And a question. Do you mind if I link this in my journal?

Date: 2010-10-28 05:00 pm (UTC)
cofax7: climbing on an abbey wall  (Default)
From: [personal profile] cofax7
All these pointless, thankless, one-line wonders? Make them women.


One of my (many, oh so many) complaints about Supernatural in the last few seasons (um, before I stopped watching entirely) is that they stopped doing that. After season 2, the stock roles were all filled by men, and the women one-offs were defined first by their gender: they were nurses, mothers, witches, secretaries, and victims. So annoying.

(Yes, I understand that a female sheriff showed up in season 5; this doesn't rectify the problem, especially after they killed off all the recurring female characters.)

Also, on edit: I want to thank you for this entry because I do think it's important to show that offensive writing is also BAD writing: it's not truthful (there are plenty of women cops and bartenders and witnesses and shopkeepers, just as there are black programmers and Asian cops), and if you consider that part of writing is keeping your audience engaged, what more effective way to keep the audience engaged than to not piss readers off by making assumptions about them?
Edited Date: 2010-10-28 05:05 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-10-28 10:14 pm (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (FionaDazzling by heartagram)
From: [personal profile] princessofgeeks
fascinating, thank you!

"brainy assistant" may be a new emerging female cliche, also the Girl Pal of the hero -- kind of like your sister, you know? Heir Apparant or Rebellious Scion is also morphing into a female role sometimes.

Voice of Reason -- lol. Yeah. Just like your Mom.

But, God -- give me new cliches instead of more women in the fridge any day. Yeah.

Thanks for the thinky.
Edited Date: 2010-10-28 10:14 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-10-29 12:13 am (UTC)
dharma_slut: They call me Mister CottonTail (Default)
From: [personal profile] dharma_slut
Excellent thinking skills, congratulations!

I have a project in mind, dealing almost exclusively with women, so there's a minimum of ten primary female characters. I asked my reading circle what they would like to see in a female character-- and you know? No one could answer that beyond "She should be self-determinate, and not have father issues." My women friends simply don't know what to do with that question. They can't even conceive of fictional women with individual traits.

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Date: 2010-10-29 09:04 am (UTC)
nineveh_uk: Cover illustration for "Strong Poison" in pulp fiction style with vampish Harriet. (Strong Poison)
From: [personal profile] nineveh_uk
For a show that passes the Bechdel Test in spades partly by virtue of applying your suggestion, see the Swedish TV version of Wallander (also see it because it is very good television). The Wallander police force is male-dominated. This reflects both real life and TV drama. Within it there are nonetheless significant female roles that are not caring roles – the pathologist, the receptionist, the female trainee*, the prosecutor. But it’s outside the police station that you really see it. Women are random witnesses, judges, bank employees, neighbours, priests, politicians, port officers, civil servants, business owners etc. Yes, they are also mothers and sisters and daughters and wives, but it’s really noticeable the extent to which roles that would on US and British TV would be held by men are held by women and – crucially – done so without remark that it is unusual.
*Who though her job does occasionally require her to be in a caring role, is not given this more often than her male counterpart. The person who occasionally is juggling modern parenthood and work is a man.
As for why Angophone media doesn’t do this, I think part of it is that it is still stuck in the all-too-common perception seen in many businesses that equal representation is not one woman and one man, but one woman and three/four men. You see this in research that shows that people judge women participating at well under 50% as dominating a discussion, and I bet at least some of the producers/writers of stock roles don’t put in women because they are worried about “too many women” dominating a show, when actually they are talking about three rather than two out of ten.

Date: 2010-10-29 05:34 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Sorry to be Anon - I don't have a Dreamwidth account.

But this is wonderful. I did a blog entry partially covering Bechdel last week, but this piece blows mine out of the water and is just stunning.

I'm going to link you as well - thanks for the good thinking.

Date: 2010-10-29 05:35 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Oops, didn't mean this to be nested - although the commenter above had a nice comment as well. :)

Date: 2010-10-29 05:49 pm (UTC)
ysabel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ysabel
Your #1 is good, perhaps obvious.
Your #2 is insightful.
Your #3 is brilliant and not at all obvious, and extremely well explained and supported. (Perhaps it should be obvious, but it isn't.)

Thank you for this.

Date: 2010-10-29 09:18 pm (UTC)
petra: Barbara Gordon smiling knowingly (Annie Cartwright - Oh My)
From: [personal profile] petra
I will be thinking about this as I write, both the mechanical process of making it better and the thing the Bechdel reminds me of, which is that it never hurts to end up with two women in a room.

Date: 2010-10-30 09:34 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
There are two things that this post made me think of.

The first is that people seem to me to expect the Bechdel Test to be something it isn't. It's not a test of whether a movie is feminist, has good female characters, is respectful of women, or has particularly meaningful relationships between the female characters. It's a test of whether a movie has any interaction, at all, between female characters that doesn't focus on a man.

Naturally, movies with multiple female characters are more likely to pass this than movies with few, but the test doesn't show that about any individual movie.

The comic strip itself makes it really clear that movies that have little focus on women's relationships with each other can pass, by pointing out that Alien passes, by having two women talk briefly about a monster.

I think you're entirely on the right track in your approach to altering the focus of fiction from male focused to people focused. 'Female' will only become a non-marked state when it's normalised by being portrayed in minor roles as much as 'male' is.

The second thing I thought of was something I read a few years ago in an educational journal. Someone had recorded and then analysed teachers talking to students and also asked the teachers and the students for their perceptions of whether the teachers talked more to the boys in the class than the girls. When teachers and students thought they were talking equally to boys and girls, they were actually talking significantly more often to boys. When teachers and students thought they were talking more to boys, they were talking more to boys. When teachers thought they were talking more to girls, they were *still* really talking more to boys, although the balance was slightly less extreme.

Well-intentioned people can honestly think they are giving more attention to females than males, even when the reverse is true. This is partly because people thinking of how to even things out focus only on key characters, not on the bit parts. So 'woman' stays an unusual feature, because there are few women, even though the major characters may be fifty-fifty.

Again, this makes it seem to me that you're on the right track.

Date: 2010-10-30 05:09 pm (UTC)
yatima: (Default)
From: [personal profile] yatima
All these pointless, thankless, one-line wonders? Make them women. And then let the female leads talk to them. Boom. Instant Bechdel qualification...

Well, technically. But the strong version of the Bechdel test requires the two female characters to have names.

"For the sake of practicality, I've taken the liberty to read the first criterium as only named female characters counting."

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Date: 2010-11-01 03:26 pm (UTC)
heresluck: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heresluck
Really interesting read; thanks!

Date: 2010-11-04 03:09 pm (UTC)
ext_410990: (Default)
From: [identity profile]
This is a really interesting post. You make some good points. Thank you for pointing out the purely writing-related reasons why lots of works fail the Bechdel test, and providing some useful ways to improve things.

Date: 2010-11-04 06:11 pm (UTC)
a_blackpanther: (Default)
From: [personal profile] a_blackpanther
Extremely well written, and very interesting read, even from a non-writer's perspective. I like your solutions best of all. *goes to watch Criminal Minds that employs quite a few of above mentioned solutions & stereotypes*

Date: 2010-11-05 07:38 pm (UTC)
amanuensis1: (Default)
From: [personal profile] amanuensis1
Thank you for pointing out that the Bechdel Test does not work as a vacuum benchmark, making films good or bad. I like my films full of explosions, spaceships, assassins, and the like, and I keep saying that it would be nice if there were more explosion-spaceship-assassin films full of female characters. Not just the "wifely picture on male lead's desk," either.

This is one reason I like science fiction and fantasy so well. You can't have a WWII submarine full of women, but you can have a starship captained piloted etc. by plenty of female characters.

Date: 2010-11-06 09:33 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I like my films full of explosions, spaceships, assassins, and the like

full of female characters.

Sounds like Nanoha Strikers. Unless you count the one token guy and the few old general guys in the background.

(no subject)

From: [personal profile] amanuensis1 - Date: 2010-11-06 10:21 am (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2010-11-08 01:35 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Very interesting!
What it really made me want is a story entirely composed of female characters. It would be so interesting to see stock characters and how there are no gender roles.

Date: 2011-05-15 04:26 pm (UTC)
schneefink: River walking among trees, from "Safe" (Default)
From: [personal profile] schneefink
Very interesting! I've never thought about it quite like that, but it's totally true. Will try to keep your three recommendations in mind.


hradzka: Cassidy, from Garth Ennis's PREACHER. (Default)

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