The Bechdel Test And My Work

11 Dec

bechdel test

I write stories. I put the stories to music. I’m really, really into it. So into it that i concern myself with trivialities like whether or not the stories, characters and the telling of such are trite, uninteresting or stupid. It makes a difference i think to consider these factors.

I use female characters a lot. Whether they are trite, uninteresting and stupidly designed and executed matters to me also. Since i’m a male, i must take into account that my writing of female characters might be off sometimes and question that.  I find stuff like the Bechdel Test interesting and every now and then pick up my work and apply it to the test and take note. I must say, i may not change a single thing about a work i’m currently engaged in if it doesn’t “pass the test”. I do not use it a biblical standard. But i do take note and consider such things, and it’s worth discussing today.

The Bechdel Test is basically 3 questions one applies to a movie to get a picture of how the presence of women in it are handled and to identify gender bias.

The 3 questions are:

1. Are there at least 2 women in it? (With names?)

2. Do they talk to each other? (For over a minute?)

3. About something other than a man?

You’d be amazed how many movies fail this test. Amazed.

Now let me be absolutely clear: this does NOT determine whether a work is misogynistic. No one is saying it does. When you apply it across a wide output of media, however, it does paint a certain picture. And it does say something interesting when you start using it just to see how things are going regarding gender and biases in stories.

I personally find it interesting and sometimes I apply it to my own work, even though i don’t think it’s the best questions to ask yourself if you want to make your female characters not suck. (Questions that involve 3 dimensionality and the use or subversion of cliched character tropes would be better) but i still do it sometimes anyway. Why not?

I almost always fail the Bechdel Test or at least questionably skirt by, don’t get me wrong. I believe i fail more for technical reasons then for actual outright gender bias. But you see, the thought process of questioning and answering this very dilemma is for me the point. It’s a good exercise, it keeps me thinking and i hope helps my storytelling and characters to become better.

Let’s look at The Steampunk Opera:

1. Are there two women: Yes! Okay, i pass the first one.

With names? Oh…. well, i’m going to guess Narrator is… not a name? She’s a… is she even a normal flesh and blood human? Isn’t she more immortal? What if i say she’s Fate telling one of her tales? But if she’s not… a normal flesh and blood human is she technically a woman? Oh shoot, hang on. Do i fail this? Really?!? She should always be played by a woman. Does that count? Why? Why must she be female? Because…. she… the Narrator is female. She IS. She has more wisdom than anyone else in the bloody story, that’s got to count. She’s not a weak role. She…. when we say “woman” how technical are we being? Normal life span? Backstory? Oh crap she doesn’t have a backstory. Oh bloody hell. Okay, so… is this a pass or a fail?

2. Do they talk to each other? Yes! They do! All right, passing the second one…

For more than a minute? Hmmm…. about a minute? Maybe… little more? Am i saying that in 90 minutes the two female characters talk to each other for maybe a minute? Yeah… yes, i… well…. okay, actually, when we say talk to “each other” how…. how specific is that? Like… only one ever does the talking. And…. uh…. the other never…. actually…. hears her.

Oh, this is not going so well.

If we’re going to say that interaction entails both parties communicating to each other in a back and forth exchange than i’m going to have to say … this doesn’t actually occur. I could point out that the 2 male characters don’t talk to each for over a minute, and when the one addresses the other he’s actually addressing a puppet and the dude singing the puppet is in a totally different part of the stage when he’s even onstage at all… but this is not about men vs women. If we’re answering without regard to male characters and how they stack up on comparison (they’d fail the same test for their gender!) than this second question doesn’t really go well.

3. Do they talk about something other then a male? Yes! I think i score solidly on this one. (of course you fail the Test if you answer No to any of these, but this is an exercise so let’s just keep going). The Narrator definitely talks to Annabelle about a male but to Priscilla… it’s kind of deep. There’s a male in there, yes, but she’s offering more philosophical advice.  For a few lines of lyrics. 2 lines actually. “Circles never stop themselves” and “Sometimes when you lose you win”, where…. you know…. she ends up implying suicide is not always a bad option. Not a great win i grant you.

So we see, The Steampunk Opera fails spectacularly.

If we look at Fairy Tales Of The Lost and Wandering we see an album with a lot of female characters. 4 out of 8 of the songs/stories have female protagonists and a 5th has a transgender who is female as of the time of the song, so i don’t know how you want to rate that. (If you want my opinion: i don’t care. If you change your name to Sally and tell me your name is Sally, you’re Sally to me and if someone wants to argue about whether your real name is Sally since it’s technically not,  they can go ahead but i have more interesting discussions to attend.)

Okay, you’d hope i do better on this album but it fails across the board since in most of the songs, the female character is also the ONLY character, or only one of any worth. So we can skip the whole song and dance.

But look, clearly the Bechdel Test isn’t set up to measure an album of short story songs. We could continue…

(Cthulhu:The Funksical? Fail. The two female characters don’t interact and one is a god of nameless horror. who’s femininity could be construed as pretty damn sexist. Cthulhu 1. is moping over a broken heart 2. sees her old flame (another god of nameless horror), tries to talk to him and when he calls her a bitch, flips out utterly and kills him then goes away to mope again. In all seriousness this one fails for real. it IS actually kind of sexist regarding Cthulhu. She is the most powerful character technically  but that’s on a level of violence capacity which does not help my case. The actual human girl character is the only character in the story who’s NOT an utter putz however, and is kind of cool, so at least there’s that. And Yog Sothoth is one douche of a male god of nameless horror, but let’s not go on too long.)

I don’t think the Bechdel Test is the best measure to measure whether my own work is sexist, but i don’t think it measures how many other works are flat out sexist either. It’s more of a cultural marker. You look at a range of storytelling media and it does tell you something very real.

If it’s any consolation, The Dieselpunk Opera will pass the test (you wouldn’t tell from the 1st Act but the other two deal with women characters) however this is not because i thought “Oh shit, i gotta pass the Bechdel Test one of these days.”

I think as an artist applying stuff like the Bechdel Test is a good exercise and brings up worthy thought processes. As mentioned earlier what you ACTUALLY need to be worried about is whether your characters are 3 dimensional. Whether they’re a cliche and if so are you using it out of laziness or to subvert it. Is the character who she is in relation to the men in the story or is she fully flushed out on her own? Is your “strong” woman character strong because she does everything a male does super well, (like the current trope of a female being violent and stoic and aggressive with no fallacies and is just in fact a male action hero with a vagina), OR is she strong because we watch her struggle admirably with adversity, fallacies and all? How high is her sexuality in comparison with her other traits?

Personally, i just want great characters that will move my audience and whose stories will captivate them. To do this and continually be better at it i must always question what i create, am creating and have created. I find things like the Bechdel Test to be a help to me, and not only question it periodically in my own work, but also as i examine other works and try to find things i like, don’t like, respect, don’t respect, and why. There are plenty of other tests i’m sure you can use for all sorts of different subjects depending on what is actually important to you. This is an important issue to me so i enjoy some late night contemplation over it.


Posted by on December 11, 2012 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “The Bechdel Test And My Work

  1. Freaky Folk Tales

    December 11, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    I wonder how sweeping in terms of genre this test can be applied? It’s made me think:;most of my stories are dominated by the failings and fallibilities of males …something I may need to address!

  2. paulms

    December 11, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    I don’t know, if you’re a guy and you write stories abut guys or if you’re a woman and you write stories about women, i can understand that. Just as if you think there need to be more stories out there that contain more elements you think are lacking, go and write them. For me, i’m more concerned that since i do write stories that contain women characters and will continue to do so, i need to be always considering how i’m doing with them, just as i consider every other aspect of my work, to make sure i’m not sucking or at the very least improving.


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