tacityhydra just mentioned the Mo Movie Measure in passing; I was going to post this comment in response to that thread, but some poking around online brought up all sorts of other stuff that I wanted to point to, so I decided to post an entry here and not hijack that other thread.
For those unfamiliar with it, The Rule (a.k.a. the Bechdel test or (misnamed) the Mo Movie Measure) is a useful paradigm for thinking about movies (or other fiction):
Does the work (1) contain two or more women, who (2) talk with each other, (3) about something other than a man?
It's amazing how few movies pass this test. It was originally proposed as a test for whether to see a given movie, but even for those of us willing to watch movies that don't pass the test, it's a useful way to think about whether women are important in a given work, and about whether they're being treated as real people.
I was thinking about this test the other day while reading bits of a fantasy novel that features several strong female characters. There were three women talking with each other, and I suspect (though I may be wrong) that at least two of them are going to end up being lovers. And it occurred to me that I'd kinda like to extend the test (as I gather some other people have done), 'cause it seems like fairly often when I encounter two women in a movie or book talking about something other than men, they're lesbians (or bi) and talking about women in a romantic, sexual, and/or relationship context.
Which, sure, is still a big step up from the astonishing number of works that fail the original test. At least the women are being taken seriously as characters, and I'm always happy to see more dykes in fiction. But if you're writing a couple of female characters who talk with each other about their romantic relationship with each other, consider having them also talk about something else too.
Anyway, my quick web search for what to call the Bechdel test brought up a bunch of interesting pages. For example, Homo Academicus writes about how few Pixar movies pass the test. And Karen Ellis's webcomic/diary Planet Karen has an entertaining strip metacommenting on the test.
And then something or other led me to Thene over at Aaru Tuesday talking about the Frank Miller test:
It will test how much male sci-fi writers are obsessed with whores; if the proportion of female sex workers to neutrally presented female people in [a given] story is above 1:1, [the author] fails.
Her followup with China Mieville is also interesting, even though I haven't read the book in question; good discussion of how this stuff does and doesn't change when you look at it through different filters (like a socialist filter instead of a feminist one).
I found this paragraph from that followup page especially interesting:
I pointed out how invisible sex work is to women; how my young brother is far more exposed to the sex industry than I am, how very few women will encounter stripping and hooking (and those who do will mostly be those whose partners are consumers of such), while the industry is marketed at most men and part of the culture of many. [...] He told me that that was a pretty recent thing--that 15 years ago it was a far more obscure part of male life than it is now. (That is the kind of information that women do not have access to, see?) [...]
(Side note: One reason I found that interesting is that I had just been thinking that it would probably never occur to me to feature sex workers (of any gender) in most of my stories; I was initially going to say this was because they're so far outside of my daily experience, but on further thought, there are plenty of professions that I don't encounter often but that I might casually include in fiction. I think there may be some class stuff going on there; I think people who are writing about certain socioeconomic classes may be more likely to make female characters prostitutes than people writing about other classes, and I think I don't tend to include enough working-class characters in my stories. But I'll have to think about this more.)
Johnny Pez discusses Isaac Asimov's female characters in the Frank Miller test context. That's only a jumping-off point, though, 'cause of course Asimov didn't have any female sex worker characters; for his first decade or so, as Pez notes, he barely had any female characters at all.
Off in a different direction, Karen Healey writes about Frank Miller's All Star Batman And Robin, the Boy Wonder, specifically Miller's portrayal of Vicki Vale.
And finally, a really cool list (also by Karen Healey) of some good ways to write an original female lead character. That discussion is focused on comics, and some of it is specific to the ways women are handled in comics, but a fair bit of it applies just as well to other media.
I especially like her discussion of item #5 on that list, "Was she/is she going to be raped?" We at Strange Horizons have been seeing too many stories in which, as far as we can tell, the only reason for one of the characters to be female is so that she can be raped. Her whole reason for existence revolves around being raped. It's unpleasant and upsetting, and I wish writers would stop doing it.
(I've been meaning to write about that for a while, so now that I've mentioned it I should also mention a possibly related phenomenon: in various contexts, including but not limited to fiction, I've been seeing the word "rape" used casually and metaphorically more and more often lately. I find that pretty distressing too. Yet another discussion thread that I just happened across pointed out that there are plenty of other words we use casually all the time that have similarly violent and unpleasant connotations if you stop and think about them, but somehow I find it really offputting to see the word "rape" used that way.)
That's kind of a downer note to end on, so I'll add that I've really liked pretty much all of Karen Healey's Girls Read Comics columns that I've read: smart, insightful, feminist, and thoroughly grounded in extensive knowledge of and appreciation for comics. Good stuff.