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More on female characters in fiction

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A couple of weeks ago, I read a particularly long run of submissions with particularly unfortunate anti-woman aspects. All sorts of unpleasant things were done and said to the female characters. It upset me quite a bit; I wrote a longish rant about it, but never quite got that into postable shape. (Partly because I realized that I was lumping too many different things together under the "anti-woman" label. But still, I sure am sick of stories about nice men who kill their wives, and stories about nice men who are forced against their will to rape women, and so on.)

Anyway, it occurred to me that we could save ourselves and the authors some time by having content-related checkboxes as part of the submission form.

We would, of course, never actually do this. But I got a certain amount of grim satisfaction from writing up this example, so I figured I'd post it here for humor value. (Wrote this a couple weeks ago, kept waffling about when/whether to post it.)

I mean, y'know, it's funny as long as I don't think too hard about it. If I do, then the idea that such a form could be useful, even as a joke, makes me kinda sad and disappointed and angry.

Here's the example question:


Does your story contain only one prominent female character? If so, please check the reasons that you included that character and made her female:

So she can be raped.

So she can be killed.

To give the male protagonist someone to protect.

To give the male protagonist someone to avenge.

To give the male protagonist someone to come back to at the end.

To give the male protagonist someone to be comforted by.

To give the male protagonist someone to complain to about how hard his life is, and then have sex with.

Other.

If you checked "Other," then please continue with your submission. If you checked any of the other boxes, then please go submit your story somewhere else, 'cause we don't want it.

Alternatively, if you checked boxes besides "Other" but you feel that you must submit your story to us, then go read Karen Healey's excellent suggestions on How to Write an Original Female Lead Character (among other good sources of such ideas), and then rewrite your story before submitting it to us.


(Healey was writing about comics in particular, but most of what she wrote applies equally well to other media.)

12 Comments

Amen!!!

I've been keeping track this year of how many books I've read that pass the Bechdel test (since you brought it up a while ago). It's amazing how many are written from a male viewpoint, limited omniscience, so they automatically fail since two women are never alone in the story. As I was drifting off to sleep the other night, I had the funny thought that my life passes the Bechdel test... ;)


Damn. Mine fails.

Thanks,
-V.


LOL! Really, in the back of my head I wish this list came on the cover of some books, comics and animé I read and watch, with the appropriate checkboxes ticked or unmarked.


I think we should create a Beschel test plus so that male POV third limited novels can pass it: if there are more than two female characters and they have a life that doesn't only involve men and clothes and it's apparent even when for obvious technical reasons we don't see it onstage, then the novel passes the test.

One way to do this would be to have the people onstage refer to things (not men or clothes) they do offstage when the MC isn't around to witness.


It's the tale of a woman waiting for her husband to return home from a quest, and how she fares with a house to keep, children to raise, and household pests (some of whom can teleport) to control. What then?


Mythusmage: I'm confused. Are you saying that with such a story, you would check one of the boxes other than "Other"? Which one?

She may be waiting for her husband to return home, but that doesn't mean that the entire reason that she's in the story and female is to give the male protagonist someone to return home to. For examples from mainstream media, see Bruckheimer movies like The Rock, Con Air, and Armageddon. Note that in those movies, the protagonists are male; the lone woman appears for a couple of minutes at the beginning so that the audience will see that one of the men has someone waiting at home for his return.

That's very very different from a story in which there's a female protagonist who's waiting at home for someone to return to her.


"Waiting for her husband to come home" -

Penelope's story, both in The Odyssey and in novelizations of her tale.

Judith Merrill's "That Only a Mother" - though this is really about a women in denial that her child has a major birth defect comparable to the thalidomide mess.)

Queen's song "In the Year of 39", though it's impossible to tell which spouse it is that spent a year in space and returned to find 100 years passed on Earth. [Note: this song makes sense iff you read it as a duet between the stay-at-home partner and the spacegoing partner] And I got the sense that the man was the one left behind. But still.

Other tragedies of relativity along the same lines.

[This comment was edited later by Jed, at commenter's request, to add the following clarification from the commenter:]

These were examples of stories where the woman was waiting for her husband to come home and where this was as important as, say, the husband's story whereever he was - but where it was decidedly NOT a "poor little wifey, that's all she can think about." But rather, where the focus is on her and what she's doing with the circumstances she's got.


Just noticed I never replied to some of the earlier comments in this thread -- thanks for all the comments!

Just one thought for now, re what Anonymous wrote: Good idea. I think it's really easy to get caught up in technicalities of trying to determine whether a given work matches the exact phrasing of some "rule" or "test" or "law," or an item on my checklist, when really the main point here is that female characters in fiction should be as rich and complex and interesting and three-dimensional as the male characters.

The specific details are worth considering and discussing. But the key point is to not give short shrift to your female characters. (That's generic "your," not referring to Anonymous in particular.)

Do your male characters have professions other than being male? Then give professions to your female characters. Do your male characters have interests other than wanting to be pursued romantically? Then give interests to your female characters. Do your male characters have reasons to be in the story other than acting as a generic prop to provide motivations for the protagonist? Then give such reasons to your female characters. And so on and so on.

Another way to put it: do you want readers to care about your male characters? Then you should also try to make readers care about your female characters.

(Yes, yes, there are genres and contexts in which the male characters aren't very 3D either. If you're really sure that your male characters are just as cardboard and un-person-like as your female characters, and if you really intend that, I'm not gonna argue with you, and this comment is not addressed to you. But if you want any of your characters to have some semblance of feeling to the reader like real people, then you should be sure that you do that with the female characters as well as the male ones.)


uh. anonymous, jed, i feel certain that as men and with what little societal power and privilege that gives you, you can come up with your own test, rather than trying to co-opt the bechdel test just because it doesn't cover all the situations involving men that you'd like it to.

i have had a very bad plumbing day, which means that i am failing all of my "phrase for politeness" rolls. fyi.


Hi, Betsy -- I'm sorry that what I wrote came across that way. From my point of view, I don't feel like we're coopting Bechdel's test; to me, it feels like we're exploring variations and alternatives that support what I see as the same underlying goal as Bechdel's test.

It sounds to me like you're hearing me and Anonymous as saying something like "We should rewrite the Bechdel test to give a free pass to some works that would otherwise fail it, so that we can be comfortable with more works that focus on men." Is that an accurate paraphrase of what you're seeing?

If so, I don't feel like that's what we're saying, or at least it's not what I intended to say. On the contrary: my intent was to say that regardless of whether a given work passes the exact parameters of the Bechdel test as stated, I want the female characters to be well-rounded and interesting. (And in my reading of what Anonymous wrote, they were saying, essentially, "We should encourage writers to write well-rounded and interesting female characters even in works narrated by men." I may be misinterpreting, but that's how I read it.)

Here's some background that may not have been clear to anyone not in my head: The reason I'm interested in talking about things that might not meet the strict Bechdel definition that is that most of the times I've seen the Bechdel test come up online, a bunch of people have tried to pick the details apart. They get into arguments about what works do and don't pass, often with an unstated subtext suggesting that works that fail the test are being labeled as inherently bad. I obviously can't speak for what Bechdel (or Liz Wallace, the originator of the test) might think, but to me, a strict literal pass/fail grade on the Bechdel test isn't as important or interesting as what I see as the general idea behind the test: that female characters should have more to their lives than just focusing on men.

Here's an example: There's a great play called Talking With.... It consists of a set of dramatic monologues for women. All of the characters in the play are women, and most of the monologues are compelling, interesting, smart, funny, etc. But only one woman appears on the stage at a time, so it fails the strict Bechdel test.

So if a writer comes to me and says "I want to write a story with an all-female cast and no mention of men at all, but it fails the strict literal Bechdel test for technical reasons. Should I bother writing it?" then I'll tell them yes, absolutely, go for it. I'd be far more interested in a story like that than in a story that has a perfunctory scene where two otherwise unmentioned women walk into a room, say "I like makeup, and by the way, math is hard," and leave again, just to fulfill the strict parameters of the test.

Does that make sense? Am I missing your point? If so, can you elaborate a little on what you mean by "co-opt[ing] the bechdel test"?

(On a side note, btw, I don't know whether Anonymous is male or female.)

[Note: I edited this comment a bit to clean up the phrasing a couple of hours after posting it.]


Three addenda:

First, by a strict literal reading of the Bechdel test, it applies only to movies. So we're already extending it to apply to things like written fiction and television, and part of that extending involves deciding how to apply it to those other media.

Second, the Bechdel test as written is ambiguous, in that it doesn't say whether it's okay for there to be a man present when the women talk to each other. This has been one source of a fair bit of confusion and much disagreement over how to apply the test. I think both readings are interesting and useful. If I'm understanding what Anonymous wrote, it falls mostly within a strict literal interpretation of the "okay for there to be a man present" reading.

Finally, I meant to add that I do of course find value in the strict literal Bechdel test; I don't at all mean to denigrate it. I think there are a bunch of interesting ways of looking at how character gender is involved in fiction (in any medium), and I think the original test is a very useful tool in that toolbox. I just don't want people to get so caught up in strict literalism that they miss the big picture. (Something that I am all too often inclined to do myself in all sorts of contexts.)


Thanks for a post that really spells out the trouble with many female characters. It's 4:16 am and I'm starting work on characters for my next screenplay. I needed some direction on this point and I found it here.


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