A few notes on women in fiction

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.

10 Responses to “A few notes on women in fiction”

  1. silk_noir

    Great post, Jed. I’ll be going through all of these in the next few days.

    BTW, have you seen the review over at Powell’s Books of Mansfield’s Manliness? (I found it via linkage at the Ambling Along the Aqueduct blog.) I wish I’d seen that on then 31st; then I could’ve suggested a panel on Masculinity. http://www.powells.com/review/2006_06_22.html

  2. Joanne Merriam

    Thanks for this. I had heard of the Bechdel test before (although I didn’t know the name of it) but the rest of this is new to me. I’m reading through the links with great interest.

    The rape-as-metaphor thing is something I’ve noticed as well, and I wish people would stop doing it, not because I think rape should never be used as a metaphor, but because it often seems to be used in a way that hugely minimizes the seriousness of rape (“Exxon raped the environment” is acceptable to me, but “man, this burger cost $3? I was totally raped by McDonald’s!” is not).

  3. Jed

    silk: That’s a great review! (Of what sounds like a terrible book.) Thanks for pointing to it! …WisCon has had a couple of panels on various aspects of masculinity in the past, and my impression is that some of them have not gone so well, but it’s definitely still a worthy topic.

    (Side note: Following all those links last night gave me a neat sense that there’s this whole world of feminist blogging going on, outside of but occasionally intersecting my usual circles (where there’s also plenty of feminist blogging). A bunch of interesting and well-written discussions happening out there.)

    Joanne: Yes, good point about rape metaphors. I should have put more emphasis on the word “casual”; it is indeed primarily the casualness (by which I meant unseriousness, the kind of thing you’re describing) that bugs me, not the metaphoricalism per se. Metaphoricalesquosity. Whatever.

    Interestingly, I don’t usually have nearly as strong a reaction to casual murder metaphors–“The Sharks totally killed the Jets at basketball yesterday” kind of thing. It may mostly be a question of what I’m used to; I never saw the word “rape” being used casually while I was growing up, and in fact only started seeing it used that way in the past couple years.

    …But also, rape in our society is primarily a crime against women (except in certain contexts, like prison rape), and so it’s easy for me to see the increasingly casual metaphorical use of the term as an indication of increasing misogyny. I don’t know whether that’s a valid reading or not–I’m not sure whether misogyny in our society really is increasing noticeably overall, especially compared to how things have been in the past–but it’s certainly part of my gut reaction.

  4. jere7my

    Hmm…the Bechdel Test seems like it falls apart for works with a single POV, either first person or tight third. If it’s a male POV, the chances of him observing two women talking without himself participating seem slim, and if it’s a female POV it seems overeasy to satisfy. (Or does it also count if there’s a conversation between two women and a man?)

  5. Vardibidian

    I think it’s useful (at least to me) to distinguish between the Bechtel test as a measure of a particular film and as a measure of a genre or of our culture. Or, rather, that its use on a particular film is powerful because it recontextualizes the movie in a culture that, you know, actual interest in women, not so much. As it were. Which I think is what you are getting at, Jed.

    When applied to an individual work (particularly a novel, due to some of the stuff jere7my gets at), I find the Test useful primarily in thinking about how different the thing would be if a particular character were female rather than male (or more rarely vice versa). In that scene where the stock General and stock Senator are having their stock confrontation, but they are both women, does that make the scene better? Usually not much, but some. And I’m often reminded about an interview with (if I remember correctly) Frances McDormand, who was talking about being offered a small role in some movie or other, reading the script, and telling her agent that she didn’t think she could do much with that character, but that she would be terrific with a different character, a mechanic. Her agent said that he’d see if they would rewrite the part for a female mechanic, and she said something like I don’t want them to rewrite it, it’s already a mechanic and I’m already a female. She didn’t get the part.


  6. jaipur.livejournal.com

    Hmmm. Now I have to go look at all the books I’ve read recently and check!! The historical novel about medieval France: Check. The various women do get together and talk about something other than men. The Louis L’Amour western: No, but it was a single male POV story, so there were scenes with him and two women or more chatting/clearing snow from a stuck train/etc., but not two women talking together. Delaney’s Tales from Neveryona: Check, check, and double-check. Delaney’s Nova: More than two women in the story, but I don’t know that the women ever were in a situation alone without some of the men. My Name is Red: More than two women in the story, and they do move the action forward, but they are rarely together. So I don’t think it passes, but I may be forgetting a scene or two.

    Did you see myalexandria’s commentary on feminist fantasy stories on her LJ a few weeks ago?

  7. Jed

    J7y: Good point; that may be why I see the Bechdel test applied more to media like movies and comics, where you’re less likely to have a tight single POV. Still, as you noted, I don’t think the test requires that two women talk to each other without a man present (though probably some formulations of the test do require that), and I don’t think it’s as easy as you’re suggesting to satisfy the test with a female POV. For example, in most romantic comedies, there are two prominent female characters, the female lead and her best friend (though these days sometimes the best friend is a gay man), and they do talk with each other–but most of what they talk with each other about is men and relationships.

    Vardibidian: Yeah, I tend to think about the Bechdel test more in the context of cultural trends than wrt specific movies. I think that some of what you’re saying about the stock General and the stock Senator and such is related to something Karen Healey mentions in her discussion of writing good female characters (and plenty of others have mentioned this too, of course): often, the sole female character in a work of fiction is The Girl. All the male characters have defining characteristics other than their gender–the Jock, the General, the Genius, whatever–but the female character’s primary attribute is being female.

    Nice McDormand story–though I feel obliged to note that just changing the gender of a character, without changing anything else, can result in some cognitive dissonance (which can sometimes be a good thing), because people in our society are treated differently based on gender. Female mechanics in the real world are not unheard-of, but are unusual; I can imagine a mechanic part needing a little rewriting to work with a woman in the role. But I can also imagine a mechanic part that wouldn’t need any rewriting; not saying McDormand was wrong, just that in general it’s not quite as simple as that story makes it sound.

    Jaipur: I do think it’s interesting to look for works that pass a stronger version of the test in which women talk without any men around, but really I think it’s pretty rare (especially in Hollywood movies, which is what the test was originally about) to even pass the looser version of the test, with women talking with each other even when there is a man around.

    And there are clusters of movies that don’t even pass step 1 of the test, because they have only one female character. See my next comment for more.

  8. Jed

    An addition to the Karen Healey list of how to write good female characters:

    Don’t create female characters who exist primarily to be rewards for the male characters. (Such as the traditional damsel in distress who exists only to be given to the hero in marriage when he succeeds in his task, or who exists only to be rescued from the dragon by the hero.)

    Corollary: don’t create female characters who exist primarily to give the male characters someone to come home to at the end of their adventure. Call this the Bruckheimer test: see Crimson Tide, The Rock, Con Air, Armageddon, and probably others–though all those movies fail the Bechdel test on point 1, because they each (iIrc) have exactly one female character, who usually gets a total of no more than five minutes of screen time, split between the beginning (before her man goes on his mission) and the end (after he comes home).

  9. jere7my

    Re: romantic comedies — well, sure they talk about boys. They’re romantic comedies! The boys all talk about girls, too; they’re relationship-driven plots, so relationships drive the conversations. In gay romantic comedies, all the boys talk about boys. Not the best place to start looking for depth!

    Most non-romantic-comedy female-protagonist movies I can think of feature conversations between women that don’t have anything to do with boys; Pan’s Labyrinth and Mirrormask are the first two that come to mind. Aeon Flux, yeah. Umm…Chicago, check. Bend It Like Beckham, Memoirs of a Geisha…heck, the rule is satisfied (frequently!) by sitcoms like Friends and Coupling, which are not exactly models of progressivism.

  10. Esther Carney

    Hey there,
    I couldn’t agree more Jed. Hopefully my female lead in my Avenging Angel novel would pass the test.
    There is a sad lack of really good female heroes in literature and cinema too. To be honest I didn’t mind Buffy.
    Love esther


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