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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BECHDEL STRONG

"The truth about women is that you can do anything to them except bore them."

Any time you bring up film, TV, or writing, chances are someone will bring up the Bechdel Test.  Recently a chain of theaters in Sweden announced that they will be showing Bechdel Test ratings next to the show times and other information on films they show.
Created by a comic artist named Allison Bechdel, the test alleges to show how independent, complex, and strong a female character in fiction is.  The test is this; does your work of fiction:
a) have two named female characters
who b) talk to one another
about c) something other than a man.
That's it.  The intent of this test is to draw attention to works that have women only as props to talk about men or be victims (or scenery).  Too often, particularly in movies, women are there as objects for the man to chase, save, or be enhanced by rather than fully fleshed out individuals in their own right.  Often, romances end up being about the relationship to such an extent that the women are concerned about nothing else. 
So as far as it goes, the test addresses a valid concern.  Its no secret that good, interesting, deep parts for women are hard to come by in Hollywood.  There's a reason some directors can get the hottest, best women to work for them; they provide good roles in their films that are well directed. 
So the Bechdel Test is an attempt to bring attention to these weak roles, promote feminist ideals in film, and get better, more female-centric movies.  The problem is, the Test doesn't tell you much about how interesting, "strong" or independent the woman is in movies.  At the Telegraph, Robbie Collin writes:
A moment’s reflection reveals that all kinds of popular movies fail – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter were three examples highlighted by the artistic director of one of the cinemas involved – and lo, we discover that mainstream Western cinema is an undulating snake-pit of sexism.

It’s all very simple – too simple, in fact, and on closer inspection, the Bechdel test turns out to be not only next-to-useless, but also damaging to the way we think about film.
...
Two women are walking past a cinema, and one of them says that she refuses to watch any film that doesn’t satisfy the three conditions detailed above. “Pretty strict, but a good idea,” replies her friend. “No kidding,” says the first. “Last movie I was able to see was Alien…the two women in it talk to each other about the monster.”
In fact, Sunny Bunch at the Free Beacon recently poked fun at the test by pointing out that it makes films such as Showgirls, Kick Ass 2, and Requiem for a Dream into feminist triumphs.  Other movies such as The Hottie and the Nottie, Bride Wars, and Bratz: The Movie all pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors.  Meanwhile, Gravity, which is all about a woman surviving inconceivable disaster through her ingenuity and training doesn't.
Bechdel-approved feminist triumph
In other words, the effort to highlight the quality of female roles and generate interest in more independent, "strong" female roles in fiction and cinema fails by its own rules.  The Bechdel Test is too simplistic and ultimately meaningless to be any help at all.
There is a whole online industry of feminist grievance.  No matter what topic you search for or examine, there is at least one person complaining that there aren't enough women in it, or the women in it aren't treated right, or that the women in it are held back by men and so on.
Even female-dominated fields have loads of internet pieces about how there needs to be more women in the industry (such as literary agents, book editing and publishing).  Of the last ten big names in book sales, women have dominated the scene.  There are still the established major male names, but female authors are hot now and selling faster and bigger numbers in recent years than men.
Yet its not hard to find articles about how sexist and male-dominated book sales are because guys like Steven King are out there selling so many books, the phallocrats.
And among this theme online is a growing concern in fiction about the "strong woman."  The concern of many is that women in books are too often there as props or victims instead of being strong, interesting and independent.  I've seen a good half dozen articles in the last few months alone expressing the concern that there aren't enough "strong women" in fantasy fiction.
They want women who kick as much ass as the men, who are as smart, independent, tough, and capable as the men.  They want women who are at least as good as the men in the story, preferably better.
Now, of all the different literary genres out there, sci fi and fantasy tends to have the most interesting and strong female characters, so the concern is a bit misplaced.  And in any case, a "strong" woman can be strong without fitting a feminist ideal or duplicating the men in the work.
Women are often strong in ways that are different than men.  Granted there is a lot of crossover - courage, honor, loyalty, virtue, etc.  But what makes a man a strong man is distinct from, if not separate from,  what makes a woman strong.  That's why I use the "scare quotes" around the word strong above so often: because the definition is often questionable.
Further, a dependent woman can make for a good role, well written, and fascinating to watch.  Just as a dependent man can, depending on the story.  A fully fleshed out, interesting character need not be strong or independent.  Grima Wormtongue is a memorable, well-written, and interesting character in The Lord of the Rings.  He's a sleazy little whispering scumbag, but interesting.  He's weak in every way that counts and reprehensible, but he's memorable and well-written.
Let me fill out that ballot for you
If the only woman in your book is a Wormtongue, she's still a great character, even though she's anything but "strong" as most people would define the term.  And ultimately, what we should want and expect from fiction in any format is good writing with interesting, well-crafted characters whatever they may be.  Male, female, neuter, robot, whatever you're writing about write them well and you have done your job.
This need for female characters to fit a certain feminist (and lesbian)-approved checklist of characteristics is actually destructive to creativity and writing.  I've read several articles recently bemoaning how minor so many female characters are in fiction and cinema.  Guess what: not every character has to be strong, interesting, and fully fleshed out.  All works of fiction will have characters of varying significance and importance.  Some are just the guy at the magazine stand your detective bums a light off of.  Some are the mastermind behind the entire plot.  Demanding every (female) character be deeply significant and important is ridiculous and destructive to writing.
That would mean the entire world would be populated with insignificant background characters all of whom would have to be male and the only women are the main characters.  Guess what the complaint would be then?
A good writer doesn't need this kind of junk.  They know that if the characters are written well, developed, and interesting, they've done their job, even if it doesn't fit someone's identity group checklist.

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