The value of the Bechdel Test

I’ve been here before. Reading a book, epic fantasy, relatively new, not bad, but I’ve got a growing feeling that something’s missing. Something like . . . half the world.

Where are the women?

Two hundred pages into the book, and there’s been three named female characters. One is evil. The second existed only for a brief scene, for the purpose of highlighting how attractive the third one is. And other than the three of them, it’s just been nameless, faceless, voiceless females occasionally flashing through in the background. Very occasionally. The furniture plays a bigger role.

Some of you may have heard of the Bechdel Test (or Bechdel-Wallace Test, or Bechdel Rule). I don’t use it as a guideline for what movies to go see (the original formulation of the rule), but I think the three components of the test have very specific value when it comes to thinking about the presence of women in a story. The test goes like this: does the story have

1) at least two female characters, who
2) have a conversation with each other,
3) about something other than a man?

Each component carries an important point, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about them. What do you gain by passing each stage of the test?

Let’s start with #1. Does your story pass? Congratulations! You have more than one female character in your story. Getting one seems to be easy; most books I read/movies or TV I watch have that, even up at the level of Major Character. But it’s like there’s a checkbox in the author’s head: put women in the story. And once there’s a woman, that box gets checked, and never revisited. Mission accomplished. Because one’s all you need, right?

Before anybody starts to complain about the notion of quotas, let me say: not every story needs to have a 50/50 balance. A lot depends on what kind of story it is, taking place in what kind of society. On the other hand, who’s in control of what kind of story it is, and what kind of society? The author. If a secondary-world fantasy falls out in such a way that women are irrelevant to the story, that’s because the author chose — consciously or unconsciously — to make it so.

Even if the story’s set in the real world, you aren’t off the hook. If you’re writing about a premodern army, sure, you could have that one cross-dressing girl — but that’s pushing it, and having two would be over the top. Am I advocating for shoehorning them in anyway? Not at all. I’m advocating for taking a look around and realizing you have more options. Contrary to popular depiction, armies consist of more than just their soldiers. Your premodern army will have cooks and laundresses and camp followers (aka prostitutes, for those unfamiliar with the euphemism). The officers may have their wives along. The army will probably not be occupying an uninhabited wasteland, so there are villages, and the villages probably have women in them. You don’t have to bend reality to make this happen; you just have to acknowledge reality, and probably make your story richer in the process.

Onward to #2: the two female characters (or two of the more-than-two, ideally) need to have a conversation with each other. The value here is that it means both of the characters are important enough to do more than just interact with the male protagonist. (It should go without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — that a two-line exchange of small talk doesn’t really cut it. Though I suppose it’s better than nothing.)

Again, circumstances may limit this. If you have multiple points of view, and one of them’s female, it’s easy to pass this stage with flying colors. If you’ve got only the one viewpoint, though, and it’s your male hero, then you don’t necessarily want him sitting around listening to other characters talk to each other, without taking part himself. But a good group conversation scene is one in which the participants interact with each other; if everybody’s only talking to the hero, the whole thing falls flat anyway. You want a web, not a pinwheel. The trick — and it shouldn’t be a hard trick — is to make your multiple women important enough to the story that they aren’t kept in separate narrative compartments, only occasionally visited by the hero.

Which brings us to #3: do the women talk about something other than a man? Here we finally get to something more like a subtle point. It isn’t that women should never talk about men; it’s that they should have other things they talk about too. (Remember, women are people.) Too many female characters in this kind of story are defined by their relationships to men: they’re some guy’s love interest or wife or sister or daughter or mother or enemy. They have no real existence beyond that relationship, and therefore nothing else to talk about.

This is called bad characterization. Have you ever read a book with a female protagonist, where her love interest is treated like a satellite orbiting her star? Pretty pathetic, isn’t it? It stays pathetic when the genders swap. The women should contribute something other than T&A (or motherly love, or whatever) to the story. Then they’ll have something to talk about.

Passing all three stages of the Bechdel Test, of course, is no guarantee that you’re in the green. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time clears these hurdles with miles to spare, but his characterization of women still gets up my nose. That’s all upper-level coursework, though, while this is Female Characters 101. What depresses me is how many authors still fail it.

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  1. 1. Rachel Heston Davis

    Being an avid reader of young adult fantasy, I haven’t considered this issue much. Female exclusion seems to be less of a problem in the YA fantasy genre, since that genre is dominated by female readers. (The books are also dominated by female protagonists, it seems).

    Alison Croggon’s Pellinor series in particular really impresses me with how it handles female characters (I haven’t gotten far into the series yet, though). The main protagonist is female, often develops complex relationships with the women she meets on her journey, and romance is mostly left in the background, at least in the first couple books.

    Rachel Heston Davis
    Up and Writing

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    Oooh, this is good. I’m guilty of the above. In my first book I wrote one, single, solitary female voice and I half-wonder if I did that to give my protagonist a point of focus and/or to dispell any homosexual context/themes. I would excuse my writing as a first-effort, a 2nd person-limited perspective, etc… but I love strong, counter-sterotypical women so I know better than this.

    As I toil away on my second endeavor, I’m trying several new things. I have a two-character perspective. Additionally, I have multiple, female voices. I thank you for introducing me to thd Bechdel Test. I see this applied to a draft somewhere in my immediate future.

  3. 3. Liane Merciel

    I know you’re too professional and polite to identify it, but maaaan, I am really wondering what book that is right now. ;)

    I’d like to think that this, along with so many other bugaboos of SF/F, is well behind us. I know that is not true. I know it isn’t even close to true. But still, the Bechdel Test is _so basic_ I have a hard time wrapping my head around anything that fails it and isn’t at least 20 years old.

  4. 4. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Merciel, in some regards, I think this (2D female characters) is behind most SF/F writing. It just peeps around the edges at you.

    In KS Robinson’s Mars trilogy, he has multiple and multi-facited women who do more than stand around talking about how-gosh-darn great the manly, male, hero is. But KSR’s solitary Asian female perpetuates the very stereotypes he identifies at her introduction.

    I find no distinct African or African-American voices, female or otherwise in his work. And his solitary Muslim/Arab/catchall female serves only to reinforce his pronounced, negative views of the Islamic faith.

    Oh, I hope you will please excuse my narcisism but if you’re asking ‘which book’ in reference to my previous comment; I’m not published yet. In fact I recognized how much would need to be changed (Bechdel not withstanding) to submit for publication and I’m not grown enough yet. So I peck away on a second story I’m not as ‘married-to,’ to begin my rejection-slip collection.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Rachel — it isn’t a problem in adult urban fantasy, either, or a lot of other types. But epic fantasy’s cast of thousands still seems to be deeply skewed in way too many cases. (And I *definitely* see this problem in movies still: you’ve got your token woman, and your token black, and maybe one other token to round the set out . . . .)

    Elias — well, tongue only semi-in-cheek, having lots of guys and not a lot of women is one way to set your work up for people to write slashy fanfiction of it, and that’s one way to build a fanbase. :-) On a more serious note, I’m glad this has helped you with your own work.

    Liane — Partly I didn’t identify it because I didn’t want this to devolve into an argument about that specific book. On the other hand, it’s possible someone could correctly guess it based on the clues. :-) There are plenty of other Big Fat Fantasies that fall equally short in slightly different ways, too.

  6. 6. Brian Dolton

    Ah, the Bechdel test. I’m very chary about it for short stories, which have a much narrower focus (I predominantly write female protagonists but the small cast of characters in most shorts often precludes point 2, and sometimes even point 1), but for novels there would have to be a very good reason for not meeting all three requirements.

    Having said that – if you are writing in first person with a mle narrator, getting just a “two-female”conversation is going to be tricky (unless eavesdropping is occurring).

    But going through all of my part-written novels (that’s more than 30… best not to think about it), I’m pretty sure that every single one passes the Bechdel test, and most do so before the first couple of chapters are through.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Brian — yes, short stories are going to be a different beast. It’s entirely possible to have a short story in which there aren’t two *characters*, much less two of the same gender. I might get annoyed if I notice a particular author only ever writes about men across a large body of short fiction, but it isn’t the same as a brick of a book that behaves the same.

    I personally don’t need it to be a *just* two-female conversation, though. (As I said above, that’s hard to arrange with a male pov, whether it’s first or third person.) A three-person conversation in which all three people interact with each other is fine by me. I just want the women in the story to acknowledge each other’s existence.

  8. 8. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Brennan, thanks for the words of encouragement. Another concern to me is the fear of taking liberties. I worry for becoming oinky-oinky in writing women; even now as I juggle six distinctive characters.

    I don’t want my female antagonist to simply be the EVIL woman. Nor do I want my character’s sisters (his humanising and grounding influences) to become simply cheerleaders.

    One of my workshop partners once chastised another member for not giving a character a name. The other person replied that the character wasn’t a main character. My workshop partner replied, ‘The Character doesn’t know they’re not a main character.’

    As simple as I’m sure that must sound to a pro such as yourself, I thought it was profound. I try to always keep that quote in mind, especially as I write outside of my gender/ethno-group/experience.

  9. 9. S. Megan Payne

    It’s funny, because in writing at least, I have the opposite problem, making sure I have enough guys! I have them, don’t get me wrong, and they’re not always love interests, and I CAN write them and well. The problem is that almost 70% of my main characters (even with a large cast) tend to want to be female. It’s an uphill battle for me because I do it unconsciously. And it’s funny that you picked today to mention it, because today I’m working on a new novel idea and weeding out the overwhelmingly female population before starting.

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    Was it William Carlos Williams who said ‘If horses had gods, they would look like horses?”

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Elias — the post I linked above may be of some use to you. Others’ opinions may vary, but for my own part, so long as the writer approaches his female characters as people instead of as strange alien emissaries from the planet Woman, I’ll generally read any flaws as flaws of characterization, rather than flaws of *female* characterization. If that distinction makes sense.

    Megan — Heh. Purely by an accident of worldbuilding, I did exactly that in my first two novels. Named male characters are by far a minority in the doppelganger series. By the time I noticed that, it was far to late to change . . . but you make an excellent point, which is that *you do it unconsciously*. All writers, myself included, need to figure out what our default settings are, and then teach ourselves not to, well, default to them all the time.

  12. 12. Blake Stacey

    That sentiment goes back to Xenophanes:

    Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
    And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods
    Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
    Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.

  13. 13. Kate Elliott

    Great minds: Ken Scholes and I are over at Babel Clash this week, and we’re doing a three part post on the lack of female characters in epic fantasy.

    This is a great post because you go out of your way to explain why there are other options for what characters can bee doing besides swinging a sword.

  14. 14. Kate Elliott

    btw, I also mention the Bechdel Test (although not until part 3).

  15. 15. Blake Stacey

    That detour through the pre-Socratic philosophers aside, I just wanted to say, nice post! This bit in particular got me thinking:

    Too many female characters in this kind of story are defined by their relationships to men: they’re some guy’s love interest or wife or sister or daughter or mother or enemy. They have no real existence beyond that relationship, and therefore nothing else to talk about.

    I once introduced a female character into a science-fiction novel knowing only that she was an old flame of another female character. Now that I think about it, that’s one, admittedly cheap way to check the last item in the Bechdel test, but it’s still a rotten way to build a three-dimensional individual! My editor friend pointed this out to me, for which I am grateful. Whether I have the writing skills to fix that kind of problem is, of course, up for debate, but at least I can see it.

  16. 16. Marie Brennan

    Kate — hey, good timing! I look forward to seeing the rest of that post.

    There really are *so many things* you can do with characters, and it’s a poorer story that doesn’t bother to consider them. Dorothy Dunnett’s my favorite example for this: the women in the Lymond Chronicles may be a teensy bit anachronistic for the sixteenth century, but she makes them a vital part of the story, not by taking them out of their realistic context, but by showing how that realistic context *mattered*. Running a household doesn’t mean you’re irrelevant to the world.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    Blake — I think a lot of characters start out that way. You only know the one thing about them to begin with (usually their reason for coming into contact with the plot). And for some characters, that’s all it will ever be; not everybody in a book can be a Special Snowflake with fully explored backstory, or the book will never end. The important ones shouldn’t stop there, though, and if all the characters of one type (like women) are shallowly characterized, *then* you have a problem.

  18. 18. Linds

    I have a question; is that test valid in a short story? Taking into consideration the fact that short stories have fewer characters than novels can afford to. My novels (*thinks for a sec to make sure*) pass easily, but my short stories, some only have two characters.

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    Linds — remember, this isn’t Holy Writ. It’s a tool that should be used only so far as it’s useful. It could have some validity in the case of a short story if it makes the author think about the gender balance of the narrative, but it isn’t some litmus test that *every* story needs to pass, however short. Not even every novel has to pass it: the problem is in the pattern, rather than the individual case. Epic fantasy often fails at female characters. If that weren’t the case, the book I’m reading right now wouldn’t annoy me so much.

  20. 20. Adam Heine

    “Named male characters are by far a minority in the doppelganger series.”

    To be fair, Marie, the doppelganger series was primarily about a society of witches, female :-)

    I like this post and the Bechdel test. Thankfully, all 3 of my manuscripts pass it, but one just barely. I think, though, that my problem is not one of subconsciously stereotyping, but a fear of failure — a fear of writing women wrong.

    Your last post on the subject was encouraging for me, and now I’m working on a manuscript where the two most important characters are female. So that fear of mine is about to be shattered to pieces.

    And if I’m really lucky, the manuscript will be worth reading too ;-)

  21. 21. Marie Brennan

    Adam — yes, but that’s one of the points I made in my original post. I chose to set up the society of witches such that they were all women. I didn’t think about it consciously at the time, nor did I realize the consequences for my narrative until it was too late for me to change (or rather, late enough that changing would have been a vast amount of work I didn’t feel like doing), but I’m still responsible for that choice. Ditto the male epic fantasy author who writes a story where men are the only ones who matter. That’s his choice, and he can be judged for it, just as I can be judged for mine.

  22. 22. Farah

    Good post, but strictly speaking camp follower was *not* a euphemism for prostitute. Yes, there were prostitutes, but Wellington noted that most of the women who followed the lines were married to soldiers. He gives one aneccdote of a woman widowed in the morning battle, and remarried in the evening. Women mattered to men, and when women were in short supply there was a lot of pressure to provide respectability. As the nineteenth century went on however, the army gained control over men’s ability to marry (requiring permission etc). That’s when you start to get prostitution, and frequently, you find that it causes an expansion of the number of prostitutes in any where the army is camped–which is one reason why you didn’t want an army in your town. Modern barracks towns continue to have this problem.

  23. 23. Marie Brennan

    Farah — ah, I see. That would be one of those details that lodged in my brain at a young age and hadn’t been edited since. I’m not remotely surprised that there’s an inverse relationship between wives and prostitutes, though!

  24. 24. Kate Elliott

    Farah, that’s a really crucial point, that “Women mattered to men.”

    Also re: the reasons for the rise in prostitution. I mean, the huge sex industry in SE Asia was in large part, I believe, expanded and driven by the wars there. Soldiers were flown out for “r&r” in Pattaya or whatever. In fact, that is still going on with the US military.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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