Me, Having Opinions!

. . . and werewolves! If only.

I’ve been thinking, again, about women in fiction. Probably most or all of you are familiar with the Bechdel Test, but if you’re not, it’s a test for movies that can also be applied to books. To pass the Bechdel Test, a work must:

  1. include at least two female characters (sometimes taken to mean “with names/lines” – generally does not count “that maid in the background of the shot”)
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than a man.

The last bit is especially interesting to me because a story can fail it for at least two distinct reasons:

  1. The female characters are interested only in their relationships to men, what men think, what men think of them, etc.
  2. The only characters in the story doing something worth talking about are male ones.

(Me + HTML lists 4eva!)

So they can fail differently based in part on whether the female characters’ sole topic of conversation is men as a group or specific male characters. (I say “in part” because they can be talking about a specific male character and still fail the first way if all they have to say is, “Do you think he liiikes meee?”)

I’m thinking about this partly because I’m amazed at how many stories don’t pass, or barely pass, the first part of the Bechdel Test. They’ll have a male protagonist who has a female love interest, maybe a mom, and possibly either a sister or a female friend. I’m going to use movies to demonstrate this, mostly because it’s so easy to look at the ratios of women and men via the IMDB lists of top-billing actors. (I’m also going to use the term “gender” to mean a character’s sex. Just so you know.) For some reason, the two movies that immediately pop into my mind are Sherlock Holmes and Kung Foo Panda.

I liked both of these, but okay, the top billing actors of Sherlock Holmes are three women and twelve men. Of the women, two are love interests and one is the housekeeper. Yes, I realize that Irene Adler is cool and capable – though not too capable to be rescued multiple times by Holmes and outwitted by him in the end, of course! – but she still basically fills the role of romantic interest. I don’t think any two of these women even appear in the same scene, let alone speak to each other. I know this is a period piece, kiiinda, but come on.

The ratio of Kung Fu Panda is two women to thirteen men. Yeah. And this one doesn’t have the excuse of being any kind of period piece, because it establishes that its setting is one in which female characters can become kung fu masters without anyone batting an eye. Of course, the master of the kung fu masters is male. As is the old mentor. And the villain. And the hero. Naturally.

The interesting thing about this latter movie is that – with no romance or gender-related elements in the movie – you could say that the sexes of the characters doesn’t matter. Or shouldn’t matter, anyway. I’d agree. But when eighty-seven percent of the characters are one gender, that story hasn’t been written as if gender didn’t matter. You think the writer was flipping a coin for the characters’ genders? I somehow doubt it.

Well, gawsh, there must be movies that skew more toward women in casting. Let’s try looking up, oh, Pride and Prejudice, BBC version.

Twenty-four women, seventeen men. (That’s still just top billing. It’s a longer list.)

Hunh. Well, women in the majority, but nothing like eighty-seven percent. Um . . . Charlie’s Angels?

Four women, eleven men.

I should note, in case anyone wonders, that I have not been picking and choosing movies based on what fits my argument here. These are all of the movies I checked on.

I think a lot of this has less to do with explicit, active sexism (“a woman can’t be a credible villain!”) than to do with mental defaults. I read somewhere the excellent point that, in our culture, a smiley face – two dots and a curve, like 🙂 – is assumed to be male unless you put eyelashes on it. Similarly, I think when someone says, “the protagonist” or “the villain,” a lot of people assume they’re hearing about a male character.

A bit of this probably has to do with male writers, and is simply a result of projecting. A few months ago, my mom was reading aloud from a newspaper article about a murder in the area, while I and a male friend listened. When she finished, she glanced over it and remarked that the article had never given the victim’s gender, saying only, “a student.” My friend and I realized at the same time that, while I’d assumed a female victim, he’d assumed a male one.

On the other hand, someone could really stand to check this stuff. I feel like books and movies focused largely on female characters tend to still contain a lot of male ones. How many can you think of that would fail a male version of the Bechdel Test?

*Tries to remember the Pride and Prejudice guys talking about things other than women*

Okay, maybe one. But not a lot. And outside of romance plots, hardly any, whereas tons of genres tend toward skewing in the opposite direction.

This occurred to me in part because I’ve been making a conscious effort to have balance in my current novel. (Which, as I haven’t mentioned it yet, is tentatively titled Looking Like Lani.) With every character whose gender isn’t important to the plot, I ask myself, “What if this character were female?” The result is a lot more female characters than many of my stories have. It’s far from devoid of male characters – indeed, I suspect it has a more realistic sex ratio than a lot of fantasy stories do, at least within the realms of their named/speaking characters – but it’s an interesting thing to consider because I realize that, to some extent, I was defaulting to male.

Period-esque fantasy can do this to you. Whether it’s, “who’s driving the carriage?” or, “who’s ruling the country?” we’re swamped with examples, historical and fictional, in which the answer is, “a man.” Indeed, I think that it can be easier to catch yourself doing this with the highest positions, and some fantasies throw in a queen by way of addressing this. These authors probably go to bed feeling very feminist, never mind that the entire female population of their fantasy world seems to be Her Majesty, the hero’s romantic interest, and a few tavern wenches. The hero and his friends, the mayor of town, the innkeeper, the folks in the stables and herding the sheep and serving in the army and strumming the lyre and casting the spells and, of course, being in charge of things at every level below Her Majesty – that’s often a big boys’ club.

(Lots of positions still available for women in the fields of: being the hero’s romantic interest, healing, having babies, wenching at taverns, being kidnapped, being rescued, and dying. The ideal applicant will have skills in several of these areas.)

Hopefully I don’t sound too bitter about this, because I don’t really feel that way. On an individual level, I feel like this is easy to fix once you’re aware of it, and I’m enjoying working on it in my current novel.

2 thoughts on “Me, Having Opinions!

  • I think affirmative action gender casting in non-historical novels is really important. It always makes the story richer and more interesting. And if you’re writing about a world where female roles are limited by the culture, you still always have to be able to answer the question, “What are the women up to?” They’re half the population and unless your story is very limited in scope, their experiences should matter and have an impact.

    This is one of the many reasons Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is such a freaking awesome novel – Clarke wrote Regency-era characters in a nineteenth-century voice, but she didn’t blindly follow nineteenth-century conventions when choosing her main characters – so we get married women (no husband-hunting for them), servants, and members of the underclass.

    Too many writers decide they’re writing a medieval epic, so their main characters must be warriors (one of whom is allowed to be female), or that they’re writing an adventure story, so their main characters must be an assistant pig-keeper and his merry band of followers (one of whom is allowed to be female). I’m sure many good authors are breaking out of this pattern, but it really still is the default.

    • Yeah. Honestly, I think this makes for an exciting new frontier in gender casting in this sort of novel. Including women significantly in your fantasy, besides being interesting (and easy if you just remember to think about it), puts you on the cutting edge!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *