Recently, I read a post by a certain cantankerous conservative writer who had discovered the Bechdel test for the first time. I don't know if he genuinely misunderstood the purpose of the Bechdel test or was just drumming up outrage, but his basic reaction was what you'd expect: "The SJWs want to stop you from reading Melville and Shakespeare because they don't pass a feminist purity test!"

Yes, that's ridiculous. We know that isn't what the Bechdel test is about. The trouble is that sometimes, it's hard to grok what the Bechdel test is about, at least in a way that makes it useful for writers. As others have pointed out, the test is more useful to analyze patterns of female presence in media than to assess whether a specific piece is feminist or sexist (this essay does a nice job of laying out that argument). This is handy for critics, but as writers, we are trying to figure out whether specific works are feminist or sexist--specifically our own. As someone who's actively trying to build more diversity into her work, I can understand why even well-meaning male writers sometimes scratch their heads over whether it's OK for their works to fail the Bechdel test, since Gravity and Saving Private Ryan do it and are fine (yes, some people complain about Saving Private Ryan, but they're trolls). While 90% of Bechdel fails are straight-up lazy (why was the galaxy far, far away swimming in testosterone until this past December, and why do Skyler and Marie have so little to talk about other than their husbands?), some are fine or even downright necessary. Which ones?

For my money, acceptable Bechdel fails fall into two major categories:

  • False negatives--works that technically fail the Bechdel test, but whose awesome female characters have very, very good reasons for not talking to each other (or whose single awesome female character has a good reason for not talking to other women). Gravity is probably the most frequently cited example here, but my personal favorite is "The Yellow Wallpaper." When an influential feminist work is a Bechdel fail, you know that it was never meant as a one-size-fits-all litmus test. 
  •  Stories that are male-dominated by necessity. Saving Private Ryan is a good example here; it would be pretty darn hard to sneak women into a movie about a platoon of men in World War II. 

I'm going to talk about false negatives in a later post because I love that kind of hair-splitting insanity, but that's more of an intellectual game than a useful discussion. Here, I'm interested in talking about male-dominated stories. I can think of four kinds of male-dominated stories that make for perfectly acceptable Bechdel fails. One of them--stories in which masculinity and/or the marginalization of women are major themes--has so many caveats that it's going to be the subject of Part Two. I'm detailing the other three below. Each one has circumstances in which it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the failure, and each also connects directly to a similar but more woman-focused story that we don't see enough.

Adaptations. If you're riffing on source material that doesn't prominently feature women, your adaptation might not, either. A short story riffing on Hamlet from Claudius' point of view is probably going to treat Gertrude and Ophelia as separately as the actual play does.

But . . . the more you depart from the source material, the less justifiable this becomes. A straightforward riff on Hamlet is one thing; Hamlet IIIIIIIIN SPAAAAAAAACE! is another. If you're dramatically changing the setting, plot, or theme of the work you're adapting, you can probably stand to gender-flip a few characters. The same is true of adding subplots. 1 and 2 Samuel don't pass the Bechdel Test, but both Kings and Of Kings and Prophets do because the writers added subplots for the women as well as the men. If the work has both male and female characters and you're only interested in fleshing out the men, ask yourself why.

My wish list . . . Really, the "but" paragraph covers this one. I'd love to see more adaptations of the classics that engage the women, particularly if it's an adaptation written by someone who actually has a decent grasp of both the source material and the way women talk to each other. It  would also be terrific to see more interesting gender flips. If no one ever gender-flipped characters in adaptations, we wouldn't have Kara Thrace. I don't want to live in  that world.

Stories with setting limitations. I mentioned Saving Private Ryan above. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is another good example. Sometimes your story is set in a time and place that only features men.

But . . . this only goes as far as the historical accuracy of your story. A realistic story about a group of World War II soldiers trying to find another and bring him home? That's a completely justifiable Bechdel fail. A story where the soldiers are fighting clockwork Nazis? Less so. When the only historical fact you're setting  in stone is the  race and gender of the people who are likely to be involved, you're on shaky ground. 

My wish list . . . The obvious answer here is more stories about women's equivalents to these male settings (wouldn't it be great to have an Orange is the New Black set in a women's prison for every Shawshank Redemption set in a men's prison?). What I'd love even more, though, would be more stories about what the women were doing while the men were off at war during these historical periods. Why have we not had a series about the women getting their Rosie the Riveter on during World War II? Why is it that I can't think of a single movie about what the women were doing during World War II except A League of Their Own? For that matter, what about all the women during the Middle Ages who had to handle their households during the Crusades? The idea of a woman as the head of the home had real teeth eight hundred years ago.

Stories with a small cast or narrow character focus. Short stories are a good example here. If you're writing a very short story about two brothers, you might not have any other characters at all. Similarly, some novellas, TV episodes, or short movies barely have a single conversation that doesn't involve the protagonist; if the protagonist is a man, it's going to be a Bechdel fail.

But . . . if there are only a few characters, can any of them be women? There are some ways that the relationship between brothers is different from the relationship between sisters or a brother and sister. If your story focuses heavily on those things, it's going to be about brothers and fail the Bechdel test, and that's OK. If it doesn't, consider gender-flipping a brother.

My wish list . . .  Again, this is pretty well covered under "but." It would be terrific if the default for small-focus stories wasn't "a couple of men" or "a few men and maybe one woman." The Shining is one of my favorite books, and it certainly has a small cast, but there's no reason Dick Hallorann couldn't have been a woman. There's not a specific reason for him to be a woman, but then, there's not a specific reason for him to be a man, either, so why not gender-flip him? When in doubt, why default to men? 

And that's what the Bechdel test is all about, Charlie Brown.


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