Would My Books Pass the Bechdel Test?

I discovered recently that it doesn’t matter what the content of a musical is, I fucking can’t stand musicals. Alison Bechdel’s comic Fun Home has been turned into a Broadway musical. It’s a big deal not least of which because it’s the first time Broadway has ever had a lesbian lead. That’s sad when you think about it, pitifully sad. 

Fun_Home_musical_original_Playbill_cover,_October

Point is, listening to snippets of the songs on NPR I wanted to shoot myself in the head. I can’t stand singing. Recently, my wife received Into The Woods from Netflix. Watching that was just painful. It reminded me how wretched the Sweeney Todd film was. 

If you like musicals, then great. I don’t care. I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch them or enjoy them. I’m saying I’ve discovered that it’s not the content or the actors or directors that I have a problem with, but rather I genuinely hate the genre.

But it got me thinking about Bechdel. I really enjoy her work and I’m glad to see her work getting the recognition it deserves. I love that her Bechdel Test has become so prominent in the film, television, comic, gaming, and literary worlds. And it made me wonder how my own novels would stack up. Am I writing an inclusive fantasy story or simply throwing more male hetero-cis shit into the world? I can’t change others but I can control what I do, so I had to ask, Would my books pass the Bechdel test?

Disclaimer: Now, if you’re a troll or a gamer-gater or a sad puppy or some other kind of fuckwit (libertarian or faux libertarian or MRA) looking just to gripe, grumble, or pick a fight, then don’t read this post. Just fucking ignore it. Move on with your day. I’m not interested in your thoughts or feelings and you’re not interested in mine, so let’s just go our separate ways. Nobody is making anybody read anything they don’t want to.

So glad you’re not a fuckwit! Or, if you ignored my disclaimer, you are so then fuck off.

To the topic at hand. So I’ve written two fantasy novels (Adversaries Together and Winterfinding) as part of an ongoing series. These are self-published so they don’t have nearly the reach or import of ‘real’ novels. But it’s something I do now, my microscopic contribution. I want to know how both my novels fair measured by the Bechdel Test.

The rules of the Bechdel Test are simple: 

  1. It has to have at least two women in it
  2. Women talk to each other
  3. Women talk to each other about something besides a man

It has given rise to series of other litmus tests. There’s the Russo Test:

  1. Story contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender
  2. The character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity
  3. The character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect

A direct response to the Bechdel Test is the Mako Mori Test

  1. At least one female character
  2. Who gets her own narrative arc
  3. That is not about supporting a man’s story

It has also inspired variation that look to incorporate people of color. There’s Deggans’ Rule for television–at least two non-white characters in the main cast and they are in a show that’s not about race–and Alaya Dawn Johnson‘s altered Bechdel Test for POC (people of color):

  1. It was two POC in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a white person

Another variation stipulates at least one named character of color, whose primary trait is not their race, and who does something important besides help a white person.

So it would seem that we should merge all of these into a single gender/POC test. Why not?

  1. There is at least two women 
  2. Women talk to each other
  3. Women talk to each other about something besides a man 
  4. At least one of the women has her own narrative arc 
  5. That narrative is not about supporting a man’s story 
  6. There is at least one character identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT)
  7. The character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity 
  8. There are at least two people of color 
  9. The POC talk to each other 
  10. The POC talk to each other about something other than race 
  11. Of the woman, POC, and LGBT characters, at least one of each must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect

It seems to me that this makes for a better matrix than the others used in isolation. I would also assert that the last point is the most important and that perhaps the criteria should be weighted in some way.

Point of this rubric isn’t to create division or discount work. My point is to create a criteria to strive to fulfill in the hopes of crafting a more fully inclusive work. Making something that simply checks all the boxes will probably be shitty and doing so would be counterproductive. The point is to craft a story that connects with as many readers as possible at a fundamental level of recognition.

So my now revised question, how would my two novels fair when judged by this criteria?

Adversaries Together has seven main characters: Avery Roth, Kira Ambrose, Goshen Staad, Declan Rainway, Fery Landis, Wynne Landis, and Jena Char. That’s four men and three women. Winterfinding features the same characters and adds some new important though minor characters. Are there at least two women? Answer: Yes. On to the second criteria. (+,+)

Do the women talk to each other? Yes. In Adversaries Together, when Kira is turned over to the leaders of Rikonen by the her kidnappers, she is taken in by Wynne and Fery (father and daughter). Kira and Fery have their first conversation midway through the novel. Fery is trying to comfort Kira and the two exchange information about their traumatic past. In the first part of their conversation they talk about what Fery’s father Wynne has discovered. In the next scene, Fery is training Kira in ‘ribbon dancing,’ a mixture of rhythmic gymnastics and marital arts. In Winterfinding, Jena Char is the main focus. She has conversations with Jej, a barmaid, and Moria, the owner of an inn. Also, Fery and Kira have a brief exchange. (+,+)

Do the women talk to each other about something other than a man? Well, yes and no. I’ve mentioned that Fery and Kira’s first conversation involves discussing what Wynne knows. The conversation isn’t only that but it takes up a good part. When the women are training, they aren’t talking about men at all. Towards the end of the novel, Fery and Kira are again in conversation with just each other at the Cruor (a fortress built into a hillside). Kira has discovered a large map room and shows Fery. They open their conversation by joking about how bad a cook Wynne is, then discuss the map room, and finally have their time together cut short by Roth yelling for them. In all fairness, I think I only satisfy the third point by half. The conversation that Fery and Kira have in Winterfinding is half about Declan and Goshen. But Jena and Jej don’t talk about men and the exchange between Jena, Moria, and Jej is focused on who has the the rights to the inn. (-,+)

Does at least one of the women have their own narrative arc? I’m confident in saying ‘yes’ to this. Of the several plotlines in the story, perhaps the main one is Kira finding out who tried to kill her and why. This carries through both books. Although Kira kind of floats along letting the others guide her, I feel I make it point to have Kira be ‘the decider’ of what option is going to be taken. For a good portion of the novel, Kira is a kind of damsel that Roth is trying to save. However, when he does reach her he discovers she’s safe and doesn’t need saving. What she wants is help reuniting with Goshen and discovering why she was attacked and kidnapped. Winterfinding is dominated by the character Jena Char as she tries to set up a legacy for the child Colm. So that book can safely say ‘yes’ as well. (+,+)

Things get a bit weaker as we bleed into the next question, is that narrative not about supporting a man’s story? I don’t think Kira’s is a supporting story. However, in both Adversaries Together and Winterfinding, I think Fery and Jena’s are. Fery in this first book has a shallow arc. She exists to be a friend to Kira and alongside her father is looking to end the siege of their city of Rikonen. So, I can’t say that Fery definitely has her own narrative arc yet. Jena is a different situation.

In Adversaries Together, her arc is to get Goshen to the Cruor in one piece but also to reunite with Roth. In Winterfinding, we follow Jena as she fights to cover the tracks of the group, find out new information, and provide a legacy for the boy Colm that Roth as de facto adopted. Because Jena’s motivation isn’t solely for a man but for the whole of the group, I’m going to say that book two is half. (+,+)

Is there at least one character identifiably LGBT in Adversaries Together? No. I’ve tried to write sex out of my story because I have no interest in romance or in sexposition. I wanted to show how friendships form between same sex individuals and opposite sex individuals. Regardless of my intent, there are no clearly non-hetero characters. I would argue that the only clearly hetero character is Asa Salda, an abusive pirate. So then the next question, is the character not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity?, is moot. Is there one in Winterfinding? Sort of. The side character Jej obviously has a crush on Jena so this introduces a light lesbianism. What is Jena’s orientation? Well, I feel that’s ambiguous at best. Also, as Declan and Goshen, Fery and Kira, and Fery and Declan get closer, I feel there may develop some kind of polyamory. But I can’t confidently say ‘yes’ to the question at hand. (-,-)

Now we move into the racial aspects of the story. Are there at least two people of color in Adversaries Together and Winterfinding? Yes. My fantasy world is inhabited by several different human species and each of these species has the same racial diversity that regular homo sapiens have. Roth is athingani (a Neanderthal-Homo Sapien inspired hybrid) while the rest of the seven are sovi (very much like typical humans).

But is Roth a ‘white’ athingani or a ‘poc’ athingani? I imagine him as looking Persian. I imagine Fery and Wynne to look Greek/Turkish. I imagine Kira, Goshen, Declan, and Jena to be white. The most obvious person of color in Adversaries Together is Adamix. He belongs to a third human species, austri, that are predominately brown-skinned with wiry blond hair. However, at the end of the novel I introduce characters from the far southern city of Lappala. These characters belong to a fourth human species. One, Umma, is brown skinned woman and another Amar-Sin is North African/Arabian looking man. Umma becomes an important character in Winterfinding alongside Rava Din, who is very dark skinned. (+,+)

Do the POC talk to each other? Yes. The entire epilogue of Adversaries Together is a conversation between Umma and Amar-Sin. But well before that, Adamix and Roth talk to each other. In Winterfinding, Umma and Rava talk to each other (both ensi and black) and Roth and Colm (both athingani) talk to each other. Do the POC talk to each other about something other than race? Neither conversation does. (+,+)

Finally, we’ve come to the last and most important question: Of the woman, POC, and LGBT characters, is at least one of each tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect? Because I don’t have an obvious LGBT character, I have to answer this in the negative.

However, without Kira there is no story and without Roth or Jena the story changes drastically. The women of this story are prime movers. If we grant Roth as a POC, then he can’t be removed from the story and have the story stand. Also, removing Umma and Rava from Winterfinding would dissolve a lot of tension and the biggest surprise of the novel. (-,-)

Let’s add up and see what we get. Do my novels pass the basic Bechdel Test? I think so.

Winterfinding_Cover_for_Kindle

What about my combined rubric? Adversaries Together scored 6 out of 11, and Winterfinding scored 7 out of 11. If I wanted to fudge the numbers, then I would award myself half points and but that would really only bump the scores up by a point or point and a half. This isn’t a good enough score.

Featured Image -- 1137

Even though I have strong and significant woman characters, I need to have them talking and reacting to something other than the men around them. What my story really lacks a proper LGBT presence. But as I continue to write that could certainly change. I imagine my Ascendant Realms series to cover at least five more books. 

I must do better.

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One thought on “Would My Books Pass the Bechdel Test?

  1. Pingback: The World As We Know It: The Women of Syr Nebra | Misanthropester

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