12 September 2012

Feeling Testy

Like most male authors who profess to have a clue about feminism, I sometimes fret about unconscious gender bias in my work. There's no real way to tell whether your work is accidentally sexist: I try my hardest to avoid many of the well-known pitfalls, from the trivial (like making characters male -- or indeed heterosexual, white etc -- by default) to the absolutely appalling (like the casual use of rape as a plot point), but heaven only knows how many solecisms I'm committing unwittingly.

One test which is often applied to texts (usually films) is the Bechdel Test, first posited by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 and taken up by feminist commentators since. The Bechdel Test proposes that, as a kind of minimum threshold of gender awareness:
  1. A film should have two women in it.
  2. They should talk to each other.
  3. The conversation should be about something other than a man.
As I say (and leaving aside the tricky issue of how the character in the comic knows in detail what conversations a film might include before she goes to see it), this test was designed for films, and it's not infallible even there. Some films have settings which would realistically exclude women; some have no dialogue; some are entirely about penguins.  None of these approaches are inherently anti-feminist. However, astonishing numbers of works fail the Bechdel Test without any such excuse.

It's instructive, though not entirely equivalent, to apply the test to literary works to see whether its criteria are being met, and if not, whether this is for a good reason or a useless one.

What follows is a Bechdel-Test tour of my published work. If whiny post-feminist man-angst annoys you, you're probably better off going and watching Steel Magnolias or Fight Club, depending on preference.

My entries in The Book of the War (2002): A tricky one to start off with, as The Book as a whole has virtually no dialogue, and my segments certainly don't. One can assume that Amanda Legend Lefcourt and Dauphine Malatesta had conversations together, but they were presumably at least partly about Lord Foaming Sky, whom Malatesta assassinated. I think we have to discount this one as inconclusive. 0/0.

'Scapegoat' (2003): The entire story is two blokes talking. At the end, one of them uses a woman for transitory sexual relief. A pretty ignominious failure at the second hurdle. 0/1.

Of the City of the Saved... (2004): Several examples, thankfully (although it should be pointed out that there's a heck of a lot more scope for a variety of scenes in an average-length novel than in an average-length movie). A little under half the significant characters are of the female persuasion (not all the remainder are male). Laura Tobin and Mesh Cos, Mesh and Kyme Janute (twice), Tobin and Compassion III and Tobin and Civitata, all talk of things other than the late Ved Mostyn. Admittedly three of those characters were originally the same woman, while Janute is accidentally rather than essentially female, having like all the Manfolk been born male. Still, it would be hard to argue that this doesn't pass. 1/2.

'Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants' (2004): There's only one woman in the story. This is mostly because the majority of the characters are either Jason Kane or a clone of him, but still. However I justify it, this one's a fail. 1/3.

Peculiar Lives (2005): This is also a bit difficult, as: a) the narrator's a man and we see most of what happens through his eyes; b) it's a deliberate pastiche of a particular type of inter-War SF, where articulate women weren't thick on the ground. Even so, I think it scrapes through: Emily and Freija have an exchange in Erik's hearing about Emily's past (or lack of one). You could discount it on the technicality that Freija's too young to be considered a woman, but I'm sure that's not what the original rule had in mind. 2/4.

'Minions of the Moon' (2005): Iris Wildthyme attempts to seduce Harry Peerless, who is in fact Olivia Somerset in drag. A cunningly disguised pass. 3/5.

'The Long Midwinter' (2005): A bit of a mess generally, this story has the Doctor and two obscure companions I didn't care about (one male, one female) visiting the posthuman inhabitants of a brown dwarf world. The locals have a sensible male-female mix, but we mostly see them interacting individually with the visitors, and there are no conversations between women. Fails the test, clearly. 3/6.

'The Ruins of Time' (2006): This time the TARDIS's complement includes the Doctor's granddaughter Susan and her redoubtable history teacher Barbara -- as well as Barbara's companion Ian and the Doctor himself -- but the pair of them don't actually have a conversation together. Nor do they talk to any other women, because every other character in the story's a hermaphrodite. Another fail (unless, of course, you count the hermaphrodites as both men and women). 3/7.

Five vignettes and a co-written story in Collected Works (2006): Individually some of these fail the Bechdel Test, but individually the vignettes are so short it hardly seems fair to apply a diversity standard to them.  Taken en masse (and ignoring the fact that the members of the Quire are technically part of the same metahuman individual whose gender is indeterminate), we see Bev Tarrant talking to Dorso about the Quire's position on the Braxiatel Collection, Bernice talking to Dorso about parenting styles, and Dorso talking to Incunabula (like Freija a girl rather than a woman, although in her case this is less certain) about complete nonsense. The co-written story, 'Future Relations', has a couple of conversations between Bernice and Verso, but they're all about Verso's boyfriend Parasiel. Nonetheless, an overall pass. 4/8.

Nursery Politics (2007): Bernice and Ithva the Draconian ambassador's wife (and imperial spy) have a lengthy conversation ranging through politics, literature, parenting and military history. Bernice also speaks at length to a character named Victoria, but 'she' turns out to be a neuter shapeshifting sponge with a fragmented polysexual personality. Pass. 5/9.

Predating the Predators (2008): Most of the main characters are women this time -- two of the three narrators and the primary villain -- although most of the supporting cast (an alien mad scientist aside) are male.  As the climax approaches there are several conferences and confrontations involving Imogen, Bernice, Elanore and Leustassavil, though none of these happen without men present. Still, for the test as phrased, it's a pass. 6/10.

'Battleship Anathema' (2009): No, this one's hopeless. Again it's a pastiche, but of something whose own gender balance isn't actually too bad. The longest scenes are Iris's conversations with Admiral Rex Halidom and Archdeacon Barnaby: there's no good reason for them to be male except that I wanted to write in the voices of Edward James Olmos and Dean Stockwell. There are female characters other than Iris, but very little's made of them. Big fail here. 6/11.

'A Hundred Words from a Civil War' (2011): In a drabble, every word counts, and a conversation between two people of the same gender can waste valuable words identifying them with more than a 'he' and 'she'. There are a number of contextless conversations where we don't know the gender of the speakers, but we can hardly count those. A scene between a female Pope and a vampire queen fails because they're discussing assassinating the (male) Mayor. Nonetheless, there's one scene which qualifies -- the trench-warfare segment in which Capt 'Spiky' Sperrin and Lt 'Fanny' Featherstone discuss the imminent zeppelin-zombie attack. This is mildly embarrassing, as I only changed the soldiers' sexes at the last minute. Still, another pass. 7/12.

Framing sequences for Tales of the City (2012): 'Akroates' is a meditative piece, with almost no action or dialogue. 'Apocalypse Day' brings together the characters (three female, four male, plus one husband) from the other stories in the book, but then splits them up so none of the women are talking to any of the others. I really have no idea why I did that, unless it's the convenience of the aforementioned 'he said' / 'she said' shortcut. A fail, and it really didn't need to be. 7/13.
Additionally, I'm sorry to say my Burning with Optimism's Flames story fails (due to being mostly about Roman Catholic priests in the past and present, although Imogen from Predating the Predators reappears), as does my recently completed novel (being largely about the patriarchal power structures of traditional stories). So even that feeble score's going to take a sharp downturn imminently.

Part of what this highlights is that the Bechdel Test, being designed for contemporary film, isn't actually very good at the less conservative end of science fiction. Futuristic material may have less excuse for marginalising women (hence Alien being the example given in that original strip), but SF can do things with gender that are an awful lot more radical than simply attempting parity between the sexes. Between them, my stories feature a busload of hermaphrodites, neuter individuals both organic and machine, naturally sex-changing characters, composite individuals, occasional mentions of trisexual species and a transvestite.

(This may sound like a parochial objection, but... well, mainstream fiction can also do transvestites.The Bechdel Test assumes rigid gender identities, such that characters can be unambiguously classed as "men" or "women", and that can be an issue in non-SF too. If two post-op male-to-female transsexuals discuss a pre-op friend, does that pass the Bechdel? If two Roman matrons discuss a eunuch slave, does that fail?)

This does make it particularly frustrating that 'The Ruins of Time' fails, because the hermaphrodite milieu is striving quite strenuously to question our (and cause the 1960s human characters to question their) accepted constructions of gender.

Mostly, though, I have to admit that my stories don't have that kind of mitigating factor. Which suggests that I really need to think harder about this kind of thing.


  1. With Ruins of Time and Tales of the City - do they pass a male version of the Bechdel Test? It's sometimes a useful question to ask to see if, in a story like that, you are privileging the male character over the women or if it is just in the nature of the story that everyone is talking to hermaphrodites or mixed groups.

  2. Good question. I think Ian and the Doctor do have a brief expository conversation in "The Ruins of Time", in fact. And "Apocalypse Day" has two all-male conversations -- between Inigo, Moody and Akroates, and between Akroates and "Richard Mann". So, hmm.

  3. Interesting I think I need to attempt the same test on mine.

    Simon BJ

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


(Please sign comments -- it helps keep track of things. Offensive comments may occasionally be deleted, and spam definitely will be.)