Women in Fiction Need More Than The Bechdel Test

Most are familiar with the Bechdel Test, named after Alison Bechdel. A work “passes” the test if it features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than men. Works of fiction that pass the Bechdel test are often lauded for doing just that.  It’s fairly simple and straightforward.

But is the Bechdel Test enough to talk about bigger issues of representation of female characters in a work of fiction? Maybe not.

One of the biggest YA novels this year earned a wealth of much-deserved praise in many of the “best of” round-ups throughout the book world. While the book itself is indeed creative and risky, with loads of appeal to a wide-range of readers — it’s a title I talked up here, too, for just those things — it’s not without a hugely problematic element that has been little-discussed: its portrayal of female characters is abysmal.

In many ways, this isn’t entirely surprising. The main character is a self-focused jerk; he’d call himself as much. But even beyond the facts as presented and discovered about the main character, there are huge red flags for the cast of women in this novel. The adult females are drug-addled and mentally unhinged, completely unhappy and not bothering to do anything about it because…well, why bother? The main female character, while approached with more sympathy, ultimate becomes a vessel for the main character’s sexual and reproductive needs. Her story starts and ends entirely with the main character’s desires in the world as it is and the world as it later becomes. None of the females in this story move beyond these very static, very cardboard, very problematic depictions.

The professional reviews, as well as reader reviews, have, for the most part, seemingly overlooked these issues. For what the book’s goals are and what it offers readers, it’s awesome. But it’s likely those great elements are what make it easy to overlook the not-so-great parts of the book.

Because the Bechdel Test is limiting — it isn’t concerned about character arc but simply the presence of two females talking with one another about something that isn’t men — it’s hard to figure out where to start talking about the bigger issues of representation and depiction of female characters. One solution may be the Mako Mori test. The Mako Mori test, borne from discussion of female characters in Pacific Rim, takes the Bechdel Test to another level; a work passes the Mako Mori test if it has at least one female character who has her own arc that is not about supporting the man’s story.

The Mako Mori test is also limiting and asks a lot of the narrative, but it’s a solid place to start when thinking about whether a book is failing its female characters. Not every book will have a female who has an entire arc for herself, but every book featuring a female character can be rendered in such a way where she isn’t simply there supporting the male’s story.

This isn’t about taking away stories written by, featuring, or geared toward male readers. Those matter.

It’s not about insisting that all female characters be front and center in every story. That’s not only unrealistic, but it’s boring.

It’s instead about reading and thinking about books with a sharper eye.

If much of how we learn to interact with the world comes through what we’re reading — as readers, we’re keen on the impact books have on us — then we should be looking critically at how all characters are portrayed on the page. We can too easily dismiss a problematic character being depicted that way because she or he is being seen through the eyes of a character who himself may be a problem. But if over the course of a story nothing changes or there’s a pattern in how characters of a gender or class or race are described and fitting into a singular, prescriptive narrative, then it’s time to step back and reassess giving it a pass.

It’s okay to enjoy problematic books. It’s okay to commend problematic books for what they achieve in their artistry. But it’s not okay to give them passes or to overlook their weaknesses, especially if they’re being heralded as being the best of the best. We need better language and tools to do this, and slowly, but surely, the more we look at it and talk about it, the better our ways of dissecting the problems emerge.

This is why we don’t stop talking about gender. This is why we don’t stop talking about diversity. This is why these conversations are vital, flourishing, and unapologetic.

Get comfortable with getting uncomfortable and let’s keep talking.

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