Being a Better Writer: The Bechdel Test and Real Gender Equality

Oh readers, it is so good to be back!

Seriously, in the last week, I have biked every single day, several miles at minimum. It’s been ninety degrees out most of the time, which has been absolutely glorious to feel. I have access to the internet once again, have caught up on Obi Wan Kenobi (which I’ve enjoyed, especially the most recent episode), and have been hard at work editing on Starforge.

A bit more on that last one. In this last week I’ve edited over 160,000 words worth of work. Once this pass is through, I’ll start a second, quicker pass that will tie in with a few rewrites of sections that need work, and those chapters will be put up on the Alpha 2 Master Chapter List.

In other words, expect an Alpha call for the second Alpha Read next week. That’s right. It’s here. I’ve gotten comments and e-mails from a few of you expressing how interested you are in the second Alpha Read. Well, now’s the time to sharpen your … reading glasses? Okay, that fell apart on me, but you get the idea. Prepare. Alpha 2 is about to begin, and the call will go out next week.

The aim is still to get Starforge out before Christmas. Ideally, a November release date like Colony and Jungle both had would work, but if things call for delays, well … To paraphrase Miyamoto, a delayed book is eventually a good book, but a bad book is a bad book forever.

That said, I’m still pushing hard to get it out by November. Somewhere between the Alpha 2 and the Beta 1, I also plan on cranking out the cover. I’m going to have to learn some new tricks in the software I use, but I’ve got most of it figured out. Either way, that means we’ll likely see a cover preview as early as … August? September? I’ll keep that window wide just in case.

Man, editing 500,000 word titans is a lot of work. After this it’ll be a relief to work on some shorter projects once more.

In any case, that’s the news, so with all that said, let’s get talking about this week’s topic. This is going to be a bit of a contentious one, I think, at least at first. Largely based off of the title. And I won’t pull a punch here: I’m going to be criticizing the Bechdel Test. I hope that if you’re one of those ardent defenders of the Bechdel Test, you’ll stick around and hear me out. As anyone who’s read one of my books will attest, I’m not some crazy misogynist that hates female characters. In fact, you could very easily note that my books easily pass the Bechdel Test.

But there’s a word there that’s part of the problem: Easily. This is where a lot of the criticism of the Bechdel Test comes from, and why we’re talking about it today. And my criticism and breakdown of it is not going to be, I would guess, what some of the ardent defenders of it expect.

But for all that, we’re going to need to hit the jump. So click that, and let’s get talking about the Bechdel Test.

So to start, let’s talk about what the Bechdel Test is for those in the audience that may not know. Because while it’s been around for a while, and more than one media outlet likes to drop it as a marker of “quality,” quite a few people couldn’t actually tell you what the test entails or even is, just that it’s a test of some kind that some media homes and personalities put a lot of stock in.

So what is it? Well, the Bechdel Test is a fiction test that was coined by a cartoonist named Alison Bechdel. The aim of the test was to see what kind of representation women characters were being given in fiction.

To this end, the test is quite simple. To pass, all a story needs is for two female characters to have a conversation about something other than a male character.

That’s it. That’s the whole test. There’s an extra codifier that was thought up as a bonus later as to having both female characters be named, but at the core, that’s the test. So if your work of fiction passes that bar, congratulations you’ve passed the test.

And here’s where the problems start. See, that’s a pretty straightforward test. A test of what you might ask, and well … the answer depends on who you talk to.

See, according to the test’s creator and those around her, the test is just a sort of “barometer” to examine your own work and how you’re crafting character archetypes. But to a lot of the media that brings it up, the Bechdel Test is instead a target bar for “feminism.” Which, let’s be honest, is an extremely low bar, and also one that doesn’t take into account a lot of extraneous elements.

Look, at it’s core, the Bechdel Test isn’t a bad idea. The concept behind it is sound, even when applied to more than just two female characters. In essence, it’s asking if our characters are more than just props for a convenient romantic plot tumor. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of films, books, and entertainment in other mediums that don’t pass the Bechdel Test that are treating their characters as little more than devices to move the story along, but

There are plenty of stories that also pass the Bechdel Test that are just as crappy and poorly put together, or just as guilty of treating their characters as devices. Sands, there are stories that have specific, easily erasable scenes meant solely to get the story a pass on the Bechdel Test. And their creators have pointed to them as proof that they’re “feminist.” A single scene that doesn’t really mesh with anything else of two female characters saying a single sentence to one another that doesn’t involve a male character … and then vanishing or never addressing it again.

“But look,” the creator argues. “Bechdel Test!”

Worse, plenty of good stories don’t pass the Bechdel Test because … they don’t need to. For example, suppose a story is about two astronauts trapped in a lifepod trying to survive in deep space until rescue. That story could be incredible, gripping, or even terrifying … but it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test because there are only two characters, and one of them is male. And there would be a swath of “Bechdel Defenders” who would then declare the story “sexist” because it didn’t pass the test, completely ignoring that there was no way or need for it to!

Again, it’s not that the Bechdel Test is bad. It’s not. However, there is a wide issue with people applying it in completely the wrong way, especially when they make it the whole summation of a story’s worth or value. Some even go a step further and flip how the test works. It’s not enough to have two female characters discuss something other than a male character, the story now cannot have any two female characters discuss a male character at all.

Basically, all of this boils down to taking a very simple tool, like a hammer, and then seeing everything as a nail. Even when it’s a router. Or a screw. Or a plane.

Again, the problem isn’t that the Bechdel Test is bad. It is not. But … it is also a very simple and straightforward tool that, as the original creator noted, is designed to be a barometer of sorts. Not a scalpel. But far too many people see it as a scalpel (which really says more about their writing acumen than anything else) and then apply it with the bluntness of a sledgehammer.

It isn’t meant to be that. It’s a measuring tool, like a barometer. It’s something you’re meant to pull out of the toolbox and pass over your story with a question of “Well that’s my reading … now should I do anything about it?”

Because the thing is … The Bechdel Test doesn’t test “feminism.” Or whether or not your story has strong protagonists that are women. All it does is test whether or not you have two characters that are female talking about something that isn’t a male character.

In other words, it’s very easy to cheat if you happen to consider it a marker of “feminism.” Protagonist talks to an information source who happens to be a woman. That woman turns to someone else who is also a woman and says “Get me the information on subject X.” Other character fires back a question about which aspect of subject X, character answers.

Both are women, so bam, the story has passed the Bechdel Test. And that means, for the story as a whole … what?

Okay, you could say that it does represent that women are in whatever position the protagonist talked to. And that they have a conversation, albeit short, about that position. But is it “feminist?” Well … no. But does it need to be? Well … also no.

Again, the issue here is that the Bechdel Test is a very specific type of tool checking for one specific thing. And if you start applying it outside of that one specific thing, then it’s a lot like using a barometer as a screwdriver: You might get some semblance of use out of it, but it’s going to be awkward and effectively pointless.

All of this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use the Bechdel Test as a check from time to time. It should be a tool in your writer’s toolbox, and one that you may want to pull out on occasion. But by the same token, when you do it should be used appropriately, the way it was intended, rather than as a screwdriver.

“Hey!” some would argue to oppose this. “But if you don’t apply the Bechdel Test everywhere, how will you know if you’re writing stories with real gender equality?”

To which the counter would be “The Bechdel Test isn’t interested in true gender equality. All it cares about is that two characters that are female have a conversation at some point about a topic that isn’t a male character.” And that’s it.

That’s not something that’s going to create “true gender equality.” It’s also not a feminist tool. It’s a very simple, straightforward test to see what sort of activity your female characters may be engaging in.

There you have it. That’s the test. Applying it to anything else? Well … that’s when problems arise.

The takeaway here is twofold. The first thing is that the Bechdel Test should be used as the Bechdel Test. A surface level “pressure” examination to see what your female characters—if any—talk about.

Note that failing the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean anything other than “failing the Bechdel Test.” Which isn’t some mark of shame for stories or mediums. Maybe your short story has only one character. Or maybe it stars a woman and her robot, who doesn’t express any gender preference. Neither of those could pass a Bechdel Test … but it doesn’t mean that they’re bad stories.

In addition, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean much either. For example, the famous short story The Lottery does pass the Bechdel Test … but few would say that it’s some sort of paragon of Gender Equality. It simply does pass the Bechdel Test.

So then, moving to what you can apply to improve your writing, what’s the takeaway here. Well, the first is that while the Bechdel Test should be in your toolbox, it should be treated for what it is. Obviously if you’ve got a titanic action story with dozens of characters, passing the Bechdel Test over it might reveal some weak points with your female characters … but it might not. As one Schlock Mercenary strip winked at, sometimes characters (gasp) talk about their relationships with other characters in settings that happen to make sense. Just because your story does or doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test may or may not be a mark against it. You’ll need to decide. And again, don’t forget that the criteria is just talking about something other than a male character. Stories wherein two female characters also talk about a male character in some fashion do not fail the Bechdel Test. It still passes. Is that useful? Well, that’s up to you to decide.

But there’s a second takeaway here. and that is that you don’t need a test to write a good story with well-represented characters and equal treatment of genders. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you shouldn’t be digging deeper for other tests to “tell you” if you’ve passed some invisible line or not. Especially before writing the story.

Ultimately, if you want “real gender equality” in your stories, you’re going to write well-developed characters who are their own selves, regardless of gender.

Yes. Once again we come back to this old standby that we’ve touched on before that the best way to write a realistic character is to write them as themselves, with the knowledge that sane people do not think of every single activity they partake in through the lens of “LIKE A MAN!” or “LIKE A WOMAN!”

Sane characters think about, talk about, and act around the things that are them. Gender is there, but … It’s not some Colossus of Rhodes dominating the landscape of everyone’s mind.

Ergo, if you want to write stories that have real gender equality, then let characters be themselves. Sands, use a coin to determine the gender of secondary characters that show up in the story, or even primary characters. Jungle, for instance, had the gender of the expeditionary team members chosen by coin flip, because their gender was completely irrelevant to their capacity to do their job. Once the gender was determined, of course, it became part of each character’s character, but that was that.

Point being, you don’t need a test like the Bechdel Test, or any of dozens of other “tests” to tell you how to write a solid story that has characters acting like themselves and being who they are. There’s no test, really, that can test for that, except yours in writing it and choosing to give those characters the freedom and setting to be themselves. Or fight to be themselves, whatever, depending on the story you’re telling.

Writing a story that treats its genders equally isn’t going to come from looking at a test. Or from reading a bunch of them beforehand. It only comes from sitting down to write a story where you treat those characters with real gender equality.

Now again, I’m not saying the Bechdel Test isn’t useful. It’s a neat little tool worth having in your toolbox and using occasionally. Do use it!

But it’s not an end-all test. Nor is it a test of “feminism” or gender equality. It might help with those things if you’re truly past the brink already or writing something from another century, but in the long run of things, it can just be a check to see where your female characters are at (additionally, one use I do support is flipping the polarity and running the same test in the inverse for male characters, as I’ve read a few books that would fail that test and didn’t need to).

If you want to write characters of any gender that are treated equally in your story or setting, then just do that. It’s not as hard as it sounds. And if it is, then build your own methods for counteracting it rather than relying on someone else’s. Identify the weakpoints with a tool like the Bechdel (or just reader feedback) and then make your own tools to shore up your weak area.

But above all else, treat characters as characters. Let them be more than either actors playing roles or mouthpieces for some social movement external to the story. Let them be them.

At the end of the day, tools like the Bechdel Test can help identify potential weak areas, but they are not guaranteed indicators, nor are they going to guide you in how to “fix” weak areas that may be critical to the story or characters themselves. And they’re certainly not going to fix issues of gender equality.

Only careful writing of our characters can do that. Understanding of our setting. Our aims with the tales we want to tell.

Use the tool. But as it’s intended. It’s not a bludgeon to beat your characters on course. It’s a binary yes-no equation to identify if a single element takes place or not.

Treat it as it is. Then write your characters as they are.

Good luck. Now get writing.

Being a Better Writer and Unusual Things are kept advertisement free thanks to the donations of our Patreon Supporter crew: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Brown, Lightwind, Boomer, 22ndTemplar, Piiec, Wisehart, and Taylor!

If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book? Or do both!

One thought on “Being a Better Writer: The Bechdel Test and Real Gender Equality

  1. A barometer. That’s an almost perfect analogy. It’s a measure of one aspect of the weather, that a change in can signal a coming change in the larger picture – the weather. So, a measure of an aspect of what you are really interested in. Not the interest itself.

    My story has the two protagonists and their friends, all women, discussing the romantic relationships of the protagonists in more than a few places, and those still pass this test.

    Why? The protagonists are in love with each other. They’re lesbians. Kind of misses the mark, because it is really a fail from one point of view. They are still discussing romantic relationships. It’s only squeaking by because, no guys.

    But honestly, it passes the reality test too. Seriously, who hasn’t had their friends hash through your romances as one subject of many while you’re hanging out? Really?

    Great article, Max! Thanks for the insights, as always.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s