David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

the Bechdel Test: mechanical approaches

For a while now, I've been doing some thinking about the Bechdel Test, mostly as a background process. For those who haven't heard of it, the Bechdel Test was created by Liz Wallace and immortalized (with credit and by permission) by Wallace's friend, cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Wallace's rule is to not watch a movie unless it contains 1) two women 2) who have a conversation 3) that's not about a man. It's a simple test, and movies and TV fail it often.

If the test itself has a failure, it's that whether something passes or fails it is as far as the discussion usually goes. On those occasions that a conversation does turn to why a work fails the Bechdel Test, there are basically two ways that conversation can go. It can turn into an activist discussion of sexism and society, or it can turn into a discussion of the mechanics of writing. There have been a lot of the former, but there haven't been all that many of the latter. And while I don't want to interrupt any of the former, I think the latter conversation is worth having, too.

The activist approach is necessarily a wide-ranging and, at base, fundamentalist approach, the chief objective of which is to produce change by creating more activists. It can be likened to missionary work, in that it requires writers to make an essentially religious conversion that leads them to constantly question their own state of original sin. Sometimes this is expressed in bouts of fannish self-flagellation, with fans confessing themselves to be sinners and vowing to read and write more female characters (or queer characters, or characters of color) like they're promising to eat more vegetables. I realize that modern progressivism seems to have an intense hair-shirt quality to it, but I don't think it's that hard, or should be. Nor do I think that turning more fans into progressive feminists is the only way to get more people writing fanfic that feminists will like. I'm not a feminist, but I've learned a hell of a lot from feminists on my flist about what they want in stories. This does not give me feminist bona fides of any sort; I'm not trying to make a bullshit claim to them, because I don't have one -- hell, I'm a registered Republican with a concealed carry permit; I *am* The Man, ok? -- but I do try to write stories that a fairly wide variety of people will enjoy, feminists included. And if there's one thing I've taken away from the discussions of feminism and queer politics and anti-racism that I've read, it's that I don't have to agree with people to learn how they would like to be treated.

For people like me, who aren't progressive feminists and aren't likely to become such, a mechanical approach may be useful. Even issues with complicated causes can express themselves mechanically and so are subject to mechanical checking and correction. Also, when you look at mechanics, you see different things than you see when you look at theory, and sometimes these differences are interesting.

For example, even assuming full gender parity in lead roles, which does not exist, the single-hero story will likely fail the Bechdel Test close to fifty percent of the time right off the bat. This is because the hero is so much the focus of the story and the narration usually takes or follows the hero's perspective. Sometimes the hero even narrates it. When one character dominates like that, the other characters often aren't talking to each other much; they're talking to the hero, and if the hero isn't in the scene, the odds are really good they're talking *about* the hero, and if the hero is male that blows the Bechdel qualification right there. So a certain degree of compensation is required; you need to focus on the other characters' individual interests, to flesh them out beyond their relationship to the hero.

There are a number of issues involved in why a lot of properties fail the Bechdel Test, but on the mechanical front I think two major issues are 1) Stock Roles and 2) Need for Contrast. Let's take stock roles first.

The best way I can describe a stock role is to say: "picture a beat cop." I don't mean "create a beat cop character of the sort you'd like to see to star in a new TV show." I mean, when I say, "beat cop," picture the first thing that comes into your head.

If I bet every American reading this a nickel that your imaginary beat cop is a large-framed Irish male, I would, on the whole, probably not lose money.

I've known lots of police officers. Hell, I've *worked* with lots of police officers. Men and women, all ethnic backgrounds, all ages, and when I think "beat cop" I still think of a burly Irishman who's crusty but has a heart of gold, because when I was a kid I watched a bajillion TV shows with burly Irish cops.

That's a stock role. The stock role is a stereotype. Often, it's a positive or amusing one. Ethnicity or some other group identification is often involved. The stock agent is a Jew. The stock beat cop is an Irishman. The stock lower-class guy who's undereducated and works hard at a tough job is Italian. The stock hairdresser is gay. But the stock role is more than just an emblematic occupation; it evokes previous iterations of similar characters. This makes the stock role especially useful in small, bit parts -- the audience fills in the characterization, so the writer doesn't have to.

Why are stock roles important to the Bechdel Test? Because *men fill a billion of them.* There are many more stock roles for men than for women. As a result, the more thinly drawn a character is, the more likely that character is to be male. But the problem caused by stock roles goes farther than that. Many characters exist in order to perform a mechanical function: to provide information, to fight the hero, that kind of thing. They're not created to be a person, but to do a job within the story. This means they tend to start thin, and be fleshed out. But the fact that they start thin means that a whole lot of characters begin as some variant of a stock role.

Men are, from a dramatic perspective, incredibly useful creatures, because they fit into all manner of preconceived slots -- stock roles -- that come in handy to writers. Need a character to do something dangerous/flamboyantly stupid and risky? Men, especially young men, are great for that (when I worked in a medical examiner's office, the young men who came in fell overwhelmingly into one of two categories. Their last words were either, "You motherfucker --!" or "Hey, guys, watch THIS!"). Need a character to convey established authority, i.e., "this bank has been in business for five million years" authority? Older men, especially older white men, get that across without opening their mouths. And so on. There are all kinds of things that men are great for, and more to the point, *men are easy for.* Because we have seen men doing those things in a billion books and novels, and we have vague memories of a billion similar characters, and that makes filling the role easier -- and often, more effective -- for the author and the readers. This requires work to overcome.

By contrast, women have fewer stock roles, and most of these revolve around their relationships to other people. Male stock roles embody roles and personality types; female stock roles tend to embody these as functions of personal relationships. (The Meddling Mother would be one such stock role, as would The Voice of Reason.) Another is The Person Who Cares. Consider Eileen Jones's review of PREDATORS in EXILED ONLINE:

The least amusing scenes involve the female character having to carry the burden of femaleness, i.e., having to care about people, and harp about it at the least convenient times. You know somebody’s got to do it in these kinds of films, and if there’s a woman or a girl, she’s automatically stuck with it. If there’s no female, the nominal hero himself usually has to deal with it, far more grudgingly. You know the type of sequence: when somebody’s horribly wounded in a chase scene, for example, do you drag them along, leave them behind, or shoot them and put them out of their misery before running like hell? When it’s an all-male action film, there’s some serious tension around these questions, because it will involve a real moral test. But when there’s a female there, it becomes strictly a gender issue; she’ll want to drag the wounded along purely because she’s a girl.

It's surprising how often stock roles come into play, even in the most basic character dynamics. Let me give an example from my own writing. For Yuletide 2009, I wrote an ALIEN universe fanfic called "Killing Elvis." The premise is that a tiff between a Weyland-Yutani executive and a high-ranking scientist leads to the scientist's laboratory being tasked with stuffing and mounting their (very much alive and dangerous) xenomorph specimen; wackiness ensues. All of the characters are original to me; one is based on (and related to) a character from the second film in the series, James Cameron's ALIENS.

The high-ranking scientist is Dr. Liu; her labmates are Anne and J.D. Dr. Liu and Anne are women, as are the Weyland-Yutani security chief Col. Fetterer and the Weyland-Yutani Chair's assistant Ms. Winterbourne, both of whom appear briefly. J.D. is male, as are the Chair and Liu's antagonist, Weyland-Yutani executive Philip Burke, who is the brother of (the late) Carter J. Burke, as played by Paul Reiser. The alien, named "Elvis" by Dr. Liu and the labbies, is actually a sexless drone, but Liu et al. call it "he."

What I found interesting about writing this fic is that when I asked myself, "Could this character be a woman?" I was surprised several times to find how reluctant I was to say "yes." And a lot of the time, stock roles had something to do with it: having the character be male added a subtext that made my job as a writer easier.

I knew pretty quickly that I wanted Liu and Ann to be women. (It's perhaps noteworthy that they are the most deeply-portrayed characters in the story; we see more sides of them than of any of the other character, and they're not stock roles.) What about J.D.? No, J.D. was male. J.D. has a hunting background; yes, women hunt, too, but hunting enthusiast is a male stock role. Also, J.D. is the comic relief. Men are well-suited to comic relief, because they tend to get enthusiastic and do gloriously dumb things without thinking them through (as J.D. does at one point in the fic). So he's a guy.

I also asked myself if I could make the Chair of Weyland-Yutani a woman. The thought felt wrong, and it took some doing to understand why. The Chair is a cipher. The only time he appears in the fic he's literally on a stage being described by someone in the audience. He has no dialogue, no personality, and essentially exists only as a plot device. He is a somewhat remote and overwhelming power; he is not an authoritative character so much as he is Authority. You are now picturing an older male, probably with white hair, like the Old Man in ROBOCOP. Me too. Stock role to the rescue.

Could I have made Burke female -- movie-Burke's sister, rather than brother? I briefly entertained the notion, but tossed it out, because of another stock role rule: *men are better assholes.* Burke is not just an asshole; he is *an asshole with power that he has not earned.* That's a stock male role.

The usefulness of stock roles can be illustrated by considering an (extremely minor) character about whom I did say, "yes, this character could be a woman:" Weyland-Yutani's head of security, Colonel Paula Fetterer. At one point in the fic, Liu is looking for information, and Fetterer is dismissive. Their exchange makes for an interesting case where the lack of a stock role for a woman in this position makes a shallow character shallower, and in fact essentially nonexistent. If Col. Fetterer is a man, then his dismissal of Dr. Liu fits into a preconceived dynamic which automatically makes Fetterer easier to imagine as a person. As a woman, her dismissal of Dr. Liu does not register as much as a character-defining action on her part. I would have had to do more with Fetterer to flesh her out, which I didn't.

So the stock role discrepancy benefits male characters far more than female characters. The solution to this problem is not "get away from the cliches." If TV Tropes (no link -- I just saved you half a day; you're welcome) has taught us anything, it's that tropes and cliches are useful. My argument is that *we need more new cliches.*

But there's a second big part of the equation, because another major mechanical factor at work is the Need for Contrast. Why does the contrasting figure to the female hero or the hero of color so often wind up being a white guy? It's not just that American popular imagination, stock roles included, is pretty dominated by whites and pretty dominated by guys, though that's part of it. This is where Need for Contrast comes into play. The natural inclination of the writer is to draw a strong contrast between the heroes and the villains, and the problem arises when sex and ethnicity are treated as the hero's defining feature.

To give an example, civic-mindedness vs. profiteering is a contrast that props up all the time. Indiana Jones sells his looted artifacts to a museum; Bellocq sells his on the open market. In TWISTER, the heroes work on shoestring government grants while the bad guys have a "fat corporate contract." In (the film version of) THE A-TEAM, Hannibal and crew are poorly-paid Army Rangers, while the evildoers are well-paid mercenary contractors. But when the hero is a woman, the defining characteristic that is chosen for contrast is "she's a woman." Ergo, male adversary. This problem actually gets worse the more bad guys you have. If you have a female hero *and* a female villain in the movie, odds are really good that the villain's henchman is going to be male because of Need for Contrast: she's the cerebral/social power, he's the physical threat. (The physically threatening thug, of course, being a male stock role). Which means, of course, that every time the villain talks to her henchman it's not a Bechdel Qualifier.

Combine Stock Roles and the Need for Contrast, and you've got a self-reinforcing mechanical problem. So here are my three mechanical recommendations for countering them.

1) *Make more properties/stories with two women in the lead roles.*
2) *Make more stock roles for women.*
3) *Fill as many inconsequential roles with women as possible.*

The first is the splashiest issue. If you asked me to name teams from male buddy shows I would go on for three days, and if you asked me to name teams from female buddy shows I would say, "Cagney and Lacey, Rizzoli and Isles, and Xena and Gabrielle." The second recommendation is the one that'll be hardest to fix, because it requires writing a lot of different kinds of women for a long time and finding out what kinds of characters have the utility and appeal to become new stock roles. The third, though, is the one that I think is the killer. The lack of stock roles for women is a long-term problem, but increased inconsequential roles for women are, in the short term, the single biggest difference that could impact Bechdel Test passage rates for television and film, in particular. Think about it this way: on CSI, say, we have two heroic leads (two male or one male and one female) showing up to investigate a crime. They duck under the tape, walk on scene, and maybe have a quick obligatory exchange with a patrol officer ("The wife's in there if you want to talk to her." "Thanks.")

That patrol officer's a guy, isn't he?

So make the patrol officer a woman. Make the manager at the crappy hotel a woman. Make the person they ask for directions a woman. Make the witness who says, "Sorry, I didn't see anything" a woman. Make the customer who complains about poor service a woman. All these pointless, thankless, one-line wonders? Make them women. And then let the female leads talk to them. Boom. Instant Bechdel qualification, and also we're seeing a lot more parts for women, and we'll get to see some of those parts eventually becoming stock roles. More female leads and supporting roles are critical, but in my view the biggest argument in favor of deliberately female-heavy (and chromatic-heavy, for that matter) casting is not that it makes this casting a new standard, but that if you see it enough, it doesn't come across as a minor surprise anymore. And I think that's a bigger factor than anybody's mentioned.

Fans can do the most with regard to #1 and #3. Team up women in your fic, and have them do interesting stuff. And when they have to interact with a throwaway character, make that throwaway a woman more often than not.

And, y'know, it's not hard. It's fun.

Originally posted on my DW. | comment count unavailable people have commented there. | Do so yourself, if you like.
Tags: fandom, meta, writing

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