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Bechdel's Law

Alison Bechdel, cartoonist and author of Dykes to Watch Out For, has an interesting observation on movies — a little test she applies to them. It's a very short checklist, viz:

1. Does it have at least two women in it,

2. Who [at some point] talk to each other,

3. About something besides a man.

I bring this up as a point of interest, because of what it says about the blind spots of popular entertainment. Most Hollywood movies fail this test; if you extend #3 only slightly, to read "About something besides men or marriage or babies", you can strike out about 50% of the small proportion of mass-entertainment movies that do otherwise seem to pass the test.

The reason Bechdel's test is important is because it's a diagnostic indicator for the objectification of women. It's designed to identify the kind of film where, if two women talk to each other at all, the only subject of conversation is men (or babies). What it tells us is that our current movie and (to a lesser extent) our TV culture is pathologically misogynistic — be it in in the adoption of conservative Kinder, Kuche, Kirche values or the more extreme violence of women in refrigerators.

The current decade is characterized by security anxieties writ large, a socially conservative culture of retreat from liberalism, and a strong anti-feminist backlash. Our popular media, far from being the bastions of liberal values that conservatives say they are, are actually belwethers of popular culture, amplifying, reinforcing, and reflecting our culture's normative values back at us the silver screen. What they're showing this decade is really rather disturbing if you happen to agree with the core feminist ideological belief that women are real people too, not just baby factories and sex objects.

TV has always been bad — a hypothetical alien trying to make deductions about humanity by watching our TV signals would conclude that our normal gender ratio is four males to each female, and that's just for starters! — but of late, the messages coming at us out of the mass media are nothing short of toxic. If movies and TV objectified people of colour the way they do women, the only reasonable conclusion one could draw would be that a concerted propaganda campaign was under way to return us to the unquestioned institutional racism of the 1950s.

It's interesting to apply Bechdel's test to written fiction, although under some circumstances it breaks down; if the book you're analysing is a first-person narrative from a man's point of view, then it's relatively unlikely to pass: similarly if it's a depiction of skull-duggery in a mediaeval monastery (thank you, Umberto Eco). But it's a chastening warning when you apply it to your own fiction and find out that large chunks of it fail the test. I looked at my own novels: I've habitally made an effort to include strong female characters who are not just there to serve as a trophy or handmaiden for the Hero Protagonist, and even so, a couple of my books fail. Looking at my recent reading in the SF genre in general, the picture isn't good; while written SF comes off a lot better than Hollywood overall, with the exception of fiction set in all-male environments, passing the Bechdel test should be the norm, not an unusual occurrence.

PS: From now on I intend to start applying this test to my fiction before I embarrass myself in public. And (I realize this is offering up a huge hostage to future fortune) if anyone ever offers me a movie or TV deal, I am going to hold out for a clause in the contract requiring a scene lasting at least 30 seconds per hour of running time that passes Bechdel's test. Because? What hurts my fellow humans hurts me, and I can in conscience no more lend my implicit support to an anti-feminist backlash than I can lend my silence to a racist or homophobic campaign.

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213 Comments

1:

Does she have a name for this specific test? Or is there a link to where she describes the test?

3:

I've got the impression that, especially in SF, movies or books that pass the test still present the female characters as either cliches or male fantasies, e.g. the beautiful women that will kick your butt if you've been a naughty boy, or the cute little nerd girl that outwits the male techies. These are the traps that well-meaning male writers step in to quite often if they want to convey their pseudo-/quasi-/para-feminism.

4:

You are full of win, Charles Stross.

What stood out for me on first reading The Family Trade was that it passed Bechdel's test by page 6. I deeply appreciate this kind of thing in fiction, especially sf, because relatable female characters are so very rare. It would be nice if more sf authors (and hey, comic-book authors, why not) would make the same pledge.

5:

Charlie, personally I think you're being too harsh on yourself. Or maybe I just don't recall all your books and stories as well as I think I do.

The "Clan Corporate" series for one passes the test nicely.
Likewise, i think "Halting State" is a "pass".

I admit I don't recall many multiple-female stories, but where you have female characters, the ones I remember are not at all "trophy" or "fluff".

6:

The Laundry stories are, I think, a fail. (Not 100% certain.) Singularity Sky is a fail. My most recent novellas are fails. I need to pay more attention.

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7:

Well, that still leaves Barbarella :-)

8:

Charlie@2, thanks.

My last short story passes. The one before that fails. Hm. It's kind of hard if you've only got a couple of characters to work with before you run out of space. Both of those stories had the main character be a woman. The one that failed the test she only talked to one other person during the story, which was a man. Oh, wait, she talked to another character who was a throwaway character, but was male. I suppose I could have made that throwaway character a woman. But it was a really small part, so I don't know if that would count.

9:

Greg, I'll grant a free pass to short works where there aren't enough characters.

The natural fictional equivalent of a 2 hour feature film is a novella. Novellas or novels -- hold their feet to the fire, is what I say.

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10:

Ten minutes of thinking, and the only film I can ever recall seeing that might not violate this rule would be "King Lear".


William Hyde

11:

Thanks for this, you rock Charlie!
Perhaps there should be a search function on Amazon, like: Include only books that pass Bachdel's Law.

So from now on I'll buy every book you ever write. Well, perhaps not all of them, but I'd definitely buy when you include a gay-related storyline. (Like a gay flatmate ;) )

Sometimes in SciFi I'm already pleased when an author hints that same-sex relationships might exist in his universe.

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12:

Charlie, you are a mensch.

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13:

A question for the authors... what makes a character male or female? Some of the Heinlein juveniles were written with a female protagonist but, really, you could have swapped the character out for a male one with minimal changes.

Or is the question meaningless?

Is there a difference between a female character written by a man to a female character written by a woman? (And, equally, a male character written by....)

14:

I was just telling my husband about the Bechdel test this weekend. We were stumped to find many movies currently in release with two speaking women characters period.

I've recently started reading Chabon's Kavalier and Clay, and at 80 pages in, the only women have been a nagging and sexually unsatisfied Jewish mother and the wordless hooker-mit-heart-of-gold who took Joe's virginity. Now, I trust Chabon and will keep moving forward, but I admit I'm finding it offputting.

One of the things that made me swoon over Glasshouse was how deftly you handled gender and sexuality, so while it's great that you're concerned, you might have less to worry about on that score than some others. I'm looking very much forward to seeing you in Glendale tonight!

15:

The last movie I saw that passed the test was "Mama Mia". Yesterday. And all I can say about that movie is Pierce Brosnan shouldn't sing.

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16:

I have some stuff working through on an amateur fiction site, and I doubt it has the word-count to fall foul of the rule, but I think I have a chance to tweak a scene or two. Though it feels like cheating.

On the other hand, I'm fairly happy about the female characters as people, even if they don't get much chance to talk with each other.

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17:

Huh, interesting test.

Let's see, the last few novels I read were:

Dzur, by Stephen Brust. I don't think it passes, though I'm inclined to give it a pass because it's a first-person-novel with a male protagonist.

The Years of Salt and Rice, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Certainly passes (for example, I and B discuss the nuclear bomb at length, when they're both women, and that's only one of many).

Saturn's Children, by some dude whose name I can't remember. Passes (for example, Freya and Juliette talk about Rhea).

The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds. Fails, I think. There are several female characters with significant speaking roles, but I don't think that they ever talk to each other.


And movies:

The Dark Knight: I think that this technically passes: Rachel very briefly talks some politics with Bruce Wayne's date. Of course, the subtext of that scene is about their romantic interests (in men). Or, now that I'm thinking about it, maybe Rachel doesn't speak up there?

Wanted: Fails.

18:

I find the idea of this test fascinating. (And Charlie, I'm sure your books come out better than many authors' - if the Laundry ones don't pass maybe that's because of the originals you're playing with?)

It maybe makes more sense though as a diagnostic than an end in itself - I mean, you could make almost any film or book pass by adding in the appropriate characters or scenes, without changing the basic picture.

19:

My partner is reading Bruce Schneier's Beyond Fear (can we pause to appreciate the hotness/coolness of this?), and even she thinks he tries too hard to avoid this.

Even so he only passes if you assume Alice and Bob can be two women.

20:

Bravo!

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21:

You know I was thinking about something similar while on the sitting on the bus the other day, hearing the conversations going on all around me. Women talked about men, other women,(usually that bitch) food, babies, family, sex and work in that order. Men talked about alcohol, sex, women, food, other men,(usually that asshole) family and work. It was all not very interesting really, so to expect movies to reflect anything different most of the time is probably unrealistic. People talk about their relationships with the things most important to them right now. Politics, religion , quantum physics and large social issues not so much.

22:

Nice, timely post. Have to remember this. I also try to keep in mind the great line from "Snow Crash":


"It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe that they are too smart to be sexists."


Occasionally I even remember this *before* the fact.


PS: To be clear, I'm not pointing a finger at anybody except me for my own lapses.

23:

That is a damn good test.

As I've just noted at my blog I think if you extended point 3 to "fashion" you'd wipe out even more movies than extending it to babies.

But somewhat to my surprise most of the books I've read recently seem to pass that test as does my one and only piece of published fiction - a short story.

24:

Shouldn't this rule to be extended to ethnic groups, plus stereotypes? Don't most "chick flicks" pass the rule for women, but not for men - e.g. "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"?

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25:

Wow. Impressively powerful test. I must bear it in mind when reading and watching in future. I suspect I will be depressed.

Given that the adverts are on TV at the moment, I wonder what the equivalent would be for adverts....

26:

Hi Charlie, Just to be picky.....I just had a look at the link you posted and "The Rule" should be attributed to Liz Wallace...but oh so right, Another couple of authors who pass the test (and probably not surprisingly as they're women) Elizabeth Bear and Karen Traviss

Kepp up the good work, half way through Saturns Children and enjoying it, although I still thing Accelerando and Glasshouse are your top two so far

27:

That's great Charles. While you're revisiting elements you stick in your novels, can you do away with the trope of two people falling in love and uniting to deal with the problems facing the characters? I get the feeling that you secretly want to write romance novels.

28:

The test seems like it's an accurate measure of the respect and attention a film or book gives to women; it's a real shame that so many films, especially, fail the test.

And some films pass the test, but have other kinds of fail in them. I'm thinking particularly of "Female Perversions"*, because I just saw it a few weeks ago. Much of it is really about what the woman characters are thinking about and talking to each other about, and where they talk about men and cosmetics it's, IMHO, intended to be a reflection on how limiting these conversations are, but there are scenes that certainly look like they were written and shot purely as exploitation**.

* You can tell from the title that the marketing types were trying to spin this from word one; the German title, "Phantasien einer Frau" is less sensational.
** I have trouble believing that the lesbian sex scene has any other purpose than getting its male viewers off. Of course, it may be that the purpose in this case was to titillate the men who had a say in getting the film finished ad distributed, but that still says nasty things about the film industry.

29:

Well, you can have your two women chatting in a summer action picture, as long as something nearby explodes.

I'm willing to negotiate here, but some things are just too important to remove.

30:

Interestingly, quite a few Dr. Who episodes pass without any problem, because there's generally (1) a major female protagonist, (2) plenty of women in whatever world they're visiting, and (3) relatively few plots about romance.

But I'm most interested in the Dr. Who episode "Turn Left". I can't remember any scene where two men talk to each other (the Doctor only has a few short appearances). I can't think of any other science fiction movies or TV shows where I can't remember a conversation between two men.

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31:

But it's a chastening warning when you apply it to your own fiction and find out that large chunks of it fail the test. I looked at my own novels: I've habitally made an effort to include strong female characters who are not just there to serve as a trophy or handmaiden for the Hero Protagonist, and even so, a couple of my books fail.

You have to wonder how many people noticed that, in Snow Crash, Juanita was doing braver, more vital stuff that the lead character so aptly named...

32:

Heh, It's going to be fun hunting through your future books looking scene that passes the bechdel test. I think it's obvious why most fiction (written by men) fails this test. We don't really know what women talk about when we're not around, so we assume they talk about what we would like to think they talk about.

Obviously this is no excuse, just something to think about.

33:

Ben,

You could, like, you know, ask some women what they talk about. Maybe even get them to read the scenes in question.

34:

I would also like to point out the delicious irony, as noted above, passes this test with flying colors, although the main character is literally a sex-object. Pretty funny.

35:

ubik @11: so you missed the non-heterosexual folks in "The Atrocity Archives" and "Halting State", hmm? (Memo to self: be more blatant in future.)

Ben @34: the technical term for this thing is "irony". HTH.

36:

The Laundry stories being a fail is plausible because the protagonist is a *geek*. Given the gender ratios in the geek world, the thing that nearly blew my WSOD was that there were any women in his field at all. (Only one of my jobs has had a gender ratio >3% female in technical roles. I think this is deeply deeply wrong, but I can't see any way to fix it.)

37:

Charlie:

How could you possibly be more blatant in 'TAA' about P&B's sexuality? There's the whole section about being dragged to the annual Pride parade, plus snarky references to "breeders"... There would have to be graphic sex to be more blatant.

No basic disagreement that men are massively over-represented and female characters poorly developed, (especially in supporting roles) in basically all fictional formats that aren't erotica. In which case well-developed takes on a decidedly sexist meaning.

38:

@32:

The point of the test is not to encourage authors to throw in a single scene that checks off all three requirements like some sort of quota. If I write a script that has some hot love-interest that falls from tall buildings and also, at one point, asks a female janitor where the bathroom is, that doesn't really count as "passing," you know?

It shouldn't be a lot to ask that creators allow women to perform some function other than to be the object of desire for men.

39:

Ben@32,

I think it's obvious why most fiction (written by men) fails this test. We don't really know what women talk about when we're not around, so we assume they talk about what we would like to think they talk about.

you could always try listening to women talking to each other.

Slightly different tack: I saw the pornographic parody of Pirates of the Caribbean, which had three major female roles...and sadly, all were better-realised than Keira Knightley's POTC charater. Step it up, Hollywood.

40:

Weirdly, the only Hollywood movie I can remember seeing in the past couple of years that passes is Mr and Mrs Smith. And there's explodey-stuff.

41:

There is a reason for this beyond the enigma of 'what do the other gender talk about when my gender is not around?'. BetaCandy went to film school and got it straight from the professors' mouths:

"According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.?"

So the professors systematically teach that you MUST NOT have a female lead, or multiple named female characters talking about anything other than Teh Menz, or else The Only Audience Segment That Matters would tune out.
Read the full account at The Hathor Legacy

42:

Rozasharn: I already read it (what do you think triggered this rant?) but thanks for the pointer. (I'd lost the URL.)

The falacy in this circular reasoning is breathtaking and simple. Trouble is, in the context of film, I don't know how to break it; it costs so much to make a major release movie that there will always be some idiot with their hands on the purse strings who'll raise the issue and use it to drag even the most enlightened director back towards the nobody-got-fired-for-following-it orthodoxy.

But in novels, there's little enough at stake that there is no excuse for doing this (not even, "the boss said I had to do it or he'd hire a new scriptwriter").

43:

@39

If I'm listening to two women talking, doesn't it make that 2 women and 1 man, unless I'm doing something creepy like eaves dropping from behind a curtain or something?

44:

@41

insteresting, since that means its not something that's subconcious.

@38

I was being sarcastic, and I apologize for not making that clear. I realize how poorly plain text gets that across.

45:

I didn't know you didn't know about this test!

I should have passed it along years ago!

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46:

Hmmmm . . . doesn't some sf as 'the literature of ideas' get a pass? I finished Egan's new collection a few weeks ago, and while there may not be enough females to pass the test, I don't think you can fairly say that there are enough males either.

The second thought: isn't this to some extent a matter of marketing, not sexism? At the end of the day, the writer has to pay the bills, and writing is his - ahem - her way of doing it. And frankly, faced between the choice of selling 4,000 copies and feeling good about getting it right, and selling 40,000 copies and getting it wrong, I'd rather be wrong every time.

Now, this is not to say that there isn't a market out there for stories that pass this test, and this is not to say that current situation is in any respect okay. It just means that those guys who are up front about writing to pay the bills get more of a pass than guys (in the generic sense!) who go on about Art. The latter don't really have much of an excuse.

Finally, sad to say, but most of what I read is trash[1]. I make no apologies for that, or for eating Cheetos in bed while I'm reading, or for feeding the dogs Cheetos in bed while I'm reading my trash. But the guys I read the most, well, any attempt to pass this test will cause them to lose sales, they will be so wince-inducing bad at it. When all is said and done, I don't think John McDonald had the insight or the experience to write dialog like that, or Raymond Chandler, or Keith Laumer, or - well, you get the idea of how execrable my tastes are :-)

[1]That's on the fiction side. For every 'Blind Assassin' or 'Tortilla Road' I read twenty Punishers. Nonfiction is a little different, of course.

47:

Charlie, you're welcome for the URL. I commented mostly to provide that link to your readers; I was quite willing to believe you'd found The Rule and seen its usefulness on your own.

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48:

If all it takes to be female is a pronoun, you'll love Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand!

(Not linking to the Wikipedia entry because it's one damn spoiler after another, although I'm not sure how you write about why the novel is interesting without making it far less interesting to read. Also the imagining of an information network may read a bit...differently to audiences these days.)

49:

Thanks Charlie, a great article. Hopefully other authors will take your comments to heart.

50:

Arthur C Clarke's and Stephen Baxter's Sunstorm series of books would, I think, pass with flying colors.

The central character is a woman and many of the secondary characters are women in very high level political and professional jobs, who often spend time talking to each other or other women about all kinds of things that have nothing to do with men, like physics, politics, their families (in a caring but distinctly non-sexist way) and saving the world. Often in one conversation and usually in that order.

51:

One problem with this law as applied to prose fiction is that in many novels and stories, supporting characters are *only* shown onstage when they're talking about the protagonist. That's either because the story is told from a tight first-person PoV, so you only see the other characters when the PoV is present and active in the scene (tight first person demands a very active character) or because it's a third-person PoV where the action is focused solely on the plot and hence on the twists and turn of the protagonist's journey.

52:

ScentOfViolets @46: interestingly, women buy about two-thirds of all books sold, and constitute the majority of readers of SF.

I fail to see how doing down the gender with which two-thirds of one's readers identify can be construed as pandering to the needs of the most important market segment.

Jay @48: so I take it you're unfamiliar with Polari? Or with the use of "she" as a pronoun among gay men to refer to someone in whom one is sexually interested, rather than someone who is biologically female? (Hint: think about where Delaney was coming from ...)

Cory @51: yes, you can only really apply Bechdel's Law with its full rigour to fiction that's written in omniscient third person. But I think third person narrative is common enough in fiction to make it a useful test; and more importantly, what it teaches us is a lesson that should carry over, right?


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53:

I was initially quite shocked by the implication of the test, as someone who likes to think he's an open free thinking chap (and watch those thoughts very carefully).

But before everyone starts self flagellating too firmly, is it worth considering that lack of female to female interaction in fiction, is an artefact of the intrinsic nature of the masculine and feminine?

Fiction thrives on conflict. Conflict is an overwhelmingly masculine occupation that is solidly grounded in biology and that ain't gonna change until we can all upload and start diddling with personality in the same way we can fiddle with contrast on a monitor ie no time soon.

Shouldn't we be more shocked about the preoccupation with conflict in film? Perhaps... or maybe not... I mean it's fun right? It's body chemistry.

So is this more about male collective guilt? The confusion here is that women *are* still suppressed in society and we (still) enjoy reading and watching conflict which necessarily doesn't involve women much. We are only just beginning to unpick this. I personally don't think a form of positive discrimination is going to help.

More films like Babettes Feast would however.

54:

Ben @43 - To take you seriously for a moment, if you take public transport you'll often find yourself inadvertantly overhearing conversations (as noted @21). Your 2 women and 1 man scenario would work too, if you keep quiet and listen (and nod etc.) when appropriate.

(I note that this would technically fulfill the requirements of the rule)

Owen @38 - The conversation(s) we're looking for should arise naturally out of plot and character. So to pass, we need two female characters, interacting normally within the plot, meaning that at least one of them is integral to it and the other has information, control or reponsibility over something related to it. So a supporting female janitor could well fulfill it, but if we aren't just hacking in a scene to do so, she should keep asking the janitor for help and directions every time we're in the building. Suddenly we have a woman doing a job and interacting professionally with our heroine, which can also become a running joke.

Last Movie Night: an episode of Wonder Woman (Pass - the topics being Nazi secret agents)
South Pacific (as you might expect from 1958 - Fail)

55:

I'd expect Quentin tarrantino's "Death proof" to pass the test, but given the raging sexism of the camera's movements and the lap dancing scene, it might constitute a form of disproof - at most the test is indicative...

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56:

Greg@53 I think that only holds if you take the narrowest interpretation of conflict. Yes males tend to have more role in violent conflict, but interpersonal conflict is a game open to all comers.

57:

Red Deathy@55: Death Proof passes, because there is more then one female character, they have a conversation with each other, and it's not about a male.

The test has nothing to do with the sexism of the source material, - although sexist material is less likely to pass, of course - and it's not indicative of *quality* at any point. The test is mostly there as a way for you, the observer, to examine your own assumptions.

58:

But I think third person narrative is common enough in fiction to make it a useful test; and more importantly, what it teaches us is a lesson that should carry over, right

I would be careful of taking this too far; I know that I for one will now be on the lookout for the Bechdel Moment in future Stross stories...

And I would also disagree with this: "What it tells us is that our current movie and (to a lesser extent) our TV culture is pathologically misogynistic — be it in in the adoption of conservative Kinder, Kuche, Kirche values or the more extreme violence of women in refrigerators."

No. What it tells us is that the bits of our world which make interesting cinema - or rather the bits of our world about which interesting cinema is presently made - are still male-dominated. A perfectly accurate fly-on-the-wall representation of, say, a homicide investigation could still fail the Bechdel test, because CID is still a male-dominated environment. (Even "Prime Suspect" could fail the Bechdel test - because the whole point of the drama is about a competent woman trying to cope on her own in a man's world.)

59:

http://www.viruscomix.com/page444.html

is another comic illustration of the problem.

60:

John@57 " they have a conversation with each other, and it's not about a male."

Although, on reflection, surprisingly little is not male related - the discussion around the lakeside shack revolves around boyfriends and father, the stuff about the poem is about men coming up and chatting up, the whole business about the relationship with the director - technically, even the conversation about taking the gun to the launderette is male related (threat of rape)...it passes, but in relation to the amount of dialogue...hmmm...

61:

I took a couple of improv acting classes taught by a woman. After the first few classes, she pointed out that people were improving fairly basic stuff because it was easy. People were putting their finger and thumb in the shape of a gun and pointing it at the other person on the stage. It gives immediate conflict, it's pretty much universal, and you're off and running with a show. But after a couple days of this, it got a bit old.

And having been up on the stage and have my mind go completely blank, I admit sometimes it's about all I can think of.

Obviously, movies and such aren't teh same as improv, but I think part of the tendancy towards violence is that its "easy" to generate conflict with violence, and its "hard" to generate conflict based only on internal character development and dialogue.

I need to learn to write stories with a lot more characters in them. It'll make me a better writer, it'll make my stories more realistic, and as a side benefit, it'll make it far more likely that my stories pass the above test.

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62:

Charlie @ 52:

I've got to stop trimming posts so brutally---I keep on killing off essential context.

I first heard the phrase "Boy Scouts with tits" with regard to some of Heinlein's female characters. It's not really enough to pass to just change clothes and pronouns on half your cast. This was brushed by a couple times upthread. So my mind wandered to "what's the messiest case for a rule literalist", thumbed through Le Guin (A Wizard of Earthsea: EPIC FAIL), bounced off The Player Of Games (I'm a few thousand miles from my copy, but now I'm really curious about whether it literally passes) and then settled on Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which now goes in my "reread for the nth time" stack. Surprised that book isn't burned more often here.

Didn't know nothin' about Polari, which I guess I was just assuming was just another vein of that incomprehensible class-based slang out of your island. Television Anglophilia has its limits. But I think I heard that use of "she" in the wild growing up in the American Midwest.

63:

Jay @62 I think "Player" fails as do some other Iain M Banks though of course partly that is because that the book is very much focused on the male POV hero.

64:

Rozasharn @ 41

Oh, the irony. That line, "Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in" reminded me of the Gary Larsen cartoon captioned "What dogs hear" that shows a man talking to a dog named Daisy, and all the dog hears is "Blah blah blah blah Daisy blah blah". Do those marketing idiots in Hollywood realize what they're saying about themselves?

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65:

#58: For Prime Suspect, there are usually one or two other female cops and Tennyson eventually speaks to them about the case.

Interestingly, Jack McDevitt novels often pass this test, and I don't think of him as a standard bearer for avant garde gender discourse.

On the other hand, Melissa Scott and the late Lisa Barnet, lesbians partners who occasionally co-wrote novels, probably often failed, as their protagonists were gay/bi men.

66:

I'm very pleased to report that my movie passes. Sort of. There's certainly quite a bit of two women talking to each other - about quantum physics, parallel universes and violence, and I don't think at any point do they discuss men. The only caveat is that both of the women are parallel world versions of each other, so do they really count as separate people? I kind of think so as they are really different characters. On the other hand, most of my short films are EPIC FAIL... I really think I can do better.

I think Greg Egan needs to be given a pass as he does usually write very sensitively about issues of gender and sexuality. I think 'he' is, in fact, a hyper-advanced being of arbitrary gender, observing us all from 'his' secret Antipodean base.

It would be nice if we had some kind of Bechdel-Approved tag for movies and books! Because it's the 21st Century now and this Victorian crap has to end.

67:

Oh, whoops, forgot to add - I went to film school in Hollywood, and briefly taught at a film school, and I NEVER heard anything as outrageous as the comment in 41. Never. In my experience, most filmmakers tend to be on the progressive side. I dunno about the execs, though, they may well have a different attitude as by-and-large they are not filmmakers or artists at all.

68:

The Prefect fails, but its written as a Chandleresque detective story in a tight 3rd person. Unless the protagonist was made female it wasn't going to. However Pushing Ice, Redemption Ark and Revelation Space all pass.

Iain Banks is going to be awkward to work out- does Excession pass because one of the characters changes gender at one point? And what do you do about the AIs?

My only knowledge of Polari is from Kenneth Williams on "Round the Horne". It isn't necessarily a bad place to start...

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69:

Francis @ 63:

Yeah, I suspect you're right about Player. But it's a little problematic in that the apex sex gets a masculine pronoun in the little essay about power, with the clear statement that from the apex point of view, males and females have equally subordinate roles.

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70:

Charlie @52: Weird, isn't it? As an aside, someone recently asked for some sf to introduce unenthusiastic adults to the genre, and it was generally thought that "The Witches of Karres" was the all-round best, followed closely by the Trigger stories, the Telzey stories, and "Agent of Vega". So yes, I agree, the market is out there, and that the average reader really doesn't care who's breaking stuff, so long as stuff gets broken.

It's just that this hasn't penetrated yet for a lot of writers, mid-list and otherwise, and that they sincerely believe that this is the way to move product. And to the extent that all a writer cares about is moving product, I them a pass. The ones who sort of make a deal about having more 'social consciousness', whatever that is, I'm apt to be a little harder on. Although, part of the calculation, as I noted earlier, may be that they are incapable of writing those sorts of scenes. 'Write what you know' and all that.

Huw @66: Agreed on Egan. Speaking of Heinlein's 'Boyscouts with', er, you know, it strikes me that Egan goes exactly the other way: you could replace all the males (such as they are) with females, and it wouldn't change a thing.

71:

@Charlie: No, I didn't miss them. They were his flatmates, weren't they? Maybe I don't remember correctly. That's what I was hinting at, to acknowledge that you're already inclusive in this respect. Thus the emoticon. But of course I wouldn't mind if you were even more blatant...

I meant many of the other SciFi authors who have no trouble to envision a totally different, or futuristic, posthuman society, but almost always stick to the present image of (hetero)sexuality.

Of course there are notable exceptions, like your Glasshouse, Iain M. Banks "A Gift from the Culture", Le Guin of course, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh or Iron Council by China Miéville.

I would love to be proven wrong though, so if anybody can give some more reading recommendations like Privatelron above let me hear them!

72:

65: OK; it's been a long time since I saw Prime Suspect.

68: hah. Good point.

But isn't the "viewpoint character" issue the same in films too? If you have a single protagonist (ie just one, not unmarried) and he's male, then almost all the scenes are going to involve him, because he's the protagonist; so you aren't really going to get many chances for two supporting characters to interact with each other in his absence.
So the question then becomes: why aren't there more films with a female protagonist? And I'd go for the explanation I gave above, which is that the bits of the world that make good cinema are also the bits of the world that are male-dominated.

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73:

Another Charlie @21: "Women talked about men, other women,(usually that bitch) food, babies, family, sex and work in that order. "
Abi@33: "You could, like, you know, ask some women what they talk about. "

At the risk of being labeled a misogynist, I'm not sure I see how it is the responsibility of men to create a "positive" image of women in general, or who gets to decide what is positive and what isn't. It has been my experience that many women talk a great deal about men and relationships and enjoy doing so. The majority of "chick flicks" that I've watched are filled with women worrying about their weight, fashion, and obtaining their chosen male. I'm really not sure how many women are craving a movie with lots of females discussing engineering.

Women are half of the population. To compare all women to miniorities, most of which are single digit components of the general population (at least in geographical areas were they are a minority), seems falacious. I'm not aware that women are being prevented from publishing books, or that books that sell well and are not male-oriented are rejected. Publishers will publish whatever sells so if books that depict women "incorrectly" are selling then either women are buying them, or women aren't buying books.

I think the fact that women care what men say about them has a lot to do with the problem. If women produce movies that are uninteresting to men, or even portray men negatively, most men simply don't care. They don't feel victimized so they just ignore it. Women however seem to care much more and feel the need to be viewed correctly by men. I would go so far as to say that an assumption is being made that does a disservice to the goal of equality, that being to assume that women require men to empower them through their opinions and media portrayals.

I feel that the "test" is fine if you're looking at broad trends and statistics, but to apply it to individual works and imply that they are inferior if not sufficiently female-centric is not advisable. If a woman wants to write a book with all female characters, or a man with males, or a Jewish person with Jews, I don't see the problem.

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74:

Ubik @ 70: Peter Hamilton often doesn't do too bad a job of having homo/bisexual characters. Of course there are also a few multi sexual, self sexual and other...odd stuff. Of course it's also generally explicit as opposed to a 'relationship', which I think is a shame.

A glassfull of whatever he drinks would not be good before bed.

I thikn this rule could be harder to hit without going completely the other way. Novels, stories, etc are supposed to garner interest in the characters - the conflict may not be physical but emotional. So yes, perhaps the protagonist is saving the universe for the woman he/she loves. But does changing the he to a she (and matching partners) really change what's being written?

As a complete swinging aside - I finally got an in joke Charlie (without having to research it because I think I get the joke).

Halting State - hating whomever created the Slaad. 20 minutes, laughing till it hurt.

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75:

They don't feel victimized so they just ignore it. Women however seem to care much more and feel the need to be viewed correctly by men.

Hey, we going to have a discussion of privilege here? Last one on ML got sat on, it was most annoying, I was just on the point of coming out with a whole bunch of things which might well have turned out to be inappropriate.

76:

ajay@71: But isn't the "viewpoint character" issue the same in films too?

books and movies have very differnt POV things going on. Books let you get into a character's head and keep you informed of what they're thinking at all times. Movies can't easily reveal the character's thoughts without voice-overs or "as you know bob" dialogue and so on.

Books can easily be a tight third person POV (or "limited", can't recall the nomenclature) which means the "pov" is a camera perched on the character's shoulder, seeing what the person sees, but with a mental link to know what that one particular person is also thinking.

Movies are are different kind of third person pov (again, cant remember the nomenclature), but basically its the camera, standing off of any particular character, and unable to tell what any character is thinking.

The differences don't seem like much until you try taking a story your wrote and converting it to a screenplay format and you start smacking your forehead at all the internal thought processes of the main character that disappear before your eyes.

I used to have a bookmark to a really nice page that described all the different POV's in little cartoony-style depictions, and gave them the proper names, but I can't seem to find it now.

I'm not sure if the different pov styles would make passing the test easier or harder or the same.

77:

Oh, hey, "Stranger than Fiction" passes the test. The author and her assistant spend a number of scenes talking about writing and smoking and deadlines and ideas for killing characters and to some extent, the male character she is writing about, which turns out to be Will Ferrell's character. (Hm, not sure if talking about Will counts or not, if its talking about a man, but not in a relationship/marriage/children sort of way)

But that one passes the test.

My wife didn't like it much though, but I thought it was neat.

78:

Aliens.

Ridley to alien queen: "you bitch"

79:

Ripley talks with Newt quite a bit

80:

At least we can expect that the Y: The Last Man movie will pass this test. Although a lot of the comics dialogue does concern the lack of men so it could fail on number 3...

81:

The current SF tv show "The Middleman" passes the test quite easily in most episodes - the two female roommates go off on regular riffs about art and society (very funny ones sometimes). Admittedly, one of them has a crush on the title character, but he has a crush back, so that's fair. Funny show, by the way.

Nobody mentioned "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," either.

Or "Battlestar Galactica," which passes with flying colors. Yeah, the women often talk about babies and men, but it's usually about whether the subject is a Cylon, so that's not quite the same.

Funny how recent TV shows manage to break the rule so easily...

82:

That's an interesting litmus test, but it's wayyyyyy too vague to stigmatize any single fail, IMHO. It's a cute snark for sure, but there are way too many fully justifiable exceptions for the test to be damning. A feminist monologue would fail, while a blatant porno with 30 seconds of stilted dialog about hunger (leading to ordering a sausage pizza) would pass. That a large majority of fiction fails is telling, but any specific instance is not, IMHO.

(Tangent: how much does non-fiction fail?)

Regardless of test, I do not think Charlie devalues the basic humanity or contribution of women in his fiction, full stop.

This only leaves the question: "Do I think Charlie could work harder for social justice?" Sure, everyone could. As a popular and talented author, he probably even should, as long as he can avoid being too anvilicious about it. The whole family trade series seems like a great start to me.

83:

"Gilmore Girls" easily passes and was one of few series I would watch on TV for a while. It jumped the shark after a few seasons, and I stopped watching. But it had a couple years of really good dialogue between mom and daughter.

84:

Serraphin @ 73: Really, Hamilton? I just began reading The Dreaming Void and don't know his earlier stuff, so this was pretty much the kind of gender-wise dissatisfying Space Opera I had in mind. There's even have a male secret-agent character rescuing a woman Quatermain-style, carrying her on his shoulder while she is beating ineffectually at his buttocs and "sobbing hysterically".

I already thought that The Dreaming Void doesn't quite work as a stand alone book, so I want to go back to earlier novels in his Commonwelth Universe, so I'll see if my first impression was wrong.

@ GregLondon: Although I found "Stranger in a Strange Land" to be homophobic, there's a more positive approach by Allyn Howey on Strange Horizons: "Junior, you aren’t shaping up too angelically": Queerness in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which made me reconsider my view. Maybe I'll give this one another try.

85:

So what does it mean if you write a female protagonist who kicks action b*tt while lugging a baby around (Given that said baby, also female, seems to have her own contribution to Mama's kicking b*tt as well)? Simply housewifely wish fulfillment?

What does it mean to have power struggles in the political and corporate world between females, which also include reproductive issues (which I think Charlie nails pretty solidly in the Clan Corporate world)?

I think there's a point to Bechdel's Law, but I also think downplaying or eliminating the knife's-edge of reproductive issues, among females of reproductive age, is also trying to turn females into men without certain appendages. Women get pregnant, willingly or no, irrespective of gender orientation, power and status level, or class. Managing that situation can either be a fallback to old structures or a leap into something new.

So how many strong and politically/corporately powerful female protagonists do you encounter who have to deal with children? I mean, really deal with the parenting issues, besides handing them off to Nanny?

(looks around, listens to crickets chirping).

Worth a thought.

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86:

Been racking my brain to come up with something useful to add, can't.

Someone asked for reading suggestions.
Delany's been mentioned.
How about the recently departed Disch,
or Joanna Russ' "The Female Man"
And of course, James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon's "The Women Men Don't See".

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87:

I think that people may be misinterpreting the test. Nobody's saying that you have to derail your summer action flick so that two women can chat about stress at the offices, where they got their nails done, and, you know, their feelings.

The idea is, it would be nice if in your summer actioner, two women said something like:

"What's the plan?"
"You do a frontal assault with that monster gun of yours, and while they're distracted, I'll grab the goods. You ready?"
"I was born ready."

(Also, I think it passes the spirit of the test if women are discussing a man in the sense of, like, "How do we capture the Joker," rather than, "You bitch, you stole my man.")

88:

Stepehn A Russell @72 - Charlie and Alison Bechdel may not agree but I don't think the problem is so much men writing about men for men, as in The Name of the Rose or Saving Private Ryan for instance. Nor is it that the women in fiction spend a lot of time talking to men or about men and relationships. It's that if they talk about nothing else amongst themselves it becomes unrealistic and bad characterisation. For myself, I do want to see women occasionally talking about engineering in fiction, just as in real life when I've sat between two female friends discussing Mini maintenance and had nothing to say, or when my Mum talks about how she's repointing her wall to her friends and I've been the only one with no bricklaying experience. Women who talk a lot about men are realistic and good characters; women who talk about nothing else is bad lazy writing.
(Also what Michael Sullivan said above)

89:

Stephen @72: boy oh boy, you really have a good big load of invisible privilege, don't you?

Hint: it's not about comparing women to minorities, it's about examining the systematic disempowerment of half the human population on the basis of an accident of birth.

90:

This is vaguely reminiscent of the change in SF to make it more character driven. Stories once only sketched characters raced along and finished in around 150 pages. Then the new style entered, dialogue exploded and the plots didn't finish for 350+ pages. Oh, and let's not forget about the "obligatory" sex scenes that were added. Sf certainly looked more "main stream" stylistically, but something was lost too, if only the hours spent reading unnecessary dialogue.

I also think that it is not a bad idea to stick with writing what you know. Trying to write believable female to female dialogue is going to be based on relatively little experience, which might easily sound false to women readers.

If the buying public is mostly women (I note that women buy most underwear too, even for the men), then I would expect that the readership is catered to quite well. Is there really a shortage of women authors? By chance most of my acquaintances who identify themselves as authors are women. Could we see the statistics that show that women readers are 2/3 the market and that they feel that there is a shortage of books addressing their reading desires?

91:

For those of you wondering what women talk about when there are no men around, I can relate the subjects I've just discussed with a friend of mine, in approximate order: a recent holiday taken by one of us, cats, food, beading workshops, crap cider, early British jet fighters, G-PSST in particular, the local airshow, driving, gay nuns, Doctor Who, mediaeval women's headgear, arranging to visit one another, etc.

Hope this helps.

92:

(@ my post above: Oh damn, i want want a comment editing function. English language not so easy for me, sorry.) Anyway: i like this thread. Please enrich it with some more positive examples of novels with progressive gender politics, if you know any.

93:

I did a quick assessment of my self published stuff and online videos, and I think it comes out about even pass/fail.

On tv the CSIs pass the test, I reckon. The original series had almost no relationship related plots for anyone for the first few series, so the female characters were always talking about the case in hand. Miami lets it down a bit with it's insistence on portraying David CAruso as a love god when the truth is he's a short man who looks like a gargoyle and walks like his tracking's off.

94:

Ubik @91: I have been up since 3am this morning and don't get off work-duty until 10pm tonight. And I have to head for the airport at 6am tomorrow. (The glamorous lifestyle of the author on a signing tour. Economy class, natch.) Thus, I am slightly short of time with which to post long, eloquent blog entries.

95:

Most of my conversations with other women are about project management, engineering, and corporate politics...because I work with other women (as well as a whole lot of men), and we talk about our work. So I think the argument that men don't write about women because they don't know what women talk about is silly. Characters in a book or movie talk about whatever the author needs them to talk about. If the characters are women, they can talk about quantum mechanics or flight engineering if that's what the story is about.

If you think that's unrealistic, because all the women you know seem to talk about shopping or television or diets, consider what the men you know talk about. If it's barbeque and television and sports, they probably aren't featured in your SF novel either.

96:

Wow, that strip linked in #2 couldn't be more true. I'm not really sure why we do so little turning of sex roles on their heads anymore (though I suppose those guilty of lack of action are just trying to move with a perceived majority, as any money laden riskless industry tends to :/ )

Charlie said something rather relatable at his books signing down in Glendale, CA; "I like to scratch itches in fiction I feel no one else is scratching."

Honestly I swear I must have four arms like that girl from the begginning of Glasshouse, because I've done a lot of itch scratching in my own work and found it pretty rewarding.

First off; it's fun making the male lead a bit of a damsel and distress and giving the fem. number one an attitude "problem" (she'd call it anti-idiot defenses) and such qualities as supreme athleticism and a height of seven feet. It's made for good fiction so far.

Anyway, I'll be trying to keep to the Wallace-Bechdel test as best I can from here on out, though I'm the culprit of Stross' aforementioned "character in first person has facial hair and dangly parts" paradox.

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97:

For what it's worth, I was watching "Pitch Black" last night, and I would say it passed the test, because the last thing the three female characters talked about were men or fashion. But I don't think any of the blockbusters I saw this summer would pass.

Thinking of some past stuff...

Stargate, at least for the first season fails, except for the gloriously tacky episode where all the men fall under the spell of a Femme Fatale.

The Justice League cartoons would pass, since they have a number of non-man conversatins between women. Superman and Batman animated series might barely pass as well. Teen Titans passes the test easily.

In Books: Jonathan Strange andMr. Norrell passes I think, because IIRC,the conversation between the female characters concerned an illness. Likewise, TheSong of Ice and FIre passes. The Dresden Chronicles doesn't pass, AFAICT, and I'm tempted to think that most first-person male viewpoint books wouldn't.

This is a fun game.

98:

Stephen @ 73:
If women produce movies that are uninteresting to men, or even portray men negatively, most men simply don't care. They don't feel victimized so they just ignore it.

Really? Did you catch any of the press coverage when Sex and the City broke box office records its opening weekend? I heard and read an awful lot of mockery and disdain expressed for the film and the audiences which flocked to it. I've never watched the TV show, but even I got tired of reporting like this.


By the way, I've often seen a caveat added to the Bechdel Test that the conversation be between two named characters -- so that the lady of the house making an offhand request of her maid doesn't quite cut it.

The last time I started trying to categorize movies, I realized that many of my favorite films failed: Star Wars (the original), Real Genius, The Princess Bride, Casablanca, even Serenity, which comes closest in a conversation between River and her teacher. And according to other reports, only one Pixar film actually qualifies: The Incredibles. Isn't it disturbing that something so fundamental as women talking with other women can be so ignored?

99:

Charlie @94: sorry, I don't quite get it. As I said above, english is not my first language, so sorry if I said something that came across as demanding longer, more eloquent blog entries from you. Not sure how what I said could be interpreted in that way though...
I just said that I wanted comment editing function for correcting my typos and words left over from editing after clicking preview, (the "have" from my post #84); and that some more reading recommendations would be nice. Not from you specifically, but anybody in this thread who knows a novel that passes the Bechdel test, or is generally progressive on the gender front...

But perhaps I'm just derailing the thread?

Or did you mean post #91 by Feòrag (I wrote #92)

100:

Ubik @99: What Charlie read as a call for him, personally, adding to this thread was Please enrich it with some more positive examples of novels with progressive gender politics, if you know any. It reads like an appeal to everyone here myself. Still he's sleep-deprived at the moment, and bound to misinterpret things.

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101:

The position Delany took in Trouble on Triton is not progressive gender politics in invented futures for its own sake. Rather, it's partially tied back into his construction of science fiction as a literature that has a much wider range of narrative and meaning available.

One naive translation of this to engineering-speak is that there are simply more good stories out there to be told than in the subset limited to hetero (yet sexless) white boys riding some phallic objects and pointing different phallic objects at the Other. So this is a pragmatic/aesthetic, rather than a political, argument. The test is then a quick sample to see if the story's in the superset rather than the boring subset. Although, if the test fails the story is not necessarily in the subset....

That translation is also, I think, a distortion of the context back in the Seventies. The SF books we're talking about from that era were elaboration and extension of contemporary gender politics. An analogous reaction to illiberality today would not reach for equality but would be more prodding of unintended consequence or force a fresh look through strange eyes. (That sort of political thing viscerally worked on me in Iron Sunrise and didn't in The Algebraist---Beating-Up-Banks day.)

Don't take either of those two points as statements of personal preference.

I'm getting dangerously far from areas I feel confident in my understanding of. I might as well just start posting dum/b/ass stuff like "HETEROTOPIAN DELANY IS HETEROTOPIAN." It'll look better on my record when ML shows up.

At some point there was a fuss over Tinky-Winky allegedly being gay. The response that stuck with me was, "that's an error---toddlers aren't straight *or* gay." (They were alien toddlers with televisions in their bellies, appropriately enough....)

102:

I don't do sleep deprivation well -- I run on 7-8 hours a night (rising to 9-10 hours in midwinter darkness). I am currently running on 4-6 hours a night. This is not good for me ...

103:

It was asserted about Jane Austen that she never wrote any dialogue which did not have a female observer. Men are in a similar position with regard to observation.

104:

Lis: I heard and read an awful lot of mockery and disdain expressed for the film and the audiences which flocked to it.

My wife was an avid fan of the show. Watched it for years. But she hated, hated, hated the movie. I think it was the first time in a while she came home angry because of a movie.

I didn't see it, so I can't comment on the quality. (I made her see Dark Knight. She made me see Mama Mia. But sometimes we'll encourage the other to go alone or with a friend. I'll watch Hellboy by myself, and she watched "Sex in the City" with a girlfriend.)

Star Wars (the original)

Lucas isn't good at writing women. At all. Natale Portman's dialog in any SW episode.

Real Genius

The female student who never slept. She was my favorite character.

The Princess Bride

My second favorite movie of all time, but, yes, fails the test.

Casablanca

Hm, haven't seen that one.

Serenity

I was trying to remember if any of the women on the ship ever talk directly to each other. There's one or two scenes where everyone is together in a group all talking at once, all talking to the rest of the group. I'm not sure if that would count or not. River and her teacher, I suppose, but I'm not sure if her teacher was supposed to be a figment of her imagination, an implanted thought, or a real person from her past.

The TV series must pass the test somewhere.

I was thinking of the movie pov versus book pov thing, and I think movie POV makes it easier to have multiple characters, including two women talking with each other. But the problem with movies is there just isn't a lot of time to tell the story. So, it's probably easier with TV series, just because they ahve more time to work with, and its probably even easier with novels because you can have hundreds and hundreds of pages.

105:

The books I've read most recently that have large amounts of women talking about medicine, physics, politics, etc. are Robert Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallex, which have crappy worldbuilding and physics.

Today I've talked primarily to two women in person (excusing the cat). The first was my cleaning lady and we talked about her gall bladder surgery, her son's need for a new bed (he has spina bifida and is getting taller), the city's crack-down on illegal immigrants, the loss of housing values, and the difference between US supermarkets and Mexican marketplaces.

The second woman was our condo management person and I talked to her after a meeting of residents and some guys who own property behind us and want a temporary easement. We talked about the easement, and the fact that they're going to be putting the lamps on steel poles instead of the wood ones as the wood ones rot. Then everybody but me got to go look at the surveyed lines in person.

(Many years ago, when I was president of the condo org, it became apparent that the builder hadn't put in enough lightpoles. I was able to talk the board into putting metal poles behind the buildings, but the new ones in front of the buildings were voted to be wood, like the existing ones in front. Now they're rotting at ground level. I'd say "I told you so," but two of the people on the board are dead and the other two have moved. Hmph.)

106:

ah, now I see. sorry. my excuse it that I was writing this from a bar over a beer from my mobile phone. Next time I'll wait until i'm home to comment.

107:

Exercise for the reader: can you think of any mass market movies that fail the reverse of Bechdel's test? There are some, but they're pretty few and far between. The Devil Wears Prada, I think (a better movie than one might expect, by the way), and maybe some Austen adaptations. By and large, filmmakers seem to be aware that men are people.

108:

The TV series must pass the test somewhere.

Less than one might think, I bet. Zoe mostly interacts with Mal and Wash, and River doesn't really have conversations as such. Out of the main cast, that leaves Inara-Kaylee conversation as the most plausible way to pass the test, and they're often pretty oriented towards Inara's clients.

The one really strong pass that I can think of is Inara and Saffron's interaction in the garbage container.

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109:

So how many strong and politically/corporately powerful female protagonists do you encounter who have to deal with children? I mean, really deal with the parenting issues, besides handing them off to Nanny?

Er...surely one of the joyous perks of being a politically/corporately powerful person of either sex is that you get to farm your less intrinsically rewarding tasks (photocopying, full-time childcare etc.) out to sundry minions and flunkies. Doesn't necessarily result in well-balanced individuals when applied to parenting, of course - see the British royal family, though separating out the effects of inbreeding in that case isn't easy.

110:

"A question for the authors... what makes a character male or female? Some of the Heinlein juveniles were written with a female protagonist but, really, you could have swapped the character out for a male one with minimal changes.

Or is the question meaningless?"

Let me put it this way: What makes a non-fictional person male or female? Not at all an as easy question to answer as what it may seem.

Personally, I might as well have been a metrosexual guy considering how badly I adhere to the stereotype of females. For instance, I hold logic to be very important and hate mindgames. Does this mean I'm not a real woman? What about the women/men who've lost their reproductive organs, are they fake people? What about intersexed and transgendered people? etcetera... It isn't as easy as separating the XX from the XY, especially as there are for instance XXY people, and the fact that more than just those chromosomes effect the development of a child's future reproduction system.

One of the problems when women get hired in higher places is that people expect them to be representatives of their entire gender class and work significantly differently that "a man", instead of letting them be themselves.

I think the question should rather be: Are there enough nuanced and different types of characters in stories, for any gender and beyond?

If all the men are macho manly men doing manly thing to protect his manliness and get lots of sex and beer, that's as bad as women being softy baby factories swooning over a guy. Are there enough albino characters who aren't supernatural in any way, nor evil? Are there enough advertisements that don't portrait black females as wild, exotic and with the spirit/personality of some wild, 'sexy' animal (often a panther)? Moms who have a life and do more than tend to or think about their kids/partner? Fathers who think and tend to their children in spite of having a life outside of the family as well? We need all sorts of characters.

Sometimes it's important to add random traits to a character without it making them particularly special in any way except for possibly how others react to them in the story. The character Alexis in the tv-series Ugly Betty would be a gender related example.

I find it really nice when it in stories isn't a big deal that someone is for instance not male, or not heterosexual (and if your first and only thought is 'homosexual', you've just lost the game... big time), or that someone falls in between gender roles or possibly even blatantly disregards them. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of scifi and fantasy, where it's easier to get away with these things.

"I think there's a point to Bechdel's Law, but I also think downplaying or eliminating the knife's-edge of reproductive issues, among females of reproductive age, is also trying to turn females into men without certain appendages. Women get pregnant, willingly or no, irrespective of gender orientation, power and status level, or class."

Are you implying that I'm a man without a penis? That I'm a fake woman? But I don't feel like I'm a man. =( This is not happy. (No, I'm not taking that personally, I'm making a point. There are all sorts of people, always will be. Catering to certain groups doesn't have to be the same as denying all the other people the right to belong to those groups...)

"So how many strong and politically/corporately powerful female protagonists do you encounter who have to deal with children? I mean, really deal with the parenting issues, besides handing them off to Nanny?"

I don't know if the book Jennifer Government would pass that one well enough, as one of the male characters winds up babysitting her daughter while she goes off fighting bad guys. She does however repeatedly interact with her child before that, though. I would however also want fathers to deal with parenting issues, in other ways than "oh no my little princess isn't worshiping me anymore" or "oh noes my future replacement in society is growing up and is falling to the dark side."


Random food for thought (for anyone):

The Aka pygmes social structure
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aka_(Pygmy_tribe)#Lifestyle
http://www.vancouver.wsu.edu/fac/hewlett/Introaka.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2005/jun/15/childrensservices.familyandrelationships

http://www.khaoskomix.com/

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111:

I'm interested by how hard some folks kick at the idea that big chunks of our pop culture flat-out ignore women as potential fodder for adventure and drama. And it's not a matter of realism - reality has nothing to do with what the male leads in action yarns are up to, either. It's a blind spot.

I have the feeling that some critics of the test worry that accepting the desirability of female characters given the same glosses and depth as male ones would mean turning into wimps. Gentlemen, let me reassure you: look at how well a lot of anime and manga genres do at female protagonists. And yet Japan is not a liberal utopia of gender equality, to put it mildly. You can still be chauvinist pigs and fear no risk to the family jewels just because you offer more to readers and viewers of every genre who'd like some more female heroes.

112:

"So how many strong and politically/corporately powerful female protagonists do you encounter who have to deal with children?"

Try "The Journal of Dora Damage". No, she's not "corporate" or "powerful" (apart from anything the book is set in Victorian London, but the mechanics of childcare (and in fact the safety of the child) are central to this book, not just glossed over to allow the plot to go on.

(And I think this one passes the test....)

113:

The later books of Kim Stanley Robinsons Mars series as well as his Washington trilogy should pass Bechdel's test as well as the child care test.

114:

Okay, coming late to this discussion, one thing confuses me-- why is the gender of the characters particularly important unless the topics of discussion _are_ something gender-specific?

Bluntly, why does this make any more sense than being offended that two blond characters didn't have a conversation about something other than hair dye in a given work?

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115:

C: Because women are a touch more than half the population, but are systematically, wildly underrepresented when it comes to the images and stories we present of people doing interesting, exciting things. People of most hair colors do not lack for "people like me" in that regard. People who are female, too. And they particularly lack when it comes to people who are female, doing interesting and exciting things, and having any companions in adventure who are also female and who get to deal with them.

Unlike hair color, height, and a bunch of other qualities, sex comes in just about two choices. There are exceptions and fringe cases, plus people who don't act or look the way others around them expect of people of that sex, but mostly there are people who are like you because they are male/female and people who are not like you because they are female/male. If you're a person who is female, and the overwhelming majority of examples of people who get to do interesting things are people who are not like you, it is neither hard nor stupid to conclude that people like you are not meant to do interesting things.

And of course that sense of a barrier between you and doing interesting things only feels reinforced when random members of the part of the population that's not like you say things that boil down to "Why are you complaining so much? After all, there are all these cool heroes like me, and some that are like you as long as they're willing to act enough like me and only be close to people like me and maybe have sex with me but be totally okay with all the other heroes being people like me."

116:

Bruce- That assumes that identification with the character takes place based (at least largely) on gender. In short, that "Oh, wait, that's a male/female, not like me" trumps "Oh, that's an intelligent and creative person...just like me." "Hey, that's someone with a political outlook just like mine" "Hey, that person proposes a future just like the one I'd want".

Why is gender the defining characteristic there versus all the other potential things? And isn't walking on eggshells about gender balance giving gender a significance it doesn't really need?

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117:

C: Suppose that virtually every portrayal of an inspirational, heroic, or just plain interesting adventurer were female, with a few token guys as long as they didn't act very manly and didn't mind being the only man in the crowd. Suppose it were taken as a given by nearly everyone who makes popular entertainment that guy stuff is innately silly when it's not contemptible or offensive, and that the real measure of a man's value is what he can do that women do better than men (whether innately or because of socialization - in either case, the stuff that people take for granted as women's stuff rather than men's). Suppose that if you asked whether it might make sense to make some entertainment that took men's stuff as valuable and quite possibly fun for women to watch too, observers on all sides rushed in to heap scorn on the idea and accuse you of being overly sensitive.

And suppose that this had always been the case, that adventure was regarded as women's domain, and that if you wanted some more adventure that respected men and their roles, you could expect to be denounced as an enemy of civilization, social order, good taste, or common cluefulness. Oh, and suppose that violations of your personal privacy, health, and psychological well-being were treated as the stuff of comedy and action, and that wishing for humor and drama that didn't hinge so much on men being crippled and tormented got you more denunciations as a self-indulgent little prick who just doesn't understand how this seems to women, who are the people who matter.

Are you sure it wouldn't bug you a bit?

(Not that I'm going to follow up on this, likely, unless the response shows signs of going anywhere. I'm mostly writing for the benefit of bystanders.)

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118:

Footnote: In general, the presence or absence of the "people like me" factor matters more when the feature at hand is both important to how we do in fact organize our society and one or more of the options is routinely treated as inferior or unworthy. Since sex-based discrimination is in fact very widespread and very important in affecting the kinds of lives available to men, women, and those in the hard-to-categorize-tidily choices, yes, it matters in entertainment too.

119:

C @ 114:

If gender of the characters is as unimportant as you suggest, why should it bother you if female characters are given greater agency?

120:

The fantasy books of Chaz Brenchley pass the Bechdel test with flying colours - both series' have strong female characters who spend a lot of time talking to other strong female characters about many different things.

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121:

completely off topic for this post, but relevant to a previous post on european telecoms laws.

ACTA (anti counterfeiting trade agreement) negotiations are taking place in Washington at the moment. The new laws are aimed at outlawing unauthorised copying of pretty much everything.

Wikileaks have posted a proposal by "concerned business interests" which can be found here
(http://wikileaks.org/wiki/ACTA_negotiations_brief_on_Border_Measures_and_Civil_Enforcement_2008)

Basically the RIAA etc want customs to be able to search anything that might have data on it (mp3s, electronic films etc). If anything is found that can't be proven to be "legitimate", it would be deleted/destroyed/confiscated. Your details would then be passed to the copyright holder, who could sue you and claim back all their expenses from you (they decide what the expenses are). There seems to be a rather large list of worrying powers they are aiming for. needless to say, this is a BAD THING.

122:

@97

Yeah, just started on the Dresden Files. It doesn't pass. Also, every woman the main character has run into so far has been described as beautiful. This seems to be pretty normal in a popcorn series. Most fantasy seems to have this problem.

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123:

#121: If it's completely off topic, why did you bring it up here? It might be better to email Charlie and let him know about it. Then he could bring it up in a new post if he chooses.

124:

Bruce: I'm not sure I'd be raising Anime/Manga as a battle-standard on the side of womens' representation in media.

Even in series that are not primarily romantic, the pattern tends to be that powerful female characters (main characters, and supporting) no matter how independent ,always, at the end relies on the power of a male character, or si infatuated with a male character (usually in a docile, deer-in-headlights kind of way) It's really more of them same (or worse) packaged up to look different.

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125:

@122, @97 -- I suspect, though I'd have to re-read, that some of the more recent Dresden Files books pass, if only because female characters start to proliferate and they have to talk to _somebody_ so sooner or later they will talk to each other of only by chance. The first four or so definitely don't, though.

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126:

Maybe there's room to do some "in the style of" knockoffs without copyright infringement. Something like "The Bourne Identity" with Matt Damon replaced by, say, a younger Francis McDormand. This would be perfectly legit, wouldn't it?

Or, looking through my stuff lying haphazardly around, how about an update of "The Marching Morons"(side question: is there anything like the original story out there right now?) with John Barlow and Tinny-Peete replaced by women.

127:

The most recent SF book I've read is Iain M Banks' Matter, which fails. It has a strong female character, as do most of his books (non-SF included) but I can't recall her talking to any females at all. Of course, much of the book is set in a defintely mysognistic society and is written from the pov of two male characters, but Iain Banks is not a writer I'd associate with misogyny.

128:

C@114, I suppose the question is 'what do you make the test mean for you?'

Me, I see it as a way to improve my writing, like a test for cardboard characters or plots with high handwavium content.

You might see something else in the test that is useful for you. Other people might see other things for them.

It's possible that everyone might see something different in this test as it relates to them, and that all those different things might be simultaneously true.

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129:

I agree with Greg in #128 (and it's always nice to agree with someone I've just been having a vehement disagreement with recently): I think that having interesting female characters doing interesting things and talking with each other is good writing, unless there's some very strong reason not to have them. And even when there is an apparent reason not to, I think it's worth considering how much of that is really necessary to the story.

I feel even more strongly about it this morning, having chatted with Mom about it and showed her the cartoon. She laughed, and then sighed, and commented on how much richer she thinks the world is in fodder for girls' daydreams now than in the '30s, when she grew up. That really hit me, because I had a very active fantasy life going when I was a boy, and I think girls deserve just as much coolness for the imagination as I do. And men and women and everyone grown up, too.

130:

The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds. Fails, I think. There are several female characters with significant speaking roles, but I don't think that they ever talk to each other.

Correct. But most of Reynolds stories pass:

"Pushing Ice", "Revelation Space", "Redemption Ark" and "Turquoise Days" all have major female characters, and pass easily. "Absolution Gap" barely passes (near the end). I think "Chasm City" fails (Zebra and Chantrelle may talk briefly, but I am not sure), but given it is written from male first person, that's excusable. "Diamond Dogs" is also male first person, yet it passes. About half of Reynolds' short stories pass.

131:

Now that I think about it, somebody is bound to claim Reynolds' female characters are "not real women"!

Bella Lind - a seemingly sexless spaceship captain
Lyudmila Barghesian - an Olympic athlete, spaceship engineer, and Machiavellian plotter who won't let go of a grudge for decades
Ilia Volyova - a cold-blooded murderer and an obsessive
Ana Khouri - a soldier
Antoinette Bax - basically, a tomboy
Zebra and Chantrelle - hedonistic aristocrats (and Zebra was born a man)
Etc.

But, as Another Charlie #21 already pointed out, what "real women" -- and "real men" for that matter, -- are just not very interesting.

132:

@Ilya: here we enter the battlefield between sex and gender, or between difference feminism (men and women are different, and "female values" or "female skills" should either be appreciated more or are seen as positive pole vs. patriarchism) and liberal feminism (humans should be treated equal, independent of gender and perceived values or skills attributed to gender). If one agrees more with the later one, the apperance of female captains, soldiers and even murderers is somewhat better than the apperance of very female strong women. Hope I'm understandable thru the translation border.

133:

Exactly my point. No matter how you present female characters, SOMEBODY will always complain.

134:

Ilya@133: No matter how you present female characters, SOMEBODY will always complain.

Omit that initial clause, and it's still true: Somebody will always complain.
Even if a story gets gender relationships perfectly, it may still get dinged for its treatment of minority characters.

But that doesn't diminish the usefulness of this exercise in helping people recognize their (and society's) blindspots, hopefully in ways that will improve matters.

Also keep in mind, this isn't a fatal flaw. In an earlier comment, I listed several movies which I still really love that fail the Bechdel Test.

This thread has barely touched upon Women in Refrigerators (a popular plot device in which female characters are victimized -- raped, murdered, or otherwise injured -- for the primary purpose of exploring how this affects a male character), and I can think of several great works which use this trope, too.

135:

Correct me if i'm wrong, but in later editions of 'the left hand of darkness' or comments in other places, le Guin, regrets using the male pronoun and the assumption that Genthians only do it A to B, equipment wise (see the story in 'birthday of the world' for the correction) she puts it down to a conformity bias at the time of writing.

Also the objectified gender in 'stars in my pocket…' is the 'male'(?)* HE. Intelligent, articulate individuals are SHE, this of course can be the double negative of the Polari suggestion that Charlie mentions above; or a reversal of the 'male gaze'. Yeah, Yeah.
But since the main SHE looking at the HE is short, hairy with substantial dangly bits, when does a SHE become a HE and vice versa. -Does thinking about HE's all the time rot the brain, i.e. nolonger Intelligent, articulate individuals?

* The question mark is mine, I haven't reread it recently, but we seem to have separation of biological sex, gender, engagement of the gonads, disscussion on what constitutes a family and not to forget piles of literary theory. I suppose the point here in the objectification: objects can't have conversations about none object-type stuff (read men 'n' babies in this "patriarch" orientated world) especially if they bite their nails and don't wash their feet.

And I guess that's what the test is originally, (reducing the object count) apart from having something for the girls to get their teeth into.
Also why are film makers so keen on having young men watching other men running around in their vests for 2 hrs or so. Is their something we should be told? "Like Ben, not sure about Her!" (she misquotes).

Well you can tell, I've never taken a liberal arts course, its been fun reading…

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136:

Thank you, that is such a useful mental tool! Well done, and I don't think you have so much to be ashamed of compared to others.

Let's see... of the books I've read recently:
Michael Bond's Paddington books definitely pass :-) Mrs. Bird, Mrs. Brown and Judy talk to each other mostly about the doings, messes and incredible luck of a certain young bear.
William Gibson's books get more passy as they go on, I think. The first trilogy was pretty male, although with some great female characters; the second had a strong female character who, by the end of the trilogy, had a female pal and they chatted about all sorts of things (including how to break up with men, but that's not enough for a fail is it?). And Pattern Recognition and Spook Country were definite passes.
The Sherlock Holmes stories are spectacular fails. The housekeeper confines herself to keeping house, and the occasional femme fatale generally swoons delicately and is patronised appallingly by His Cleverness. There's one smart woman in the whole oeuvre.
Ursula Le Guin... I'll have to think and re-read, but there must be a load of passes there, surely.
Dorothy L. Sayers... hmm - more re-reading required. Goody!

137:

Joyce@85:
So how many strong and politically/corporately powerful female protagonists do you encounter who have to deal with children? I mean, really deal with the parenting issues, besides handing them off to Nanny?

Another good question but I cna think of some answers.

Jean M Auel's Ayla in the Clan of the Cave Bear would be one. Cordelia Naismith Vorkosogan a second (though she clearly would have access to nannies/nurses and need them given Miles' disabilities)

Scalzi's Jane Sagan has an adopted teenage daughter.

(Heinlein's Friday has babies but not when she's kicking butt so that doesn't count, ditto all other Heinlein heroines that I can think of)

Weber's Honor Harrington is an EPIC FAIL but her mother is a major pass, she just is not the heroine of the tale(s).

Ok there are fewer than I thought in the books I read whereas there are plenty of those books that pass the original test

138:

@llya, 132: I suppose that is a bit of a paradox. However, it was fairly plain. I suppose you imply that there are two possible goals that would be perceived as positive progress for women.

One being you have powerful women who are true to womanly ideals and depths as seen by women and the other being a case where women are able to branch out into skillsets and careers generally attributed to people with hairy dangle bits.

Honestly, I'm not sure if I'll able be able to explore the former, but the latter has always interested me.

However, I also wonder what it means when we say "well, character X could have easily just been a man." I mean, I wonder if it's as much of a victory to have characters who are tomboys or show some qualities we generally reserve as being masculine.

139:

I still am bothered by the spoofability of the test.

140:

@117 and 118- Bug me enough that I'd produce an arbitrary test requiring deep moments of conversation between members of the same gender? Wouldn't "The female characters act competently" work better as a guide? And if you want one of those, just go write it.

@119-- It doesn't-- having a passive character of either gender is a bit of a waste of page space. (I consider The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant unreadable for this reason). But saying that for a female character to be "good", she must engage in solo conversation with another female character while avoiding a short list of taboo topics is bizarre.

141:

Francis @137: I thought Heinlein's Friday only had the one baby that she was suckered into carrying in the relevnt volume, that's the point; but suddenly she seems to be uber haus frau despite the lack of training in this area.
All Heinlein's wimin seem to love being pregnant all the time, "since you can have sex lots in the time it takes to have a live birth" -no one heard of the pill?
the Crazy_Years don't seem to have affected attitudes to over population at all either… maybe Howards do it different
You can be up the duff and kick ass as Aunt Hilda, who seems the real power behind the throne and you can always use the creche if you are an Amazon stationed on Barrel House - except that creche is seen as a bad thing.
So you can be a Heinlien babe if your always up for it and can multi task toilet training and planetary government, and keep a perfect perm (I think the hair thingcame from the front of my copy 'the number of the beast' and the 'fresher fetish) or maybe they are really good at sticking to the kitchen rota.
Enough to give us mere mortals a huge inferiority complex. ^^

142:

ubik @106, the TV news just said 65% of people check email in the bathroom. I think posting from the pub is better than that.

Matt @107, it was a mass market movie when it came out, and still one of my favorites: The Women doesn't have any meaningful talk between men. Dear ghu, a remake is coming out in September. It's hard to imagine it could be as good.

C @116, have you seen "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS, US)? I look at the geeky guys and think if I was still that age, I'd have a crush on them. I don't think that I'd be like them, because when I was that age, I was the only woman on the technical staff in the companies where I worked. I test at the same level their genius does, but I would never have gotten his kind of job. Okay, there's been some cracks in the glass ceiling, but the women I talk to now about it say they are still not treated equally to the men in their companies.

143:

C @140, see @2: you got to remember who came up with the original test and when… and what that specifically might infer.

sorry about the Heinlein rant, as much as I cut my teeth on him, he's sorely grieved me for years

144:

@141- Consider it from Heinlein's point of view, though-- the survival and expansion of the species is, if not the paramount moral good, at least making the top three. Women are therefore trading a portion of their lives to promote that. Men, being less valuable to the survival of the species, are expected to risk themselves disproportionately to defend them.
I believe at some point Heinlein suggested that the purpose of society was the protection of children and pregnant women. Pregnancy is high status in that case. (This works better with faster-than-light travel so there's someplace for these kids to go, mind you)

145:

Does a species have to expand at such a rate?
Heinlein's women are unusual then that they continually have high status regardless of their biological imperative.
I can't think of any goose girls that end up saviour_queens of their local_universe, where there are a couple of scratching dirt farmers that transcend their beginnings with the help of an eidectic memory, or kindly helpers_on_the_way.
As for the "purpose of society [being] the protection of children and pregnant women" doesn't work so well so often…
Maybe you need it scary out there to keep the story going, but fuzzy, warm and diadactic inside.
As you know bob: you don't want any old child, only new wombs in any number; cannon fodder or the Swiftian solution for the rest? Depends on what territory your are growing into.

*Must go to bed* we've got a long way from D2WO4

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146:

C, implicit in many of the replies you're getting and will get is that we do understand Heinlein's views on the roles of men and women, and disagree. It's not like this is an epic shock. Some of us change our own minds, after all, and hang around with others who do. "That idea turned out to be bogus" is not a statement of surrender, cowardice, stupidity, or anything - it's something that people learning about the world actually should probably say fairly often.

147:

maggie @141: I've read _Friday_ fairly recently and I think you're basically right about her pregnancy. But earlier in the book she's stepmother(?) to the children of some of her co-wives in the group marriage, though I don't think any of the children are major well-developed characters as such. _Friday_ passes the Bechdel test as best as I can recall, Friday having conversations on a variety of subjects with female fellow employees of the spy organization, and with some other female characters at various points.

As for some other books I've read recently:

_The High Crusade_, Poul Anderson - fail, partly because it has a first-person male narrator, but besides that I think there's only one major female character. Given the setting it make sense; most of the characters are knights or monks.

_Limekiller!_ by Avram Davidson: might not fail, though it has tightly focused 3P POV with male main character. There's a scene where Jack is overhearing the conversation of the whores on the porch of the hotel he's staying in, and though their conversation understandably includes certain stereotypically female topics, it also touches on other topics vital to the story.

_Maid Marian_ by Thomas Love Peacock: might fail, though I think there's a general conversation between Marian and one other female character, but Robin Hood and the other woman's husband are also present.

_The Man on the Ceiling_ by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem: pass, I think, Melanie talking with her daughter about various topics.

_Jhegaala_ by Steven Brust: fail, first-person male narrator.

_An Abridged History_ by Andrew Drummond: ditto.

_Essential Spider-Woman vol. 1_ by Goodwin, Perez, Wolfman et alia: probably pass, though I can't remember details of the conversations between Spider-Woman and the other female characters, I think some of them were about work.

_Unnatural Death_ by Dorothy Sayers: pass; although the main viewpoint characters are male, there is also a strong female minor character (Miss Climpson) who gets some scenes to herself talking with other female characters about the mystery she's helping Lord Peter investigate.

_Idoru_ by William Gibson: pass, one of the two viewpoint characters is female and talks to several female friends and other characters about all kinds of things.

_Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom_ by Cory Doctorow: fail AFAIR, first-person male narrator.

_The Physiognomy_ by Jeffrey Ford: ditto

Elric saga by Michael Moorcock: I think the term used by some other posters was, appropriately enough in this instance, "epic fail". In general I found the female characters in the Elric books less well-realized than those in, say, Eddison's _Worm Ouroborous_ or _Zimiamvia_ or Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure some of the Eddison and Leiber works I mentioned would pass the Bechdel test too, though it's been too long since I read them to say for sure.

_Pandora by Holly Hollander_ by Gene Wolfe: epic pass, strong female detective first-person protagonist.

148:

C@140 "But saying that for a female character to be "good", she must engage in solo conversation with another female character while avoiding a short list of taboo topics is bizarre. "

Ah, I see your mistake.

There is no shortlist of taboo topics. Rather, there is a (short) list of topics which are expected not to exhaust the topics discussed.

For example, a conversation which includes both consideration of whether a mutual acquaintance would make a good life partner, and whether the use of multiple viewpoint second person narrative can actually work in a novel (FWIW, I think it does in the one example I've read), then you would think, I believe wrongly, that the first part of the conversation would make it a fail, whereas AIUI the second part would make it a pass.

No taboo topics, but please, not just about that.

JHomes

149:

@6: The Laundry stories are, I think, a fail. (Not 100% certain.) Singularity Sky is a fail. My most recent novellas are fails. I need to pay more attention.

Charlie, stop flagellating yourself! OF COURSE "Singularity Sky" is a fail! The entire story takes place in a society copied from 19th Century Russia, and about 90% of it is aboard a naval warship. The fact that there is even ONE woman present is a major shock to most characters. "Singularity Sky" can no more pass Bechdel's test than "Horatio Hornblower" or "Captain Blood" could.

And the society in question is portrayed very negatively; its treatment of women is not something the reader is supposed to admire.

150:

@144 Does it have to expand at such a rate? Depends-- assuming a fairly hostile universe, it's not a bad method of hedging your bet. I forget which work it is that has a character saying that humanity now had the luxury of losing an entire world full of people without the slightest threat to its survival.

@145 No problem with disagreement, but Heinlein's way of looking at it was predictated on inevitability rather than personal choice-- what traits allow a species to survive, versus what grants greatest personal choice to the individual. There's no particular reason to chastise anyone who disagrees.

@147 Noted. Thanks.

151:

@6- It may fail by strict application of the rule, but when thinking about Singularity Sky, there's only one character name I actually recall-- Mansour's. Had to go look up the wishy-washy engineer's name because no amount of effort let me recall it.

152:

the really shameful thing is, i just finished a graphic novel memoir with a female (obviously) protagonist... & i had to think long & hard before i came up with a scene that saved me from failing the bechdel test.

book!miriam talks to plenty of women, but the subject of men always seems to come up... unrequited love was my only hobby back then, it seems.

153:

Would just like to toss in S.M. Stirling's Embers series (Dies the Fire and sequels) as an eminent pass - one of the main protagonists is a single mother with an adolescent daughter who becomes a community leader; said daughter later bonds with a like-minded young woman and the two found a paramilitary group together. There's also a main female antagonist, again with a daughter; it's quite rich overall on viewpoints and minorities (the protagonists mentioned off the top are wiccans, and the daughter is deaf).

154:

Greg London @128:
"Me, I see it as a way to improve my writing, like a test for cardboard characters or plots with high handwavium content."

That's a good way of putting it. I think of the "Wallace-Bechdel test" (is that the official name now?) as a good diagnostic, and a prophylactic against gender bias blindspots but not as prescriptive necessarily. Because of martin @139, "I still am bothered by the spoofability of the test."

I'd rather have competent female characters in a story that happen to not interact rather than stories with "trophy", "fluff" and "scenery" females that interact & get a technical pass.

Re:the Laundry stories.
I especially liked that "The Jennifer Morgue" inverts the man as competent hero, woman as damsel in distress cliche. In a spy/thriller setting too. Though it might be a technical fail, IMO, it's a moral pass.

In general female characters in Charlie Stross stories are more than mere "trophy", "fluff" and "scenery".

155:

Heinlein passim ... he may pass the test in the sense that his female characters are strong, resourceful women, etc, but they are so crudely drawn as ideal female versions of his own ideal self that I don't think the guy deserves much credit at all.

Charlie - I read 2/3 of Saturn's Children last night and I would have finished it but I needed the luxury of sleep; it's maybe your most enjoyable novel to date and I really don't understand why you're beating yourself up about your female characterizations.

156:

@martin, 139 -- I don't see why the "spoofability" is a concern -- even if filmmakers and writers start to bring in some not really plot related scence just to pass the Bechdel test, it means that at some level they start to think about the male-dominant media reality. Even wanting to spoof something for it to pass the test means realizing that there is a problem.

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157:

Ubik...way up there somewhere :)

I'd actually forgotten about that bit in dreaming void. I'm now actually worried I've mis-remembered the entire series and might have to go re-read them with a clicker in one hand; to count up how often they fail!

Pandora's Star was the most entertaining for me, but that may be just because it was a big fat space opera that let me tune out for a while...

158:

I'd just like to add Charlie, that if you wrote out, instead of happening off stage, the extensive interaction between Mo and the Professor of 'Underwater Studies' that you tell us happens, it would dismantle the plot of JM on the spot. While not quite sticking to the letter of the law I second Soon Lee @154.

159:

C@140 and Soon@154: Bechdel-Wallace is a measure of the work, not of individual characters.

No matter how competent she may be, if there's only one female, that solitary status generally relegates her to the status of token and/or love interest.

Consider series like G-Force, Voltron, or the original Power Rangers. Four guys and one girl. Even with modest characterization, the male characters are differentiated into archetypes: the jock, the nerd, the leader, the hotshot, the big guy and the kid. There are no equivalent subtypes (in these shows) for women. One Girl is considered sufficient to represent all femaleness.

Contrast that to something like Scooby-Doo, and the differences between Daphne and Velma, who are as distinct as Fred and Shaggy. Likewise, the 1980s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon had two female characters: the thief and the acrobat.

When multiple characters exist, it's through their interactions (and conversations) that the story differentiates them.
The scenes between Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Chris Knight and Mitch Taylor, or Robin Hood and Little John, illustrate multiple distinct and acceptable portrayals of masculinity within the setting. Boys can view these and see a range of possibilities where they might fit. Do they want to be more like Wesley or more like Inigo Montoya?

For girls, there is no such choice. Princess Leia, Jordan Cochran, Maid Marian, Buttercup. No matter how competent they may be, there's no comparison to the diversity allowed for male characters.

160:

I just had a wicked thought.

Women talking about men, babies and fashion are talking about trivial things (which, already pointed out here several times, is what people mostly talk about in real life!). Since talking about trivial things is failing Bechdel's test, I would say two lesbian characters talking about women ALSO fail Bechdel's test. They are talking about what is trivial to them.

But I have a feeling Bechdel would disagree :)

161:

Oh, and I agree about spoofing -- to some extent. Some settings, like that of "Singularity Sky", are legitimately all-male or almost all-male. Putting even one more major woman character into that book would have incongruous.

162:

For girls, there is no such choice. Princess Leia, Jordan Cochran, Maid Marian, Buttercup.

If that's the goal, then even though "Serenity" might fail the specific test, it achieves the goal of showing a diversity among women characters.

163:

Greg@162:

Exactly. [And while the movie may have failed, I believe the TV series did okay]

While writing up my previous comment, I came upon something Katha Pollit wrote in 1991 about children's television, which seems relevant:

Contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female ... The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.
And that's what makes the Bechdel Test so valuable.

Having two female characters that interact with one another elevates those characters beyond tokenism, something that doesn't happen by just looking at competency (as others have suggested in this thread).

164:

I was hunting for something more to add on Doctor Who, as it does do quite well (at least its current, post-2005 version).

Then it struck me - The Sarah Jane Adventures, the somewhat-more-kids'-skewed spinoff. Great relationship between a somewhat older heroine and her teenaged protege, fighting monsters together and saving the world. If I had a daughter, I'd want her to watch it.

165:

Till @ 156: spoofability is a concern because accidental spoofs are misleading, and deliberate spoofs tend to suck.

Do _The Vagina Monologues_ pass?

166:

This is crazy. A simple solution to the problem is to have more female characters, period. If you have four main characters, what's wrong with three of them or even all four being female? Warren Ellis somehow managed to have a superhero team of three women, one man and one male-identified robot in Nextwave. Ulises Silva (male) managed to write Solstice, a perfectly good apocalyptic fantastika novel with an all-female cast (excluding a very minor male character who appears for about four pages).

Why is this so hard to comprehend and do for so many people?

167:

Why is this so hard to comprehend and do for so many people?

I don't think it's a problem of comprehension. It's a fairly simple test. I think it's more a matter of raising awareness, and then deciding what you want to do about it.

Oh, just thought of another TV series that passes. Deadwood. it passes the literal interpretation of the test, and it has a number of female characters who are starkly different from each other.

168:

Lis Riba @159:
"No matter how competent she may be, if there's only one female, that solitary status generally relegates her to the status of token and/or love interest."

Agreed. I was commenting more to instances within a story (which may be edge cases), where you might have two or more strong women characters working in different locations & do not end up interacting with each other. Therefore a fail. A literal interpretation of the test isn't as desirable as the underlying idea: better representation of women in fiction.

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169:

Chinedum @ 166: Because, to pick on the dead guy we've all read, Heinlein regularly did this and the result wasn't all that satisfactory.

On the other hand, Heinlein famously pulled off tricks with skin color. (Should I really bother trying to avoid specifics of *that* spoiler down at comment 169 or so?) In a bout of meta-equality, should we go back through our lists and check for that too?

Strike that---I'm just here for the weakly-godlike robot zombie lolcats.

The memetics of this is that saying "we should have better, smarter treatments of gender in stories" doesn't get press. Snappy cute tests do.

170:

ilya said, "Women talking about men, babies and fashion are talking about trivial things (which, already pointed out here several times, is what people mostly talk about in real life!). Since talking about trivial things is failing Bechdel's test, I would say two lesbian characters talking about women ALSO fail Bechdel's test."

to be fair, bechdel's law doesn't mention babies or fashion. those were added by later commentators.

taking out talking about women as romantic interests, "dykes to watch out for" still passes the bechdel test easily. does it pass the reverse test, about men? ...probably. it is like a twenty-year strip. but most of the men are defined in relation to the leading women (son, father, partner, token gay best friend) & i don't recall them interacting with each other all that much.

171:

C @150, Heinlein was a science fiction author. If producing children is high priority, you can use mechanical uteruses, as in the Vorkosigan stories.

172:

@169: I've never read Heinlein.

The memetics of this is that saying "we should have better, smarter treatments of gender in stories" doesn't get press. Snappy cute tests do.

There you go :) That's it right there neatly nutshelled.

173:

Every single novel Elizabeth Bear has ever written passes this test with flying colours multiple times over.

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174:

Firstly, authors that pass: Has nobody mentioned Marion Zimmer Bradley? Or is all of Darkover, not to mention most if not all of her other works, a figment of my imagination? Please, give me faith that I am real again!
Also, CJ Cherryh, Diane Duane and Elizabeth A Lynn. And countless others. I thank my mother for introducing me early and frequently to female authors whose characters are whole people.

Television and film fail this test as far as I see more often than most science fiction or fantasy. Worse, apply a test of this nature to advertising.

To re-emphasize what Jay @169 put so succinctly: Charlie is saying this should be the standard. Not that it is a perfect test. Not that it is the best test. But that it is, bluntly, a LOW bar. There are thousands of better, more in depth ways to evaluate a work for its representation of women, sexuality, race, or other characteristics. This is a simple, quick, and easy to administer method.
If everyone who read this quickly applied this test and found their own examples of pass/fail, then Charlie's done us all a favor.
The biggest hurdle of privilege is awareness. Making it a part of the conscious or even unconscious mental landscape. Rather than arguing specifics, semantics, and nitpicking as to accuracy. Be aware. If you have a better version of this test, that you can and do apply, just keep doing so.

If you really wanted, do what sociology or women's studies classes sometimes do: Create a score-card and score your media interactions, both positively and negatively, on the depiction of various race/gender/sexuality/belief groups. Do a little empirical science, if you aren't able to recognize the issues without the statistical data at hand.

On another note, somewhat divergent but related: Does anyone else notice that some authors really should not write about a different gender? I once in awhile run into whose that even if they do pass the 'low bar' test can still shoot themselves in the foot rather repeatedly. I find this is typically not limited by the gender of the writer, either. Or more enjoyably, authors whose gender (if not known to you) would be either unidentifiable or difficult to determine simply from their characters.

175:

saying "we should have better, smarter treatments of gender in stories" doesn't get press. Snappy cute tests do.

The comic strip that Charlie points to introduces "the rule" as a personal rule for whether or not the character will go see a movie or not. This presents the rule as a personal choice without rendering a judgement on movies who fail the test, people who write them, the media who forwards them, or the audiences who do watch them.

176:

On further thought, I agree with the commenters who said that though this test might say interesting things about a genre or subgenre or maybe an author's oeuvre as a whole, it doesn't tell us anything about the value of a single work. There are too many legitimate plot/worldbuilding reasons why a particular novel might need to have a small cast that's mostly or entirely male, or why the female characters might not have a good plot reason to interact with each other, in a particular story. But if an author's works consistently fail the test one book after another, or if works in a particular subgengre tend to fail the test at a higher rate than those in another, that might tell us something.

For instance, two of Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books were mentioned upthread as failing the test, because of their male first-person narrator; but I'm pretty sure (though it's been some years since I read them) that his Khaavren romances pass easily. If you allow conversations between two female characters with the male narrator also present and participating in the conversation (I'm not sure if this counts or not), some of the earlier Vlad novels would also pass, e.g. _Issola_.

177:

instances within a story (which may be edge cases), where you might have two or more strong women characters working in different locations & do not end up interacting with each other. Therefore a fail. A literal interpretation of the test isn't as desirable as the underlying idea: better representation of women in fiction.

Have you got any examples in mind?

Because that situation makes me think of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull: one female hero, one female villain, without direct interaction. Star Wars and Real Genius have two female characters apiece, though they never interact: Leia and Aunt Beru, Jordan and Sherry Nugil. And Carol Kane was in Princess Bride.
Yes, having two women increases the number of scenes in which women can appear, but when they're always the only woman in their scenes, it doesn't lessen the sense of tokenism.

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178:

Cube 2: Hypercube passes

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179:

The saddest thing about all this for me is that in RL I rarely hear conversations between other women that would pass the test.

Hell, I hardly ever HAVE lengthy conversations with other women because they generally bore the crap out of me.

I user to work in a job where I was the only civilian surrounded by defence force personnel and yet the women still spent hours blethering on about baby names *sigh*

180:

@159 "No matter how competent she may be, if there's only one female, that solitary status generally relegates her to the status of token and/or love interest."

Or the protagonist. Which you'd think would could for a bit.

181:

@180:Or the protagonist. Which you'd think would cou[nt] for a bit.

Well yes and no. If the protagonist is the only female speaking character then it would still seem to show that the writer is portraying a male dominated world* and possibly also that the writer has done a boyscout with boobs thing. I think it is interesting that, in general (wild generalization here) SF seems to do a fairly good job here but fantasy not so good as it suffers from too many manly quests and male dominated hierarchies.

I find this thread to be illuminating because the fact that we can all think of books (and even more movies) where women are barely present is quite a contrast to the reverse situation. I just tried to think if there are any movies where the reverse test (less than 2 men who talk about something other than girls) would fail and I can't come up with one - perhaps I don't watch enough movies though. The same is true with books and again perhaps I need to read more chicklit. Even Wen Spencer's "Brother's Price" which deliberately reverses the sex balance has one or two scenes where the males get to talk to each other about plot related things not just marriage and babies.

*Std disclaimers: I can see places where this is fine, I can think of books where there are basically no more than 4 'speaking' roles and there is no good way to make more than one female without totally changing the plot etc.

182:

@181- I suppose some of this, particularly in fantasy but with a bit of science fiction to, is due to a semi-military nature of the plot of the things. "Let's go kill some orcs" lends itself to a male-dominated structure just out of the massive preponderance of men in (pseudo)medieval warfare.

183:

@181: "fucking amal" could pass the reverse test, I'm not sure

184:

Speaking of Brust's Vlad novels, Orca has chapters which are in first person but the viewpoint is that of Kiera, a woman. Furthermore, the interlude chapters in it are entirely a dialogue between Kiera and Cawti. I guess none of the other Vlad novels pass as such, as Vlad is always there as the focus character.

185:

OK, now I'm going to have to think about a lot of shows and books with this test in mind. Very interesting food for thought (and correspondence with Gail Simone's WIR discussions).

P.S. Any chance you will happen to be at the UK Discworld con in a few weeks? I feel like I may have asked you this when you were at the WSFA meeting where we met, but it's been quite a while and I can't remember. Anyway, just curious since I am going to be there (so excited about the trip! But I hope I don't have any travel disasters like your recent ones.)

186:

Not going to the Discworld con -- got too many other things on my plate.

187:

Ah, well, that's ok. I know how it is, being busy with things. :)

188:

Joyce @85:


I think there's a point to Bechdel's Law, but I also think downplaying or eliminating the knife's-edge of reproductive issues, among females of reproductive age, is also trying to turn females into men without certain appendages. Women get pregnant, willingly or no, irrespective of gender orientation, power and status level, or class. Managing that situation can either be a fallback to old structures or a leap into something new.

So how many strong and politically/corporately powerful female protagonists do you encounter who have to deal with children? I mean, really deal with the parenting issues, besides handing them off to Nanny?

How many strong and politically/corporately powerful male protagonists (of reproductive age, as you put it) do you encounter who have to deal (really deal, beyond handing them off to a woman) with children? Your point... I do not think it means what you think it means ;)

To everyone who's got their, um, panties in a twist about the "law" as applies to any individual work: yes, the point is not to be so literal minded. But to everyone who is saying "but, women care more/uniquely/etc. about relationships and families and shoes and fashion" etc.. Bullshit.

Yes, reproductive issues loom large for women of "reproductive age" in real life. But they do for men too. Somehow, in fiction, they become "women's issues," often to the exclusion of all other aspects of life. The point of Bechdel's Law is to help make one aware of the extent to which male characters are portrayed as *real people,* with multifaceted personalities, problems and interests. While female characters do not often receive a similarly full treatment.

189:

emile@188: "But to everyone who is saying "but, women care more/uniquely/etc. about relationships and families and shoes and fashion" etc.. Bullshit."

let me refer you to 2 scholarly references that offer a contrary view to this:

http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=V8_zHs8JPRUC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=what+do+men+and+women+talk+about&ots=vwfzXRhQ23&sig=LBLOvEZi6NrphNgjigt8E4Uactk#PPP1,M1

"Women talk" - Jennifer Coates. Ch 4 analyzes a small set of female to female conversations. relationships and "catching up" items are a significant part of the conversation.

"Topics of Conversation and Gender in French
Single-Sex Friendship Groups", Oct 2005 - Elsa Petit

http://www.sllf.qmul.ac.uk/linguistics/QMOPALs/QMOPAL-Petit.pdf

Again, women in same sex groups about relationships, while men tend to talk mostly about external things - sports, technology, politics.

emile@188: "The point of Bechdel's Law is to help make one aware of the extent to which male characters are portrayed as *real people,* with multifaceted personalities, problems and interests. While female characters do not often receive a similarly full treatment."

Wow, you mean all those male cop/"action hero" shows interspersed with adverts with domestically incompetent males who drive (and fall in love with?) fast cars in the desert, reflect the what real life men are like? I would never have guessed. Perhaps the men on soap operas are more realistic.

190:

emile@188, I dont think the is a singular point to Bechdel's test, and all other points are wrong. I think there's a number of different things people can gain from the test. And like most ideas, I think people can take the idea of the test and use it in interesting ways that the original person never even thought of.

191:

Lis Riba @177:
I wasn't thinking of any particular examples at the time, more about the potential failing of the rule if applied too literally.

192:

Now that I think of it, Alastair Reynold's "The Prefect" passes Bechdel's test. Thalia Ng talks to other women quite extensively when they are trapped in the tower.

193:

As does Reynold's "Pushing Ice" whose primary character is a woman.

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194:

Surprising technical pass: the 2nd graphic novel (Arrowsmith, iirc) in the Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword series. Two females characters, both named, spend a fair part of the book talking to each other about things other than men, such as assault tactics, woodcraft, and the healing power (or lack thereof) of vengeance. They also talk about a particular group of men, but only about how to kill them, or whether to leave a survivor to spread the tale.

Moral: this bar is so low that failing to pass it may be even more shameful than reading an adventure comic whose heroine wears a chain-mail bikini. (Actually, the two women talk about the chain-mail bikini, too, and the writers manage to hint that the story-world reason has to do with Sonja having serious issues, but still.)

195:

@184:
Speaking of Brust's Vlad novels, Orca has chapters which are in first person but the viewpoint is that of Kiera, a woman. Furthermore, the interlude chapters in it are entirely a dialogue between Kiera and Cawti. I guess none of the other Vlad novels pass as such, as Vlad is always there as the focus character.

Of course, they're mostly talking about Vlad, a man and Cawti's ex-husband. :)

His Five Hundred Years After has a conversation between Aliera and Sethra, probably about how they were going to kill each other. Sethra and Tazendra? -- the Dzur -- talk about Dzurness at some point.

Hodgell's Seeker's Mask passes by enough margin to carry 20 other books.

Babylon-5 hopefully passes though it might be a squeaker. Buffy should do well, not sure about Angel. I think Roswell would pass though it's been years. Dawson's Creek? I'll be attending to my anime with this in mind, though lots of series should do well, I think.

196:

The "Bones" tv series in the US passes with flying colors.

197:

Richard Morgan's 'the steel remains' is a technical pass - imperial commander to refugee. However it moves the goal posts in interesting ways. Enjoy :)

198:

I used this "test" in my [essentially American] Pop Cultures course last semester, and had my (Korean) students discuss it in relation to the depiction of women in mainstream American films.

What was shocking (to me) was how many of the female students claimed that Hollywood was smart in doing this, because they personally found movies about male characters more interesting, and that strong female characters are "ridiculous... unfeminine... boring... [and] unbelievable" anyway. A few even implied that Bechdel's Law was some kind of lesbian plot against Hollywood making movies with interesting male characters!

(Yes, I did gape, though to be honest, only a little. Socializing is still very gender-segregated for those over 30 here, and it's still very 1950s in terms of gender roles. Still...)

Thank heavens a few students registered disagreement, and noted how strong female characters are very interesting and refreshing if they're done well.

@189: Perhaps, but characters aren't people, and dialog is not real conversation: what "average people" talk about is not what protagonists talk about in any case. (Especially in SF!)

I surely don't read novels about guys having the same kinds of conversations I have with my male friends -- even my funniest and most interesting acquaintances mostly chat about stuff that would, realistically, translate into poor novel dialog. Disagreements about politics, or sports teams, or the gorgeous woman passing by at the moment, or mocking workplace authority figures, or the annoying legal complexities surrounding literary translation: these just are not the stuff of compelling fiction. (Most of the time.)

So why would we keep the boring stuff for the female characters, and not the male ones? Isn't it just laziness -- it's easy to stylize women this way, but with men, we expect more?

I should add, everything I've published so far (except one flash piece) fails the test, but then, it's all male-first-person narratives, and I do have unpublished (as yet) stories that wouldn't fail.

199:

gordsellar@198: "Perhaps, but characters aren't people, and dialog is not real conversation: what "average people" talk about is not what protagonists talk about in any case. (Especially in SF!)"

If fictional characters have dialog that is not like "real life" then what distinguishes them as characters? If men and women don't talk even vaguely like they would in real life, just mouth words to carry the plot, then they become interchangeable. Arguably they could be robots too. This to me is like saying that fictional people don't have secondary sex characteristics. Sure that doesn't advance the plot, but if you describe a female character, either you provide some physical and character details, or the reader's mind will try to fill in the details for you. And I'm fairly certain neither men or women would visualize a female character as a man, unless the writer specifically described her as such.

200:

Wow, you are my hero.

SF has such great male protagonists but relatively few female characters that are interesting, let alone protagonists. It's like we, as a culture, can't imagine women doing anything interesting, heroic, evil, intelligent, strategic or of great historic value. Hard to imagine when you are a girl that you could ever do anything important. You look out at the world and all around you it's only men and boys doing the heroic or even anti-heroic stuff. All a girl gets to play is handmaiden, look sexy or stupid or vile or be invisible.

I'm impressed that you will be holding yourself to this standard. I've already read a few of your novels and was impressed with the female characters I did read -- Iron Sunrise, Singularity Sky, Accelerando, but I must pick up a few more of your novels.

201:

43 year-old (basically) straight (mostly) white male kind of nervously jumping into the fray, indirectly as a lurker on Elizabeth Bear's livejournal.

This was a fascinating way to kill a couple of hours and I'm definitely coming back for more.

As a wannabe writer, and one who has prided himself on his female characters, I couldn't help but mentally apply the test to my own work. Most of it fails, but since most of my work is short fiction with only two or three characters and usually for a first-person male narrator's POV, that's not surprising. I'm happy that the novel I'm working on passes with flying colours.

But more to the point (and I don't think that most of the other commentators here would disagree), I see the "Bechtel" (I forget the name of the woman who actually originated it) test as a useful tool to check one's own (or another's) work for bias, but not one to be used as some sort of absolute standard - there are any superb fictions which - for reasons of historical setting, plot particulars or thematic focuse - might have few or no female characters. But - presuming one isn't writing, say, naval fiction set in the Royal Navy of 1865 - if one's own work fails the test, there's reason to ask oneself why not.

Also, since no one's mentioned it, John Varley's delightful trilogy, starting with Titan, is a definite pass. Heroic SF with a female protagonist? Check. Female second-banana? Check. Female villain? Check. Supporting cast of varying sexes and genders (the aliens are complicated!)? Check.

202:

aphelion @200, as a girl, I imagined I could do a lot of important things and I did. (Didn't get to be an astronaut, my eyes are too bad.) It's really annoying that I'm too sick to work now.

203:

Oddly, me and my friend were admiring your fine passing of the Bechdel test in one of your later books (Iron Sunrise, I think), and how one of the earlier ones had failed, and wondering if someone had cued you into the test between the two!

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205:

I think you malign your Laundry series- it's both male first person POV and happens in an environment definitely unlikely to contain more then one female character reliably: the higher-ups in the organization are characterized as having positively Victorian mindset.

OTOH unsurprisingly much of generic fantasy and military SF/Alternate History are a definite fail on this issue- notable exceptions are Mercedes Lackey books, and some Eric Flint&David Weber books.

206:

Glad to see another SF writer committing to the idea of realistic characterization of women! Now if only we could infiltrate Hollywood... ::sigh::

One thing, though. While you're committing to making sure your female characters can pass Bechdel, can you also try to do the same for your characters of color, when they appear? Because CoCs too tend to exist only as objects of white subjects in far too much fiction -- even far-future SF in which, ostensibly, the human race is even more majority-brown than it currently is. This blog post articulates my concerns very eloquently, so I'll let her take the details.

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207:

Majority-brown?

Yes, of course all non-white people are brown.

And all brown people make some kind of meaningful unit, rather than being the members of an extraordinarily diverse collection of cultures, many of whom have very little in common other than their humanity, and the proceeds thereof.

Somebody's prejudices have been unexamined here, perhaps unwittingly, but they remain unexamined nonetheless.

208:

Debbie,

Somebody's prejudices have been unexamined here, perhaps unwittingly, but they remain unexamined nonetheless.

That's entirely possible. But I don't think this invalidates my hope that people who happen to be brown, regardless of culture, get the same fair treatment that the Bechdel Test demands for women (brown and other). This unfortunately does not often happen in English-language SF.

209:

I think Charlie is embarrassed by the US hardcover of "Saturn's Children". I just started reading it yesterday and I found myself somewhat embarrassed when I noticed my wife quizically glancing at the cover. "No, honey, it's not porn ..."

I think we have to keep some historical perspective on progress against sexism. I probably still have some sexist attitudes due to my 57 years of age. But, my three daughters were all raised to kick ass and take names.

I do think that women's rights provide the most telling argument against cultural relativism. Medieval middle eastern and other cultures that repress women are inferior (i.e., they suck). The good news is, they are placing themselves on the "also ran" list of history by keeping half of their smartest people out of the workforce.

Chris

210:

Ben, I'm reminded of a story about Dorothy Sayers, who wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey novels in the 20s and 30s or so ago. She was asked how she wrote such realistic dialogue between the men-- did she have brothers? Her answer was that she had men talk like human beings.

Charlie @ 52:Cory @51: yes, you can only really apply Bechdel's Law with its full rigour to fiction that's written in omniscient third person. But I think third person narrative is common enough in fiction to make it a useful test; and more importantly, what it teaches us is a lesson that should carry over, right?

Someone mentioned A Song of Ice and Fire-- you can certainly pass the Bechdel Test by having multiple viewpoints.

Maggie @ 141: IIRC, there's a shift in Heinlein. In the earlier works, none of the characters care much about having children. Some of them do and they care about their children, but "having lots of kids" isn't a goal. Later on, it seems as though the ideal human wants many children. (I believe Friday's lack of interest in massive fertility is intended as part of the psychological damage she took from prejudice.)

Repeated topic: Even if high status women farm out most of child care, this doesn't mean that having children is an ignorable part of their lives. If you're building a dynasty, you're going to be promoting your kids' status. I think a sensible dynasty builder will have a good understanding of her kids' talents and temperaments by the time they're teenagers.

211:

A number of old movies with a wicked witch-like character pass: The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Cinderella, Rebecca. Not that those movies are particularly progressive. Well, The Wizard of Oz is progressive in that Dorothy goes on a quest: a boy plot. However, she finally concludes that she'll stay home and never look any farther than her own back yard. The Little Mermaid, IIRC, fails: it's new Disney.

I noticed about ten years ago that the Bible fails the test. (At least the OT fails; I haven't read the NT in a while.) The exception is Ruth saying to Naomi, "Your people will be my people, and your god my god," unless you figure the god in question is a man :-/

@30: "Interestingly, quite a few Dr. Who episodes pass without any problem"

Captain Kirk is a lech, and the Doctor is a gentleman.

@85, 110, 113, etc.: "So how many strong and politically/corporately powerful female protagonists do you encounter who have to deal with children? I mean, really deal with the parenting issues, besides handing them off to Nanny?"

Kim Stanley Robinson's Washington trilogy has a politically/corporately powerful female who deals with her toddler son primarily by handing him to her husband. In any case, the series might pass, but I can't remember. The plot mostly follows the husband-and-toddler duo and a male scientist who goes urban paleolithic.

The African woman in the Rendezvous with Rama sequels has children and is very powerful without handing them over to Nanny. Yet even though she winds up being the main character, the plot follows her less after her children are born and I find her (and her husband) just plain less interesting. It's as if the authors couldn't figure out how to depict a mom (or a dad, for that matter) doing and saying interesting stuff to advance the plot. Yet I'm sure the Rama sequels (probably not the original) pass the Wallace-Bechdel test in spades.

212:

Eeemu @ 184: I guess none of the other Vlad novels pass as such, as Vlad is always there as the focus character.

I can't check at the moment, but I guess that there are several scenes where Vlad is listening to a conversation between two women. The ones I can think of are Sethra berating her student in "Yendi" and explaining to Norathar why she supported the accuastions against her parents.

If you have a male POV character, having him shut up occasionally when women are talking can help a lot. But that means that the story has two women who are of sufficient relevance to make a male protagonist interested in what they are talking about.

Damien R.S. @ 195: Babylon-5 hopefully passes though it might be a squeaker.

I can think of at least one Susan/Delenn dialogue, and there are probably some Susan/Talia and Lyta/Cpt. Lochley ones at least.

gordsellar @ 198: What was shocking (to me) was how many of the female students claimed that Hollywood was smart in doing this, because they personally found movies about male characters more interesting

Reminds me of fangirls bashing the female characters on a show for no other reason than, it seems, being OMG female.

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Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto passes with flying colors, especially in part 2 of the manga.

Sakura in part 1 fangirls over Sasuke, but that is shown as a bad thing that has made her much weaker than she should be. Sakura goes to train to become strong under a very powerful female character- Tsunade, who is considered one of the best ninjas ever, a powerful fighter and healer, and leader of the village.

Tsunade already has a close friendship with her first student, Shizune, who is a good fighter and healer as well (not quite on Tsunade's level, but definitely on elite level) Sakura in part 2 is on her way to exceeding even Tsunade in her skills. Sakura is also shown as very intelligent (this even in part 1, where is the only Genin ever to be able to answer any of the nine of the written questions without cheating on that part of the Chunnin Exams- and she answers all 9 from her own knowledge!) She already has an exceptional control of her chakra at the beginning of part 1 (far exceeding Sasuke, Naruto, and even better than their team leader. This at a barely trained beginning Genin. In part 2 her control is nearly on the level of Tsunade.)

Tsunade is shown to very proud that Sakura will eventually exceed her in skill- she's already better than Tsunade was at her age, and Shizune at the current time.

Sakura also interacts in a very touching way with Chiyo- a fighter and healer from another village in her 80's. Chiyo is no frail old lady either. She still fights very well. Kishimoto does portray that age has had an effect on Chiyo, but doesn't make her a stereotype.

Chiyo and Sakura quickly develops a bond that is almost grandmother/granddaughter like, somewhat like the bond between Tsunade and Sakura hints at being not just student teacher but mother/daughter.

Kishimoto also has subtly touched on how Sakura feels a sisterly like bond to Shizune. Sakura's friendship with Ino fails a bit in part 1 when they become bitter fangirl rivals over Sasuke, but both look to have outgrown this in part 2 of the manga. They have regained a more mature version of their early friendship- Sakura and Ino being equals, rather than in their part 1 friendship where Ino kind of dominates Sakura (not in a deliberate negative fashion, but more that it started by Ino coming to Sakura's rescue from being bullied by other girls. Sakura gradually begins to get more confidence in herself, but Ino still sees her as her follower. Ino finally realizes and acknowledges Sakura is no longer the weaker girl near the end of part 1. In their interactions in part 2 Ino and Sakura relate comfortably as equals.