Applying the Bechdel Test in Writing

writing, writer's space, writer's desk, feminism, status quo, narratives

Earlier this year, IndieWire took a look at what’s happened in the past four years since Swedish cinemas first introduced a Bechdel rating for movies in 2013. It was an article that caught my attention and gave me some food for thought because before this, I had no idea what a Bechdel rating is.

For those of you who don’t know either, the Bechdel rating (or the Bechdel test as it is more commonly known) takes its name from American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For first brought this issue to widespread attention. Basically, a Bechdel rating in Sweden would require a film to feature at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Now that made me laugh. And then made me sober up because I realised just how common this was. Common in films, books, plays, music, pretty much anything that tells a story in today’s modern world. It was frightening to realise how few narratives present us with more than one (or in some cases, even one) significant female character whose sole purpose in life isn’t to fall in love with a man.

Critics against the Bechdel rating in Sweden would argue that the rationale behind the rating might be too simplistic and perhaps result in movie producers merely attempting to fulfil a meaningless quota, sort of in the same way the token character has come about. But I don’t think so. I think the Bechdel rating has a real role to play simply by getting people to think about whether we too easily accept the status quo. Author NK Jemisin sums this up well with this comment: “As a black woman, I have no particular interest in maintaining the status quo. Why should I? The status quo is harmful, the status quo is significantly racist and sexist and a whole bunch of other things that I think need to change.”

And she is right. It’s not just about gender, but about race too. Constance Wu points this out beautifully in this interview with Time. “[Imagine] that a producer says, ‘Guy and girl meet-cute at an ice skating rink. They fall in love, but then she has to move away.’ If you say that to anyone, including an Asian person, you picture a white person because that’s what’s become normative to us.” And you know what? She’s right. The moment I read the sentence ‘guy and girl meet at an ice skating rink’, I was imagining a white guy and a white girl. Because, as Constance says, that’s what become the norm.

Another person who has summed this whole issue up really well is fantasy author Kameron Hurley in her must-read essay, We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative. In her essay, Hurley observes the power of language in narratives that have so changed the way we think about women that “when we talk about ‘people’, we don’t really mean ‘men and women.’ We mean ‘people and female people.’ We talk about ‘American Novelists’ and ‘American Women Novelists.’ We talk about ‘Teenage Coders’ and ‘Lady Teenage Coders.'”

Women, Hurley pointed out, make up half the world’s population. All throughout history, women fought in wars, been lawyers and teachers and doctors, governed countries and installed sweeping reforms that have shaped our world as it is today. So why don’t we hear about these stories? Because somehow, over time, they did not become the status quo. They became stories that nobody wanted to hear or even believe in and as time went on, future generations grew up believing this too. And this is going to continue unless we change things. And one of the easiest ways to change a false way of thinking is by the same way that false thinking first got perpetuated – via narratives.

And that’s why when I write stories, I try to stop and think, ‘Am I reinforcing the status quo here – the wrong sort of status quo? Or am I writing something that actually reflects a) the reality of life around me and b) the principles and norms I want my society to have now and into the future? This last one is particularly important because narratives in all forms of media – in film, TV, music and writing – in large part shape our way of thinking as a society.

I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. Just the other day, I was editing the current story I’m working on when I noticed a tell-tale line. It goes something like this, “Yin Li, a female guard…” And that made me stop in my tracks. In my story, the palace guards are both female and male – this is the norm for them. So why did I feel the need to identify her as female? Earlier in my story I had already singled out two other guards, both of them male, but I had never felt the need to identify either of them as a male guard.

I realized this was an effect of the status quo, leading me to believe that the norm is a male – and usually a white male – and that any other characters who were female or of a different ethnicity would thus need to be identified as such just so we know. But already writers are moving away from this. Moving away from the status quo. Changing the status quo. Neil Gaiman did this some years back with his book Anansi Boys where he turned this stereotype on its head by choosing instead to identify white characters by their race – for example, “a small white woman with a clipboard” or “a middle-aged white man with receding very hair”, whereas characters of other races were not identified by their, well, race. They became the status quo.

So I changed that one line in my story. It now does not read, “Yin Li, the female guard” but “Yin Li, a willowy guard with mischievous eyes.” Perhaps readers won’t catch on right away to the fact that she is a female, not til later when I refer to her as a “she.” It’s a subtle point, but one which I hope my readers would appreciate and delight in, should they notice it. And I’m keeping a careful lookout too for similar wording in my other stories, or similar ways of lazy thinking.

This isn’t about fulfilling a quota. It’s about telling stories that are original, that are true, that reflect my way of life and the life I want for future generations. I want to be able to challenge the status quo, to challenge myself, to challenge the way we think and shed light on the realities of our world. After all, is that not one of the most important purposes of the human narrative?

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