I’ve been thinking about the Bechdel Test lately, due to my ongoing revision of Book Two of The Traveller’s Path trilogy. Perhaps some of you are unfamiliar with this, I know I was until a few years ago. Basically, it’s a method used to judge gender inequality in entertainment. It was first appeared in 1985 as part of a conversation in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel, who credited her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, so it is also sometimes known as the Bechtel-Wallace Test.
It’s pretty simple. You just examine a book, movie, or other entertainment and see if the following criteria apply:
- Does it have at least two women in it?
- Do they talk to each other?
- Do they talk about something other than a man?
There are other small revisions and additions to this, such as the conversation must be more than sixty seconds, or that the two women must have names. But those three criteria are the heart of it. And it is actually very interesting when you start to apply this to movies and books. At bechdeltest.com, you will find a database of approximately 6500 movies. According to their stats, 57.8% pass all three tests, 10.1% pass two tests, 21.8% pass one test and 10.3% pass no tests at all.
Caveats abound on this, of course, both in a positive sense and in a negative. For example, the test doesn’t account for any settings in which women would not be present, such as The Name of The Rose, by Umberto Eco, set in a medieval monastery. However, it also doesn’t account for the movies and books that pass criteria one and two, but their conversation is only about marriage and or babies. It also doesn’t account for movies such as Fifty Shades of Grey, which technically passes the test but I defy you to tell me that book/movie does anything to promote women in a positive and affirming way.
It’s a good tool to use in a general sense, anyway, as long as you don’t get yourself tied up in knots about it. It helps to tweak our perceptions of the media we consume and to make us think a little more critically as to how women are portrayed in popular culture.
There’s lots more one could say about this, of course, but I wanted to talk about it from the perspective of a woman who is actively creating content, namely, me.
I will confess that Wilding, my first book in the trilogy, fails the test as it stands right now. Not completely. It passes #1, but not #2 and #3. The reasons why can basically be attributed to setting and length. Setting, because my book takes place in 7th century Northumbria, and my main character is a young man who through mysterious means travels through time to the seventh century, is befriended by an exiled Welsh warrior, and ends up finding shelter in a monastery. Now, of course I had the choice to make my character a woman or a man. However, given the restrictions on women in that culture and the overarching story I wanted to tell, it really wasn’t practical for me to do that.
I’ve written on the blog before about how I wrote the book, and mentioned that it was meant to be one stand-alone book but I ended up with enough content for three. I knew there was going to be a female character in the book, and I had intended at the beginning to give her some scenes from her own point of view, just as I had done for other characters. However, she doesn’t appear right away in the book, and by the time she was introduced I already had given my protagonist, his companion, and the antagonist for the book plus the over-arching antagonist of the series their own point of view scenes.
One of the pieces of advice I read for new writers was to keep things as simple as possible, and not to juggle too many characters’ story lines at once. I knew my story was ballooning, and I knew I had to start cutting back somewhere. So I made the difficult decision to not give my female character, whose name is Nona, any point of view scenes in Wilding. And believe me, it was a difficult decision.
Now I have begun the revision of Book Two. I knew that one of the things I was going to have to address in this book was Nona’s absence. Back when I thought this was one book, this middle section was where my protagonist went on a bit of a journey away from the main setting, came back briefly, and then was forced away again. (Sorry, this sounds boring, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. You’ll just have to trust me the story is more exciting than what this explanation reflects). And because of the restrictions of 7th century society, there just wasn’t a good reason for Nona to go with my protagonist. I am trying to make the novel historically accurate, so I can’t push boundaries too far.
I’m not through this dilemma yet. I’ve started to develop more backstory for Nona, so I know her better and could possibly find something to help me find a way to allow her to perhaps go on the journey after all. I’ve also started to brainstorm ways to tweak the story slightly, to change things a little bit in Wilding so as to give her more momentum heading into Book Two.
It’s working, and I’m excited to see how her character and story arc is developing a bit. I don’t want her just to be there to be the “token” female, that is simply annoying. She has to be a real person with her own life, and my challenge is to make it all fit without having to change and rewrite too much.
But I also have to face the fact that I might have to do some rewrites of Wilding to make this work, which will lead to some significant changes in Book Two. That’s okay. My main goal is to make this a great story with characters a reader can care about and root for. But I’m waiting to do rewrites that are too drastic right now, just because to be honest, a person could rewrite and rewrite forever.
Some eyes on the manuscript other than the few that have read it so far would help. Especially professional eyes, such as an editor or agent or publisher, to give me some expert opinion. I’ve done a little bit of collaboration with two different editors on the first three chapters of Wilding, and I really enjoy that process. So I’m thinking it might be time to hire a professional editor to read the book and give me some direction as to whether or not it works, and to give me specific feedback on specifics of the book, like how I could tackle this challenge.
I am saving up money to do that, in case my agent search pans out. Agents will often be that professional set of eyes a writer needs, and once you get to the point where you have a publisher, there are likely other changes that an author will have to make. In other words, if I can find an agent, I might not need to hire an editor.
In the meantime, I will plug away the best I can. While I’m not trying to slavishly “pass” the Bechdel test, I’m also grateful for the way it helps me to at least examine whether or not my books include women characters in a meaningful way. In the end, it will make for a better book, and that is what counts.