Me, m/m romance and the Bechdel Test

So there’s this thing called Bechdel Test, named for Alison Bechdel, who illustrated it in her Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip, back in 1985.

It was originally about movies and the movie passes the test if:

1. It has at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

It’s also applicable to TV shows and books, and though passing the test doesn’t mean a story is some kind of feminist’s dream, it’s a useful way to assess the representation of women in fiction, of whatever form. Even a movies like The Matrix with a very powerful lead woman character can just barely scrape a pass. Even stories with strong women characters can fall down on the part about what those strong women talk about, if they ever have a conversation with each other.

Trinity

After a hard day of kicking ass, Trinity liked nothing better than to eat ice cream and chat with Switch about how hot all the guys on the team looked in leather.

So why am I wittering on about the Bechdel test? Because it’s been bugging me that my books don’t pass and probably none of my future ones will! This is almost inevitable, writing m/m romance. The books are focused on the couple – who are of course, both men – and their relationship. I personally usually structure the story so every scene will be form the Point of View of one or the other of the heroes. All of this means there isn’t much space for the female characters to have a chance! I’m clinging to the hope that as the test doesn’t specify that they have to have this conversation without any men in the vicinity, I can manage to get something in, but it won’t be much.

Kate and Juliet from Lost

What shall we talk about? Me kicking your ass? We could talk about that?

So why does this bother me? Well, the under-representation of women in certain areas of fiction bothers me, of course. But mainly, it’s that I just miss writing about them. I try to use plenty of female supporting characters in my books, and make an effort to give them important things to do. But that isn’t the same as writing female lead characters, getting into their heads.

Probably the last time I managed to really go nuts with that was in 2007, when I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo where the hero was a woman, her sidekick was a woman, the villain was a woman, and loads of the secondary and supporting characters were women. Hell, though I firmly believe the notion of a “reverse Bechdel test” is a load of bollocks, that story would barely pass such a test. It was huge fun to write it. Being science fiction, set in the future, none of the women characters were bound by the social conventions of the present and could just get on and do what they wanted to do, or what needed doing. Certainly they had conversations about men and their relationships with them sometimes, as women do, but they talked about other things most of the time.

Kira and Dax of Deep Space Nine

So, have you noticed what a great ass Worf has? (I kid! DS9 is pretty good on the test.)

I’m wondering if I can give myself a bit of leeway on my rule of always having a scene in the POV of one of the two lead guys. Possibly in the series I’m starting to work on, since it’s got an ensemble cast, some of whom are women, who could certainly carry the POV if called upon. But then I run up against the problem of many m/m readers not wanting any focus on women characters at all, even if those women aren’t out to bed one of the men. It’s a sad fact that m/m often has cliché and sexist women characters, something that can spoil my enjoyment of an otherwise good book.

It’s a dilemma I continue to wrestle with.

19 thoughts on “Me, m/m romance and the Bechdel Test

  1. Frankly, I ignore ‘tests’ like this one. And ‘encouragement’ from other authors to include this type of character or that type of character because, “You know, we’re so underrepresented in fiction!”. If a story has a need for a character – any character – then it should have one. Otherwise its just pandering. At some point, you’ll no doubt write one that has a reason for passing “the test” – until then you just continue what you’ve been doing – writing great stories.

    • Thanks. You’re making me blush. :)

      I think the Bechdel test isn’t all that meaningful applied to a single story. it comes into its own when it’s applied to many, and the stats show how few, movies especially, pass the test.

    • I think tests like this can be useful in giving solid definitions – but far from complete in themselves.
      I’ve recently written a blog post about the Bechdel Test, and when reading up, apparently When Harry Met Sally is often cited as a film that fails Bechdel. Despite having a strong female character, the romantic leads take up most of the screen time, giving very little time for other characters (a bit like in your own fiction).

      Of course there are films that scrape a pass by the letter of the law, and others that fail the test but have interesting well defined female characters…but it is a useful, nice tight definition to return to.

      • It is a bit of a blunt instrument and definitely can be tricky when applied to romance, since that is so focused on the relationship. But when applied to other genres it can certainly be an eye opener.

        I was just watching The Terminator the other day. Sarah Conner certainly counts as a strong female character, but her conversations with other women are minimal and mostly about boyfriends, before the whole “getting chased by a robot from the future” kicks off. Alien and Aliens just about pass. (Aliens does better if you count conversations between Ripley and Newt rather than only conversations between adult women.)

        • It is useful to draw your attention to that kind of thing. Even in action known for strong (even iconic) female characters, often there’s a male hero, male villain, male mentor or sidekick (or both) and one badass woman.
          Star Wars is another example, as well as what you’ve mentioned.

  2. I was a bit shocked by seeing that test. It’s not something that I had ever questioned. I’ve come to m/m via the testosterone heavy action adventures usually written by men. 90% of my non-M/M reading material has always been very male oriented – Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brien, Steven Saylor, Simon Scarrow – where female characters are either plot devices [like Arwen] or something to do between battles [like Jack Aubrey's Sophie]. It struck me that the intense ‘buddy’ relationships between male protagonists in these stories would be better for a bit of romance. My own stories tend to follow that exclusively male pattern. :) I feel a bit guilty now but I’ve always hated the sort of story where a female character is introduced solely to validate the main characters heterosexuality or obviously to have a female presence.

    Your stories work very well. The female charries are believable and sympathetic. I love that you avoid the standard m/m cliches. Keep up the good work.

    • “but I’ve always hated the sort of story where a female character is introduced solely to validate the main characters heterosexuality or obviously to have a female presence.”

      Yeah, they are just the sort of female characters that never work, because they don’t have their own reason to be in the story. They don’t have an agenda of their own. You mention Arwen, who definitely doesn’t, which is why I prefer Eowyn, who obviously has relationships with the men in the story, but she’s got her own agenda too.

      And thanks. :)

  3. Our longest m/m book (The Druid Stone) passes the test. It’s so long and it has so many characters, it would be pretty damn embarrassing if it didn’t. Otherwise, no, we don’t pass.

    But really, we have to accept that m/m is a genre that is not feminist for women to write. It is what it is. This is a dynamic that cuts across all sexuality:

    - Men hold more power than women (due to sexism) -> Power is sexy -> men’s stories tend to hold more sexual attractiveness than women’s stories.

    That’s why girls will watch movies and read books with male heroes easily, but boys don’t do the same for girls.

    I don’t think I could write just m/m for the rest of my life! But for now I’m happy writing it.

      • Yeah, I hope I never fall into being anti-feminist. Weirdly, I’ve been getting more feminist since starting to write m/m, because as I try to keep myself informed on issues surrounding it, I find myself reading blogs and commenters that also discuss feminist issues.

    • Good point about power being sexy. And I suppose lots of the jobs that make really interesting stories – like soldiers, cops, lawyers, doctors have been dominated by men for a long time.

      A woman character has to be massively off the scale awesome – of the Ellen Ripley level – before they can be the main draw in the type of movie guys are keen on. :D See, even characters as awesome as Sarah Connor or Trinity don’t get to be the lead/main draw.

  4. I’d never heard of that test until this year. Funny, here it is again. I think some genres lend themselves to it more than others. I read a lot of mysteries before m/m and I think there is more opportunity for women in series with female investigators (Bones, kay Scarpetta) to have conversations not about men. Although does it count if they are having a discussion about a dead man? I thought it meant a conversation about a relationship with a man “he’s so cute, he’s such a jerk” vs “I think he was beheaded by a Moroccan butcher knife”.

    I do get frustrated with some of the female cliches in m/m. I detest the interfering female friend, or the overprotective female friend, and I’m not a fan of the vindictive female ex, although all of those people exist in real life so to have them disappear and whitewash women characters isn’t right either. Variety I suppose. But as a rule, I don’t want to spend several chapters in the head of a female when I’m reading a romance about 2 guys. Nor would I want to spend several chapters in the head of a secondary male character when reading a romance. I like to focus on the people who count.

    • Yeah, I think the conversation about a man means a man they’re in a relationship of some kind with, or want to be. Two female cops talking about a male suspect they’re about to take down would be okay. :D

      I’m working on two books at the minute and they both have women antagonists in them! But I promise neither are vindicitive exes. Well, one is the ex captain of the ship and she is kind of vindictive… But definitely no ex-wives or girlfriends who need to let go and find a new – straight – guy!

  5. I find it hard to pass this test too, largely because – as you say – in m/m you’re usually writing from the POV of a man, and therefore anyone who is speaking is speaking to him. Yet I make a big effort to make sure I have female characters who do interesting things in my books. In the Under the Hill books there are more female than male characters, and they are the ones who are in charge and provide most of the plot. But still, they talk to the (male) POV character rather than to each other.

  6. Great post, Becky! I struggle with this in my writing, and I’m one of those people who can’t go to a movie without Bechdel testing it in my head. I agree with what Shadowwalker and Tam have said — pandering and whitewashing don’t do any good. And I do get annoyed by the ”token” female character or nonwhite character in books and movies. But it also bothers me that I might be perpetuating notions that stories about men are inherently more interesting than stories about women by writing m/m books where women can only be sidekicks. I’ve got some f/f stuff in the works for next year, and I think I’ll have some fun with that.

    • Whoops! I forgot to reply! My bad. I guess we m/m writers have to do the best we can not to make the problem worse. Avoid cliche characters, make the women that are in our books rounded people who seems to have lives of their own outside of the lead’s lives.

      Actually that’s true of any supporting character in a box. Must try hard not to let it appear they just get put away in a cupboard between scenes until they are ready to come out and revolve around the main characters again.

  7. I saw this test a couple of years ago and it was cool to see the listing of all the books and movies and how they rate on the test. It was cool that there were so many scene-by-scene book and movie analysis.

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