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.
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.
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.
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.