There was a post over on the Observation Deck concerning the Bechdel Test and it made me start thinking about whether or not my own writing passes it.
The rules, however, seem very generalized and restricting in some regards. Say there are two named female protagonists discussing the actions of the male antagonist. That only passes two of the three requirements, but does this alone make it bad?
For a more specific example I'm going to pull from the series of stories I'm writing. The first part focuses on the main male character, Locke, and the main female character Skadi who has enlisted him into helping overthrow a corrupt monarchy. The two are rather secluded during the course of the events save for being hounded by the antagonist, one of the Queen's men hunting them down. The way I've plotted this part out, there's not much room for a second female lead (that isn't the main antagonist). The two are meant to be alone together, it's a covert operation of sorts, an assassination plot, and much more. In fact, the addition of any other character, male or female, into the mix throws a wrench into the inner workings. At the core, their being alone is supposed to build up a feeling of camaraderie and trust before the sucker punch at the end. The plotted end doesn't even leave much room for conversation between the Queen and Skadi, as it's a very intense and pivotal moment that sets the stage for what's to come.
So the first part clearly doesn't pass the Bechdel Test. There are two named female characters, who may only have a snippet of a conversation, and if there is one it's definitely going to fall on the topic of the main male character and his actions at the climax. But despite not passing, it has a very strong and charismatic female lead that is driving the plot the entire way, by which I don't mean she's just a plot device. All the things that happen in the story are literally because she has set the wheels in motion, guiding and nurturing the growth of the male lead the whole way. The story could easily be written from her perspective with her as the lead but then the aforementioned sucker punch becomes impossible to conceal.
So I have to wonder if the Bechdel Test is an end all be all determining factor for the worth of a work of media, whether it be a story or movie or whatnot. I agree with what the Bechdel Test is trying to achieve in theory. Two female characters with some importance showing to the audience that they are there for more than just padding, that they have some sort of depth of character, which apparently in this case means that they cannot talk about men.
Moving forward, the second part of my series does introduce a larger, more predominantly female cast. Joining Locke is a new companion, Arianna, who much like Skadi before her is in the position of making decisions and leading Locke on his journey. More than that, she's determined to protect him from unknown dangers and the prophetic visions she's seen. (It's this character I worry about most when I write and plan, as I have her as the intended love interest but can't tell if it's genuinely working or shoe-horned in). Two more female characters join the roster, a powerful and quiet witch (Resha) with plenty of secrets for down the road, and an antagonist who can only be described in loosest terms as a water sprite or an undine (Serasvati). There's more interaction between female characters in this part, and many conversations are on the McGuffin, a magical sword in this case, being carried by another male character.
So once again, the Bechdel Test comes rearing its ugly head. Multiple named female characters in this case, all of which are important and integral to the story. Many conversations between them, whether they be petty threats thrown by the antagonist or simple dialogue between the party of protagonists. But the question here is just how many conversations not about men does the Bechdel Test require? If a story is only to have one such a conversation, it would feel thrown in just to meet the requirements. You could throw in many little conversations, a veritable back and forth of incessant chattering, but there's a point when such a thing feels like padding without adding much to the forward momentum of storytelling.
The third and final part is probably the worst offender to the Bechdel Test. Locke is left with the responsibility of determining his own actions moving forward and brings together the people he's met through his journey to form the standard Five-Man Band to begin the assault on the main antagonist. However, this group does have a 3:2 ratio of men to women. In light of that it does introduce another female main character, one that any followers of my works here would recognize in some fashion. Much like her incarnation in The Crystal's Call, Rosalyn Sable is slightly damaged yet outspoken, brash and brave (clearly my favorite original character, if you hadn't noticed). She brings a sort of levity to the situation with a smirk on her face and is generally just fun to write.
Despite the addition of a strong female protagonist, the third act probably fails the Bechdel Test the most because of the simple fact that the story at this point revolves around Locke's decisions and actions. At the very heart of it, the whole story is a coming of age tale of how everyone must come to terms that their actions have repercussions and the responsibility required to deal with it. Through the first two acts he's been pushed and pulled every which way by those who thought they knew better what he should be doing, and he must finally make those choices himself. There's actually many places in this act for the Bechdel Test to pass, but as I mentioned before, how much of this is in attempt to pass some cursory requirements?
I respect the Bechdel Test for what it is meant to do, what it's supposed to make us think about and consider. But I feel it is flawed, and attempting to uphold standards that are very hard to reach at times. The post I linked at the beginning of this asked the reader to apply the Bechdel Test to real life, to the women that we know, and offered the fact that women talk to other women about things that aren't men. But this in itself is a weak argument because chances two women are going to talk about men at some point. If Bob, Jill, and Alice go to the bar together after work and Bob takes an unusually long amount of time in the restroom, Jill may comment about it to Alice. To talk of people in common that we know, friends of friends and coworkers and family members, it's natural. Smooth, natural sounding dialogue compliments stories, it helps the immersion and suspension of disbelief at times. If Bob, Jill, and Alice are in the woods at night and Bob left twenty minutes prior to investigate a strange noise, odds are Jill and Alice are going to wonder where Bob went and not converse about last night's episode of Agents of Shield.
My final position on the Bechdel Test can only be that it is trying to be helpful. It reminds us as writers to branch out and flesh out our characters to make them feel more real. But at the same time I think its being too restrictive. What it really needs is some additional guidelines, some addendum or footnotes to help clarify what it actually wants in a literary work. I know it's not trying to stifle anyone's writing, but it also feels like it wants you to bend over backward at the same time to conform to it.
What do you, fellow writers, think of the subject?
Oh, and no writing assignment today. Unless you really want to.
Art of Locke and Rosalyn Sable by Fyrielle.