The Bechdel Test (or if you prefer, the Bechdel-Wallace Test) is back in the news because of a particularly silly essay in the conservative National Review http://www.nationalreview.com/article/449340/bechdel-test-feminist-litmus-test-movies-useless-political-correctness
Now, yes, it is not some infallible instrument of feminist quality but it does a couple of things well:
- It is simple and sounds in principle like an easy bar to get over and that many films and other media don’t does highlight a genuine issue with the lack of representation of women.
- It is a handy criteria to use to aggregate data. Yes, yes, lots of exceptions – good positive stories about women that don’t pass and sleazy, stereotyped stories that do BUT in aggregate we can get a sense of how women are being portrayed.
Take the Hugo written fiction for example. Death’s End passes the Bechdel Test, whereas The City Born Great doesn’t but that doesn’t tell us much about either story specifically (particulalry given their different lengths).
But what if NONE of the Hugo finalist stories passed? What would that tell us? It would show that in aggregate that women were not well represented as characters and that at best they are represented in the context of men.
I did a quick count of some numbers using a sort of modified Bechdel test. The modification was partly out of laziness and partly to make the test a bit stricter. What I did was count up the stories were I could recall (without re-reading) whether two women had a conversation about something other than a man. In effect, that meant that the characters and the conversation were significant enough to the story that they were memorable. While I was at it I also counted up whether there was a significant woman character at all in the story.
I won’t give the data per story for two reasons:
- As I said above it isn’t about the individual stories.
- I may have forgotten a particular conversation in a story or dismissed it as not being substantial enough and that would be beside the point.
Anyway, of the twenty four* stories:
- 21 (87.5%) had a major character who was a woman (more depending on your definition of ‘major)
- 12 (50%) passed the Bechdel Test based on my recollection (possibly more if there are less memorable conversations)
- 12 (50%) passed a reverse Bechdel i.e. two men having a conversation about something other than a woman (again, possibly more – based on what I could remember of the characters)
Make of that what you will.
*[I counted “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” as a yes, even though there aren’t any conversations as such or maybe the whole thing is a conversation]