Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Bechdel Test: a differing viewpoint

I read Vicki’s post last week with a lot of interest because it makes some important points. I read Violette’s guest post this weekend with the same interest, but after reflecting on both, there are some things over which I take issue. This is probably not going to make me popular in some quarters.

First and foremost, it is useless to look at books written in the past. The characters in the Tolkien books are a product of his upbringing and his time. They are also basically books about war. Women did not generally take part in combat in those days. (They still don’t, but that’s another matter.) The only strong female character in Middle Earth is Galadriel. Arwen is primarily just “the love interest”. Could more females have been used in stronger roles? Perhaps, but in the world Tolkien inhabited (not the world in which he lived), women had a subservient role, so he probably just didn’t consider it. To Jackson’s credit, he and his co-writers did try to make women more important to the plot, although this misfired somewhat in The Hobbit with Tauriel since they also burdened her the totally superfluous subplot of falling in love with Kili.

Still Tolkien and Stephenson (Treasure Island) wrote from and for their times. A woman would not have made a treasure-seeking voyage. It just would not have worked. I suppose a female elf could have gone on the quest in LOTR, but it would have been stretching things – and probably never even occurred to the Oxford don who wrote it. Both lived in a man’s world (for better or worse), and that’s where they placed their novels.

In our more modern world where women are finally beginning to get their due (and we’re still lagging badly in many areas), we should write from a more “enlightened” viewpoint (and this is where the Bechdel Test can more legitimately be applied). But my question is: why the scorekeeping? I’m sure there are now books where the old man/woman character paradigm has been flipped on its head. Would you say this is a good thing? Not if it’s forced or done as retribution or an evening of scores.

A number of years ago, I was attended a Crime Writers of Canada Christmas Party where guests were also invited. It was held at a pub and the idea was to have people change tables and get to know the various authors. A couple sat down at my table and the female half asked me if I was a writer. I answered in the affirmative and asked if she’d read any of my novels. She said, “I never read books written by males.” Of course I asked why. “I have no interest in them.” “Even if they’re good stories?” “No. I don’t want to read anything written by a male.” And then she proceeded to get up from the table.

For obvious reasons, that’s stuck with me. This person is to be pitied. Hers is the flip side of the same awful coin. Of course, she is completely justified in reading only what she wants to read, but that doesn’t make her viewpoint anything but completely self-limiting and just as damaging as the old paradigm. I’ve also heard it said several times that males should never write first person characters who are female. Huh? Would these people stand for it if I countered with the (very logical) point that, based on that attitude, women should never write first person male characters. The crime fiction world would be a much poorer place if everyone felt that way.

We owe it to ourselves as human beings to be as free and open about humanity as we can be. That should be reflected in our stories. Unfortunately at this time, it’s still not, but score-keeping doesn’t help matters. Only positive action does.

I write novels with very strong female characters. I would pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. But to tell the truth, it’s not a concern to me. I don’t consciously set out to write strong female characters to be fair or more inclusive. I write them because my story demands them. I’m not going to look back and discover with horror that a particular book doesn’t have a strong female character unless I set out to purposely tell a story like this – without regard to its sensibility to my plot. I just wouldn’t do that. I want to tell stories set in the real world inhabited by real people. I’m not out there with an ax to grind. It wouldn’t be fair to my stories, nor my readers – or even to me. I don’t expect a pat on the back, either. I do it for no other reason than that’s where my imagination led me.

When I finish a novel, I ask myself whether I enjoyed it. I don’t apply anything like the Bechdel Test and then decide based on the results whether I should like the novel. I either like it or don’t.

Okay. Take your shots.


Karel said...

People are certainly strange. I used to think that sexes should stick to their own gender when writing; but have come to think that this is a really stupid way to think.

As for someone who wouldn't read books by men or women, that is the Epitome of Stupidity.

Vicki Delany said...

You make our point for us Rick. A good story should be enough. Bear in mind that although Violette (the classic reader) references books, the Bechdel and Delany tests are more for movies. Books, most anyway, are far more reflective of the real world than many movies. I find TV today usually passes the tests easily. Movies are still generations behind.

Rick Blechta said...

No, Vicki, movie producers are still generations behind. I know. I've spoken to some.