Today’s guest blog post, on the topic of gender equality in fiction, is brought to you by science-fiction novelist John Harper.
Do you pass the Bechdel Test?
Haven’t heard of it? You won’t be the only one. It’s a simple test for gender equality in works of fiction, postulated by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. Generally, films that pass the test do better financially (with smaller budgets) than movies that don’t.
What is it?
A piece of fiction passes the Bechdel test if it satisfies the following three requirements:
1) It has at least two women in it,
2) who talk to each other,
3) about something besides a man.
So to pass the test, all a novel (of ~ 100K words) needs is two women shooting the breeze about non-man topics. Sounds easy?
Name a book or movie that passes then – it’ll take you a few tries to find one. Think about it. The film industry is dominated by men, who green-light movies for male audiences. Most women in movies are ‘sidekicks’ or ‘wives’. They usually talk to ‘their’ man, while other women talk to other men.
Sometimes movies get lucky, like Independence Day. Will Smith’s partner and the first lady have a conversation about politics and injuries (tick!) but otherwise that’s about it.
Why does it matter?
Well, it depends on your target audience. If your target audience is men only, then maybe you don’t care. But males only make up 49% of the world’s population, so estranging women potentially halves your sales. The technical term for this is ‘stupid business sense’.
A savvy author knows to provide interest to both males and females, which means having important enough women in your story that they can interact with other women.
How can you pass the test?
Take a look at your novel, regardless of what stage it is at. How many female characters do you have? One? Well you’ve got a problem right there. Can you flip a character’s gender? Would this lead to misunderstandings in conversation and action? Can you use this to create CONFLICT, the key ingredient in fiction? Guys and girls are always fighting. Tick off 1/3 of the test and improve your novel at the same time.
Who talk to each other…
There are many character archetypes available and you will likely have many of these in your novel. Consider how these archetypes interact. The Hero and the Mentor. The Hero and the Sidekick. The Mentor and the Sidekick. The Sidekick and the Trickster, etc. There are many ready-built relationships that you can use to create female-female conversations.
The two women don’t have to have a nice conversation. Take my novel Elite:And Here The Wheel (http://andherethewheel.co.nz/the-novel/). One woman is an upholder of justice, with a personal hatred of pirates. Another woman is a slutty pirate. Lady Law is forced to seek help from Lady Pirate, which results in continual conflict throughout the novel.
About something besides a man…
This leads to the third point. The two women have to talk about something other than a man. My two women could have fought over the Protagonist (and there is an undercurrent of this in the novel) but that’s not what real women focus on, at least the ones I’ve met. My two women have conversations that revolve around their mutually exclusive goals and disdain for each other. When those two are in the room, men are the last thing on their minds.
Elite: And Here The Wheel is not a gender equal novel. I have a male and a female protagonist and they get roughly the same ‘air time’, but the story very much belongs to the man. Minor characters are mostly men, but I pass the Bechdel test and I believe there is enough there for a female reader to enjoy and get involved in. And that’s the whole point. I want the biggest slice of human population to be engaged by my novel, pay money for it, enjoy it, and come back for more.
So before you cut out half your potential sales, look at your novel and think, ‘Do I pass the Bechdel Test?’
Remember, passing the Bechdel test is not the be-all and end-all of gender equality. It doesn’t have strenuous requirements. What it does do is make you think about gender equality. Are you in the ball-park or are you playing a completely different game? Well, that’s up to you…
Thank you, John. That was really interesting. I’m female and out of the ten novels I’ve written, only two feature a female lead. 🙂
John Harper’s writing career began in his first year of school when he stood up in school assembly and read out his own rendition of the movie Short Circuit. His first novel ‘Elite: And Here The Wheel’ was published in May 2014 by Fantastic Books Publishing (www.fantasticbookspublishing.com). He is currently working as the writer for Shallow Space (www.shallow-space.com).
Elite: And Here The Wheel
Robert Garry, ex-military officer, wants nothing more than to maintain his integrity and his team’s safety despite a career change to pirate leader but a cargo freighter he targets proves to be holding much more than he bargained for.
Will he escape with his own life, let alone the lives of his crew?
He has always shunned the ‘folk hero’ label but is he in danger of becoming an arch villain in the process…
“The lead characters are more complex than they first seem and John does a great job of taking you into brutal, unforgiving Universe. Just what you’d expect from this type of book!” – Amazon Review
- and from this blog, my guests who have written on this topic (characters) are… Armand Rosamilia, Carol Crigger, Chris Redding, Christopher Starr, Ditrie Sanchez, Graham Smith 1, Graham Smith 2, Jane Davis, Jerry Last, Morgen Bailey, Nina Munteanu, Paul Lell, Sandra Humphrey, TJ Perkins 1, and TJ Perkins 2.
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