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Failing the Bechdel Test gracefully

“Two women” by Hokusai
“Two women” by Hokusai

The Bechdel Test is a well-known yardstick used by writers and critics to assess the feminist credentials of a narrative. Taking its name from an episode in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the basic principle is that in order to pass the test, there must be at least one scene in which two women talk about a topic other than men.

Some people define it very strictly, in that the conversation shouldn’t mention male characters at all, but this is (IMHO) an impractically tight definition that excludes a lot of films, TV and books with positive portrayals of women. Taken to extremes, it means that a scene where two female cops discuss their strategy for taking down a male criminal doesn’t count, whereas one where they talk about shoes means a pass (and one could even say that the latter is far less feminist* for being focused on sexual attractiveness, not professional competence). Personally, I prefer a more liberal interpretation: the conversation doesn’t have to avoid all mention of men and relationships, but they should be incidental to the topic rather than the topic itself. For example, if two women talk about their favourite books, should the scene fail just because they don’t restrict the conversation to female authors? Personally I’d say no, not unless the conversation turns to which of the male writers is more attractive!

At any rate,  it’s something I’ve thought about a lot whilst writing my Night’s Masque series, because gender plays an important role in the story. But do my books pass?

I chose to write a novel set in the Elizabethan period for many reasons—the plays and poetry, the gorgeous costumes, and the extraordinary parallels with our own times, for a start—but in doing so I’ve saddled myself with the decidedly un-PC attitudes of the times as well. Elizabethan society was pretty well segregated along social lines, in that a respectable woman had few opportunities to socialise with men outside her own family and her husband’s social circle.

I was therefore faced with a choice between an all-male core cast or trying to fit a female character into the story without totally violating Elizabethan mores. I decided to attempt the latter, not because I felt obliged to include a token female but because I wanted a diversity of point-of-view characters for my own satisfaction as a writer. The character who eventually became Coby started out as a respectable young widow, but as I wrote and revised the early chapters I found it increasingly difficult to believe in her as someone who would run around Southwark with a bunch of, frankly, disreputable young men. So, I decided she was an orphan who had disguised herself as a boy to get a proper job (i.e. anything but prostitution).

All well and good—and nicely Shakespearean!—but as a result, in all of Coby’s scenes with women they are acting on their belief that she’s a boy, at which point I guess the Bechdel test goes out of the window! On those grounds, The Alchemist of Souls is a big Fail. And honestly, I don’t care. The only way to make it pass would have been to write a completely different book.

In The Merchant of Dreams, which has just gone off to my editor, Coby gets to spend some time in female guise at last, and the book just about squeaks a pass as a result. She doesn’t have many conversations with women, and the ones she does have are often limited by language barriers, but as the revisions went on I found myself coming up with more and more opportunities to introduce female characters for her to interact with. It wasn’t a conscious decision; looking back, I think it’s simply that Coby now has a much wider range of options than any other character in the book because she can present as either male or female, and in this historical milieu that opens up more storytelling possibilities than confining myself to one sex.

I’m therefore interested to see how things will work out in the final volume, The Prince of Lies. Whilst I do my best to create an outline for a book before I start writing, it tends to be a rough sketch rather than a blueprint, and new ideas occur to me right up to the last draft. What happens next for Coby is still up in the air, and my focus is on staying true to her story, wherever that might take me. For me, respecting your characters means letting their story arcs develop at the right pace and in a direction that’s believable, not imposing arbitrary rules.

 

* For a sharply satirical look at the extremes of feminism, I strongly recommend Is This Feminist? (thanks to Emma Jane Davies for alerting me to this hilarious Tumblr blog)

An Opinion of One’s Own

The recent debate on women’s visibility in SFF has thrown up a few issues facing women in the genre, but has mostly focused on male blindspots and the predominance of male reviewers, awards judges, survey participants and so on. On the other hand August started well, with proof that the trend is not universal: out of the six novels shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award, four are by women (and three of those women are black).

There’s more to the issue than women writers, however. Women also publish, read and review SFF, and many of those books are inevitably by men (somewhere around 60%, according to various estimates). In fantasy in particular, where stories are often set in historical or quasi-historical patriarchal cultures, a significant percentage of male protagonists (written by both sexes) are going to be, well, less than enlightened in their attitudes towards women. I, and most women readers, have no problem with this; as a writer you have to be true to the setting you write about, and fantasy characters who behave and think like modern Westerners are just not very believable.

However this is a fine line to tread, as proved by this week’s debacle du jour, which appeared on Tor.com, the web magazine hosted by SFF publishers Tor. One of their regular contributors posted a review of The Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence saying that, although well-written, it wasn’t to her tastes owing to the unrelentingly brutal, misogynistic world-view of its protagonist. The review was, in my opinion, well-balanced, and admirably achieved its aim of warning away readers who might be offended by the content whilst attracting those who like their fantasy dark to the point of nihilistic.

All this would have been totally unremarkable had it not been for a comment on the post, from none other than the head of the imprint that published the book. She (and I deliberately point out the sex of the commenter) posted to deny that the book was misogynistic, her argument being that it couldn’t be because she and other women at the publishers had liked it. (And made other, deeply unprofessional accusations that do not bear repeating. Visit Tor.com if you want the gory details.)

Excuse me? So now a minority of women are allowed to tell other women what they can and cannot find misogynistic? Since when has it been impossible for a woman to be misogynistic? I have to confess that I don’t like my own sex all the time, often find them incomprehensible and would rather read about a dashing male hero than a stay-at-home mum – but that’s not the same as wanting all women to be more like me. (Although it would reduce the birth rate and over-population problems considerably!)

I think the problem is that in the effort to reduce sexism, we have become hypersensitised, not to misogyny itself but to the accusation of it. “My author is a nice guy who loves his wife and daughters,” the editor protests, “his book cannot be misogynistic.” Sorry, but it can. It might not be intended that way. The author probably was intending a brutally honest portrayal of a misogynistic culture, but got so carried away with the realism that he had no idea how it would be received by some female readers. In one forum thread I likened it to Orwell’s image of the future in Big Brother: “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. That’s what it feels like to some of us to read a deeply misogynistic point of view, and that’s why we like to know which books to avoid. Telling us our opinions don’t matter is in itself misogynistic – and we won’t stand for it.

And yes, the title of this post is a deliberate play on Virginia Woolf’s essay :)

When short stories aren’t stories

Dave Truesdale, editor of Tangent Online, has caused a bit of stir recently by announcing a new direction for his reviews. On the one hand, I strongly disagree with some of his claims, particularly that SF&F is “a genre infested with politically correct thinking”. Truesdale seems to think that part of the “decline” is down to some magazines allegedly having a rigid policy of including as many female authors as male, i.e. the fiction written by women is poorer quality and only chosen for PC reasons. Frankly this attitude beggars belief, and only serves to show up the level of sexism that still pervades some areas of the genre – science fiction in particular. That same sexism, or at least a distinctly male aesthetic, also appears reflected in Truesdale’s distaste for stories that focus on characters’ emotional lives rather than cool ideas.

On the other hand I have to say that short SF&F does sometimes leave me very disappointed. I’ve recently been dipping into short fiction in order to research markets for my own work, and a depressing percentage leave me feeling ‘meh’. I won’t name names – I don’t want to bite the hands that might feed me one day! – but when I read “stories” that lack either narrative arc or good writing, I begin to wonder whether the editor in question knows his or her stuff.

Not every piece of short fiction has to have a beginning, middle and end, or tension and high stakes, but if it hasn’t got any of those, it had better be either the most stupendously cool idea I’ve read in ages, or such gorgeous prose that reading it is still time well spent. I come to speculative fiction for that wow factor that I mentioned in an earlier blog post, and when I don’t get it, I’m unlikely to come back for more.

So, I’m going to carry on writing the occasional story that is really a story, and hope that there are still readers out there that feel the way I do – and markets to feed both sides.

Woman-shaped hole

From time to time I revisit The Bechdel Test, because my fiction tends to feature a lot more men than women. Now I’m not going to go out of my way to make sure my work passes, because I hate tokenism in any form, but it does keep me thinking about women in fantasy.

At the moment I’m reading The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, which is unusual in that one of the protagonists is not just female but black and lesbian. We haven’t seen as much from her PoV as the two male characters, but it’s enough to pass my version of the Bechdel Test; let’s call it the Lyle Test :)

For me, what matters in written fiction (as distinct from film and TV) is not how many women there are and what they talk about, as how unstereotypical they are, how integral to the story and how sympathetic. They don’t have to be nice people, but even villains need a human side or they might as well be CGI eyeballs.

Consider these two examples:

Exhibit A: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Now, overall I quite enjoyed this book (it could have done with some editing, but that’s par for the course these days), but it fails the Lyle test, I’m afraid. There are occasional mentions of Locke’s amour, who is supposedly clever as well as gorgeous, but the women who actually appear in the book are minor characters at best and stereotypical kick-ass warrior babes at worst. It’s probably no more than one should expect from a fairly young male author, but it’s still disappointing for this reader.

Exhibit B: The Rai-Kirah Trilogy by Carol Berg. For me this is a worse offender, since the writer is a woman. Each of the two male protagonists has a female partner, which ought to be good, right? Wrong. Seyonne’s wife is a out-and-out bitch with apparently no redeeming qualities whatsoever (making Seyonne look like a total loser for being in love with her), and whilst Prince Aleksander’s betrothed is an assertive princess, she figures so briefly in the story that I was left feeling like she was just a convenient plot device to help the heroes in their escape. The whole trilogy revolves around the obsessive (but disappointingly unhomoerotic) relationship between the two men, and hence fails the test.

Contrast these with practically any book by Terry Pratchett, where there are women of all ages and classes (and species), as protagonists or in minor roles, and every last one of them memorable and believable.

Boys, you’ve got your work cut out…