Friday, May 07, 2010

There Are Some Things You Can't Cover Up With Lipstick and Powder

By Kevin Guilfoile

Every few years folks make a meme of the Bechdel Test for Movies. It originated a quarter century ago in a comic by Alison Bechdel and it's making the rounds again thanks to this video. Simple and ingenious in its construction, the Bechdel Test applies these three questions to a film:

1. Are there at least two women in it (with names)?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk to each other about something besides men?

The video shows a long list of recent and successful films that don't meet the criteria.

These days I don't get to a lot of movies that don't have penguins or talking chipmunks in them so I applied the test to the last dozen or so novels I read. Two-thirds didn't make the cut. And they weren't all written by men.

Books are a little different from films, of course, in that you have virtually an infinite number of titles to select from. If you wanted to read exclusively nurses-in-Swedish-prison novels you could probably find enough to fill what remains of your expected life span. But if you restricted yourself to literary and popular fiction--and especially fiction in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre--you'd find the selection narrowed considerably. There are plenty of novels that pass, but run down your most recent list of reads and count just how many don't.

I'm not going to call out a bunch of books here because I don't think the test is particularly meaningful when applied to a specific work. Few would suggest that Cormac McCarthy should have added a few more characters to The Road just to be sure two women are having a conversation. The same could be said of The Hurt Locker, although perhaps it's instructive that the first time a female director won an Oscar (well-deserved, I think) it was for a movie that was almost exclusively about men.

I'm sure there is an argument that the market--or at least the perception of the market--has created this. Conventional wisdom says that women will read books about men, but men won't read books about women. If you believed that to be true and you were targeting a general audience you would mostly publish books about men. This is particularly interesting (and perhaps counter-intuitive) in the context of Jason Pinter's excellent article in The Huffington Post, arguing that men don't read because publishers target most of their titles toward women (who make up most of the readers and around it goes).

As a writer it's possible to overthink litmus tests, even ones as simple as this one. Every story should make its own rules. But when we're away from the keyboard it should make all of us ponder the degree to which our own work is sub-consciously influenced by formulas. By market forces. By conventional wisdom.

And forget about me as a writer. If eight of the last twelve books I've read don't pass the test, what does that that say about me as a reader?


Dana King said...

A lot of crime fiction fails this test, but often for a similar reason to THE HURT LOCKER. If it's not a multi-POV story, and the protagonist is male, opportunities for two women to discuss anything are limited. Just a thought.

While we're on the subject, do you know where this limitless trove of nurses-in-Swedish-prisons literature? And are there English translations?

Pete said...

And if not in English translation, are they at least in picture-book format?

Naomi Johnson said...

You had me with the Dave Edmunds' lyric.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Dana and Pete: Here's a good place to start.

David Terrenoire said...

Well, my first novel doesn't cut it, but the cast was overwhelmingly former military.

But the book I'm working on now I'm relieved to say, has women talking to one another about something other than men.

I think this is, generally, a fair guideline.

Libby Hellmann said...

Dont forget Laura Miller of Salon's response to Jason's essay...

Equally provocative.