Add this to the list of sentences I never thought I’d say: A cross dressing pirate and a sadistic queen made me reconsider one way we assess the gender diversity in fictional works.
I recently finished A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, and I have to say, I’m quite impressed with the characters Lila and Astrid. They are strong, independent characters who just so happen to be women. And I love strong female characters.
And yet, I’m pretty sure A Darker Shade of Magic fails the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test challenges the sexism in any fictional work and has three basic rules:
- There must be at least two female characters.
- They must meet and have a conversation.
- They must discuss something other than a man.
Lots of works pass rules one and two no problem. The tricky bit is rule three.
Take A Darker Shade of Magic, for instance. Lila and Astrid exist (check), meet on two occassions, and converse at both (check).
But what do they converse about? The protagonist, a man named Kell.
The first time they converse, Astrid is possessing a body that is attacking Kell, and so Lila arrives to rescue him.
If that isn’t a gender role reversal I don’t know what is. A woman, a seemingly mundane woman, coming to the rescue of a powerful man, who is held hostage by a power-hungry and vicious woman.
And yet, because they talk about Kell, they fail the Bechdel test.
Which is why it’s so stupid.
The Bechdel test fails to assess the context of the conversation between the two women in question. What if the women are talking about gender inequality in the workplace? What if the women were talking about a male romantic interest five pages ago and now the conversation has moved on to food or shoes or hiking or literally anything that isn’t a male human? What if they are talking about a male fictional character (say, Cath talking to Wren about Simon Snow in Fangirl)? Can they never talk about men ever? How realistic is that?
I’d also like to gently remind users of the Bechdel test that men make up half of the population…they are bound to come up in conversation.
I think I’ve always had this problem with the Bechdel test, ever since I heard about it in this TED talk:
I like a lot of things in this TED talk, particularly the emphasis of gendered character archetypes. I like that he recognizes that the hero’s journey is often a violent process that celebrates the special-ness of the chosen one…who usually happens to be male.
But I think he makes a slip when he discusses rule 3. He say, “Do they talk about something other than the guy that they are both in love with?”
I don’t see where the Bechdel test specifies this. But I think we can come up with something more sophisticated than this. Because feminism, while being a simple request, is all about context. When we talk about feminism, we talk about equal opportunities regardless of gender. But those opportunities vary depending on what situation a person is in.
And just like in books, in life, context is everything.