While I am sure I’ve run across The Bechdel Test somewhere in my past life as a movie reviewer, it’s only recently that it’s popped back into my frontal lobes but this time with a twist – does the test apply to middle grade and YA books?
The Bechdel Test originated in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel. The “joke” in one particular strip from back in 1985 was that a character only watched movies if they met the following requirements:
- It has to have at least two women in it,
- Who talk to each other,
- About something besides a man
There is a corollary point that says the female characters must also have names.
Though there are websites dedicated to discussing these guidelines all you needs to do is think of that last movie you saw and ask yourself if it meets the requirements. This past weekend I saw Prince of Persia with my girls. The answer for that movie is “no” to number one, which renders the other two points moot.
Okay, we know Hollywood can be a cesspool when it comes to how it treats women on- and off-screen, but what about publishing? What about books for kids? Does the Bechdel Test apply, and should it?
It’s no secret that something that has been bothering me for some time now are stories with a boy protagonist who can’t seem to function without the aid of a (sometimes contentious) girl sidekick. The problem isn’t that she’s a girl, but that she always solves the riddle or has the answer the boy needs in order to complete his goal/mission/project/assignment. She serves as a compliment, she completes him, if you will. And it’s safe to say that if she wasn’t there, front and center in the story, there’d be no girls in the book at all. Given the choice, I’d rather the author not put a girl into the story at all; at least then I wouldn’t feel like they were adding a character to appease a false sense of gender equity.
A quick look at the books in my bedside TBR pile shows that almost all of them fail the Bechdel Test.
But I look at my daughters, and the kids playing in the streets and on playgrounds, and the boys and girls are keeping separate camps. Occasionally there will be a group with a token member of the opposite gender in it, but just that one. As kids get older, when the groups get more mixed, they tend to pair off either romantically or at least in even numbers to avoid the awkwardness of being “the fifth wheel.” While there may be anecdotal evidence to support mixed groups of boys and girls they aren’t as previlent in real life as same-sex groupings.
So are books supporting the norms of the world they inhabit, or are the expectations of readers formed by the stereotypes they get from movies and books? It’s the old nature vs. nurture question again.
I find I really have to work to stay conscious of not relegating the female characters I write to supporting-role status. Part of it comes from writing boy characters in first-person, where a boy wouldn’t necessarily be privy to conversations between girls. The other problem is that short of writing ensemble stories it can be difficult to provide enough secondary character arcs (and conversations) that don’t bog down the narrative, especially in comedies.
I’d be curious, dear reader, if you could name off the top of your head one book that you love that does and one that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. My touchstone, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, doesn’t really pass because the kids don’t really talk to one another. And I might have to check this to see if my memory is correct, but I’m fairly sure that Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me does pass the test.
So I guess the question stands: for children’s literature, does the Bechdel Test apply, and should it?