A non-law discussion about the portrayal of women in fiction and the Bechtel Test.
Will try to keep this one short, to cater for those readers who prefer short blogs.
Some thoughts have been percolating in my head for a while, and they came together when I was reading an article on whether the new Doctor Who should be a woman. The two camps basically set out their stall this way – Stay a Man went with the fact that Dr Who is a strong male character who tackles problems by listening and thinking and talking and not by blowing things up or shooting them or punching them or shouting, and is actually a damn good role model for young boys. The Change to a Woman camp said that it was apparent as a woman watching television, particularly as a mother of young girls, how few shows there are where the females represented are anything other than love interests, shrews or helpless females there to push the plot along by being captured or needing to be saved or have the plot explained to them.
And the latter struck a chord with me. I become increasingly exasperated when in film after film, there is one female character and her role is to look pretty, perhaps be a bit sassy, and then get put in jeopardy (often by her own foolish behaviour) so that the hero has to save her. It’s a real throwback to both the playground and the culture of the 1950s. Or even way back to silent films with women getting tied to railway tracks by moustache-twirling villains. Haven’t we moved a bit beyond that? Can’t films reflect a bit more of the reality that women are more than lipstick and getting captured? Even the shows where the female character is smart and independent and capable (think Lois Lane, Emilia Fox in Silent Witness, Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man) they still invariably end up being captured and needing to be rescued. The two dominant characteristics of women in fiction are Sexy and Helpless.
I work predominantly with women – it’s either 80-20 or even 90-10, and those woman have the spread and range of personalities, characteristics, features, interests, passions that you would expect of people. I wouldn’t describe a single one of the women that I know and work with as their dominant feature being that they are “helpless”.
And then, pondering this, I came across a nice little test, called the Bechtel test. It was coined in a comic strip in 1985. The test is this
Take the piece of fiction – a film, a TV show, a book and ask these 3 questions
1. 1. Does it have at least two women in it?
2. 2. Do those two women have a conversation?
3. 3. Is that conversation about something other than men?
That’s SUCH a low test. Half of the world’s population is female, so unless your work of fiction has barely any characters in it, there should be two women, it would be natural for them to talk, and you’d have to be the most old-fashioned sexist jerk in the world (the sort of person who might speak to Jeremy Clarkson and have Clarkson say “God mate, that’s a bit sexist, the world isn’t like that”) to think that women can only have conversations about men. It is almost impossible to concieve of any piece of fiction (unless set in an all girl’s school or a nunnery) failing that test if you swapped “women” and “men” over.
If the answer to all three is yes, the fiction has passed the “Bechtel test” which is the most ludicrously low bar.
The sad thing is (and it’s really the point of the test, to illustrate this) most of what we see and consume in terms of films, tv and books, don’t pass the Bechtel test.
If I was pulling out an episode of a tv show at random and being very confident that it would pass the Bechtel test, I’d be confident about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Coronation Street, probably Friends, probably Mad Men, probably Game of Thrones and relatively little else that I can think of. (Medical dramas being the exception, because the female doctors get the glory of asking female patients “Where does it hurt?” or “Have you had this happen to you before” thus passing the test, similiarly with cop shows, where a female officer says to a female suspect “What time did you leave the flat?” or such. Not really conversations though….)
Heck, take a show like Sex and the City – which is aimed at a female audience, and has four female leads and the show is 90% about those women talking, I think there are some episodes that would pass the Bechtel test, but I wouldn’t bet money that any one drawn out at random would.
Back to the Future, a film I absolutely love, doesn’t pass the Bechtel test – women characters in it get to say about twenty words to each other, and none of it about anything other than men.
What fictional world are we consuming where either only one character gets to be a woman, the women in the world don’t talk to each other and on the rare occasions that they do, they don’t talk about anything other than men?
Now you know about the test, just have a think about it for the next film you watch or tv show that’s on. How happy do you feel about a world in which fifty per cent of the population get shown in fiction in a way that doesn’t get past such a ludicrously low bar.