I was reading an article this morning about the Bechdel Test, and books (many, admittedly, not contemporary) that pass the test. As a romance author, yes, I know one of my primary jobs is to entertain. I get that. I have fun writing the
smut stories I write. I tell stories that wind themselves up in my brain and refuse to shut up until I get them transferred from my ephemeral grey matter into electronic bits and bytes in my laptop.
But, yeah, I realize I’m guilty of inadvertently marginalizing some of my female characters.
“But Tymber,” you rant, “a romance is about the ROMANCE. That means the focus is on the heroine and her man/men. It’s a TROPE. LIGHTEN THE FUCK UP.” (Yes, I realize this dynamic is different in MM or other GLBTQ kinds of romantic pairing formulas. Not trying to be discriminatory here.)
Well, not necessarily. There’s no reason the two ideals cannot simultaneously live in harmony.
What is the Bechdel Test?
The tl;dr of the Bechdel Test is it’s a fast way of checking for gender bias in a fictional work.
- Does the work have two women in it…
- ..who talk to each other…
- (sometimes optional)…who are given names…
- …talking about something other than a man.
And, guess what? While I haven’t combed back through each and every one of my books, I’d guess off the top of my head that a majority of mine flunk that test.
Now, I understand this doesn’t invalidate my books or make them any “less.” (Although, based on my usual genres, content, and subject matter, some people will invalidate my books on that sole basis alone.) But, you know what? I want to do better. As a woman, I want to set an example I can look back on at some future point and say, “You know what? That rocked. I did that.”
Those of us who actually practice BDSM in real life frequently face enough discrimination from pinheads who
refuse to don’t seem to grasp the whole “consent” foundation of WIITWD. So I guess that anything I can add to my works that doesn’t detract from the main point I’m trying to get across in any given book, and that adds to the overall richness of the world I’m trying to tell a story about, that’s not a “bad” thing. In fact, if I can blend Bechdel into my romance books on a consistent basis, I think that’s a damn good thing.
Am I dissing any authors/readers who disagree with me? Hell, no. Every author is responsible for their own work. This is something I’m pondering aloud (so to speak) to the Interwebz. I’m NOT saying that oh, every author should do this, or that an author is wrong if they don’t. Not at all. I’m NOT invalidating any works that don’t pass the Bechdel test, either.
I’m saying that for ME, as an author, I want to do this. Or, at least, make a reasonable attempt at it.
The irony, as I look back at many of my books, is I tend to write a fairly independent heroine who is, by circumstances or choice, isolated from any organic support system she might have had. In Fierce Radiance, Aine is orphaned not once, but twice. (Does not pass.) In Love at First Bight, Emi does have a conversation, albeit a brief one, at the beginning of the book with a friend of hers, but the topic of men comes into the equation. Emi is orphaned. (Fail. Although some of the later books in the DSMC series pass.)
In my Triple Trouble series, some of the books do meet the Bechdel test, especially the later ones. (Partial pass.) Out of the Darkness passes, barely, because Sam and Julie discuss the house’s dark history and how to overcome it before it takes Sam’s husband. (A partial pass, IMO as the author, although some might defend it as a full pass.) Stoneface passes, but again it’s squeaking by (although I will allow it falls more fully into the pass spectrum than OOtD.) Cross Country Chaos passes, again barely, because while there are discussions about the kids, there are also threads of “mantalk” running through some of those same discussions. Ditto Hope Heals, because kid-talk makes it pass, barely.
The Reluctant Dom? Totally fails the Bechdel. As does Cardinal’s Rule, Domme by Default, Safe Harbor (although some would argue it passes, barely), The Denim Dom (again, some would argue it passes because many of the BDSM discussions are not centered around Shay’s relationship with Tony).
A Clean Sweep and Pinch Me both pass. A Roll of the Dice passes (barely). Broken Toy passes only because Gabe has a conversation with her grandmother, who literally has lost her mind. His Canvas (coming 11/12) passes. Some of my Love Slave for Two books pass, and some fail. Some of my Drunk Monkeys books pass, some don’t.
Wow. As an author, it really humbles me to look back at my body of work (over 63 books now) and admit that. Some of the ones that do pass, if it wasn’t for discussions about children, they’d fail. Meaning I’ve avoided marginalizing the female characters as being defined by their relationships with their romantic partners, but I’ve still marginalized them, in a way, as motherhood nearly being their sole identity. And as a female writer, who is a wife and a mother and more than the sum of those two parts of my being, I SHOULD DO BETTER THAN THAT.
Again, I’m not saying I’m not proud of those books. Because I am proud of them. (They wouldn’t be published if I wasn’t.) And I’m not saying they don’t serve other important purposes, or tell other equally strong and valuable messages. I’m not saying that at all. And I’m not saying I (or any other author) should insert qualifying scenes just to meet the benchmark. That’s NOT what I’m saying at all. AT. ALL.
Let me make that utterly clear one more time so I don’t get ragey comments: I AM NOT SAYING AUTHORS MUST INCLUDE SCENES THAT MAKE A BOOK PASS THE BECHDEL TEST JUST BECAUSE…BECHDEL TEST. Nor will I ding another author for not passing the Bechdel. I will not start reading with the intent to see if there’s a pass/fail here.
What I AM saying, however, is that I personally, as an author, will be more cognizant of it in the future, going forward with my own writing. When possible, when it can organically flow within the story, I will try to work that in there, enrich my characters’ backstories and relationships, so that there is more meat to their story. Which I’m sure will piss some people off, because I already get some comments in reviews about “this book has too much extra stuff in it,” which usually translates in context to, “you wrote too much non-sexy story in this book, focus on the sexy next time.”
I write for myself first. I will not deny that I usually write my sex scenes independent of the story when possible, meaning that I make sure I have a story FIRST, that if you took away all the sex scenes (excluding, of course, the BDSM and paranormal stories where sex is intrinsic to some of the scenes) or if you “closed-door” the sex scenes, I would still have a STORY there, fleshed out and complete. I don’t hit some arbitrary sex scene count or percentage in a book, either. (Hell, in Many Blessings, which passes, I think it was like 70k into the story before the triad finally got together, if you don’t count an accidental blowjob in there.)
As a writer, I always feel vindicated when a reader specifically comments about me having well-rounded characters, and that my books actually have a “plot.” I love what I write. I love everything about it, from the setting and characters all the way to the hot and sweaty monkey sex. But I am, first and foremost, a storyteller. Anyone can insert Tab A into Slot B. But as a writer (and as a reader) I want to know how they got to that point, what led them there, and where they go from that point onward. That’s me, that’s what I want to discover as a reader and a writer. So those are the kinds of books I write.
So feel free to sound off in the comments about this, readers and writers alike. What are some of your favorite books (contemporary, not old classics as noted in the linked article) that pass the Bechdel Test? (Yes, you can list your own books, writers.)