Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What the Bechdel Test can add to YA lit

It was only recently that I became aware of the discussion involving the Bechdel Test, and how a good portion of literature, and young adult literature in particular, does not pass this critical test. I tried discussing this with a friend, but she didn't know what the Bechdel Test was, and I wondered how popular the modern-day rule actually was. Do you consider the BT when you're reading? Is this your first time with the BT?

According to Wikipedia, otherwise known as the guide for almost everything, in order to pass The Bechdel Test, a book must:
  1. have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Its definition makes the test seem simple, but if you continue down the Wikipedia page, you'll note the various questions that have arisen from these three rules. When to start/end a conversation, whether mentioning a man "invalidates the entire exchange," whether fiction need be "realistic" in the representation of women etc. etc. It's also an imperfect test. As the article points out, a book can still pass those guidelines and have sexist content, and books like the Harry Potter series, with prominent female characters like Hermione and Ginny, can fail. Is it still right, then, to herald Hermione as a strong female character, a feminist icon, without her voice being as strongly heard, without it being at the forefront?

If you're going to write from a male perspective, as in Harry Potter, which probably doesn't pass the test very well, since most conversations revolve around Harry or Snape or Dumbledore or etc., then you should be cognizant of how that will affect the power dynamics. I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of young adult novels involve female protagonists coming from female authors--perhaps this is a manifestation of women giving women louder voices. Ultimately, even if the BT is a tad flawed, I think it's got the right notion of things, challenging writers to consider the implications of perspective and protagonist decisions and romance and everything, all the conversations and mentions and portrayals of female characters. In young adult literature, this is even more critical to consider, since so much of the work involves some sort of coming-of-age tale, an identity of crisis of sorts. If you're discovering who you are, how much of the discussion should revolve around someone else? And someone else of the other gender? Is romance truly the best catalyst for self-growth? The most realistic?

Somehow, this reminds me of the discussion of love triangles in YA, how the love triangle will probably negate the Bechdel Test from the start, and how some have argued that they are ultimately freeing for women. Well, is having the choice empowering when it centers the protagonist's life around romance, around another man? Is having the choice empowering when ultimately the choice is to remain with another man? (Because I still haven't read about one where the protag. walks away). The love interests may very well treat the protagonist like an equal partner, but perhaps I am jaded. When I think of love triangles, I generally think of the stereotypical types (2 male interests; I have seen some other excellent ones, but they are not typical), bad and good guy alike, with the "bad" guy somehow always "winning," and how rarely that ever seems to allow for female choice. Rarely do love triangles seem to allow for the female character to have a life separate from the male's, to have a conversation not revolving around him... but now I sense that I'm going off on a tangent, and I'd like to direct the discussion back to the Bechdel Test. Do you think the Bechdel Test is an appropriate guideline for young adult literature? Do you think of it as you're reading or reviewing? How do you see it affecting and being applied to YA lit?


  1. I've heard this test mentioned a lot and I think it's a little too limiting. Unless you're having a conversation exclusively about other women or a conversation about only the two people involved, then it's very difficult NOT to mention a man. I think the context matters more than the man-content. If two female characters spend the whole book pining over Man and seem to have no goals or ambitions outside of his, then yes, I think that fails. If two female characters have many conversations that mention Man but don't revolve around Man, then I think it's okay. Take the following:

    A: God, Jake is so hot.
    B. I know, right? When are you going to ask him out?
    A. He'd never like me. My life is over.
    B. It's okay. You'll find another guy who is way better for you.

    A. God, Jake is so hot.
    B. Sarah, focus! We have to figure out this problem with BIGIMPORTANTTHING.
    A. Ugh, you're right. It's just hard to stop thinking about him.
    B. I know. You like him. But he'll be there when BIGIMPORTANTHING is over.
    A. Right, I know. So, what's the plan? Do we BLAH BLAH STUFF GOES HERE.

    Obviously these are simplistic. Whatever. Both can coexist in a good book, but all the first one is going to be Twilighty and, frankly, gagworthy. The second still incorporates the natural interest of heterosexual females in men, which, face it, comes up in real life conversation a lot. However, it also involves the characters' own needs and important things in their life besides Man.

    My $.02.


    Sarcasm & Lemons

  2. Very true. This reminds me of thinking about HP. It's near impossible not to have a conversation in that book that doesn't revolve around Harry, but the characters are clearly not focused only on him in that Twilight-attraction kind of way, but rather a bigger struggle for good v. evil. I think that the test is certainly limiting if you apply it exactly as it stands, but I do think that it also provides a good framework to distinguish between the two conversation examples that you've given.

  3. I think I've heard about BT before, and while it sounds simple, I also think a lot of YA books can pass it. Lately, I think authors started to walk away from the Twilight trope, and focus on strong female characters. While being interested in a guy and wanting to talk about him isn't a bad thing or weakness, it's not what I want to hear about 100% of the time. Being a teenager, I can tell you a lot of friendships are based on girls discussing boys and stuff, and frankly? These sound shallow, and I wouldn't want to read about friendships like that.

    Even if it is a romance-centered books, female friendships should have more core to them than discussing men. Generally, I think the idea of the Bechdel Test can affect how I like a book. There are exceptions of course, but like you said, having a female's mind occupied 24/7 with a guy isn't liberating or freeing.

  4. I've once heard of the Bechdel test but never really took it too seriously. Well, let me rephrase that, I thought it was interesting and had the potential to be a really powerful tool for literature, but never felt like actually testing it out. I honestly never really think about it while reading.

    I do agree though that it is especially important for YA books that authors keep the Bechdel test in mind and attempt to create work that passes it. So often it seems the message that authors are attempting to give readers is that growth and self-acceptance only comes with a relationship, when that shouldn't be the case. I especially like that you bring up love triangles in this topic. I think you make a great point. Though it may give the female MC power to have the choice between two men, is it really that good that she's basing her "freedom" and "power" off her connection with a man? Wouldn't the true epitome of power be if she decided to turn both away and just love herself?

    Interesting stuff! While I really haven't given it much thought before, I'm pretty sure it's going to be on my mind the rest of the night now, lol. Thanks ;)

  5. I think the Bechdel test has its limitation, but I do like it quite a bit as at least a starting point for conversations, especially in YA literature. I'm probably the odd one out, but I think about the Bechdel test a LOT when I read books, especially YA, and I have a shelf on Goodreads for books that can PASS the Bechdel test.
    The Bechdel test can be applied to any media, of course, and I think the hard thing with the Bechdel test and literature that if you have a 1st person male narrator, your work can be incredibly feminist and yet it will be almost IMPOSSIBLE to pass the test because if you're writing in that narrator, especially closely, you will never have a conversation "on screen" that doesn't involve that narrator(even if they're eavesdropping on another conversation, that male narrator is still there). So I think it's important to take it with a grain of salt, but it can definitely be a good starting point.

  6. I actually never think much of the Bechdel test. It's a little flawed and really only seems to be aimed at novels with a female protagonist (I might be wrong about that, though). But after reading this post, I do think that this test could be a great thing for authors to remember.
    Oh, and I completely agree with you about love triangles. I wouldn't call them empowering either, especially if the only thing that girl thinks (and/or even talk) about is who she wants to choose. I'm not against love triangles, though.

  7. I never judge a book by these rules. I love my romance in books, even if it's just to spice the fantasy elements, but contemporaries are what I love the most and they almost always have romance in it. I don't like love triangles, but that's the way of life. We make choices and a lot of the times we have more than one object of attraction. I don't think the choice itself or these kind of situations are empowering however. Have you read Nightshade by A. Cremer? At the end of that trilogy the girl chooses the good guy (even if the bad guy dies, most of the fandom, including me was enraged by that since the bad guy truly had a personality in that series while the good guy... just lacked everything), however, she toys with both of them. She made her decision long before the final page, but she didn't tell either of them since they hated each other, but they had a war to win and save the humanity. She needed a team and these two guys were the best of the best. That was empowering for her. Holding one's heart in your hand while you can do whatever you want with it and she took the opportunity. Whether it was for the sake of good or not, I fount it was also disgusting and horrible by her to tag along the other guy. That's the reason I hate love triangles. Ok, lol, I take every situation differently though and there are love triangles I truly enjoy. I don't think about this test at all though.

  8. You mentioned this in another post recently, and it really got me to thinking. Soooo many YA novels would not pass this test, but some of my favorites actually would. Like Throne of Glass: two strong females who bond over something other than guys. It's actually really nice to see this, although it doesn't happen often enough. Then again, I've had friendships based solely on boy talk, so it does seem realistic that relationships between women in fiction might stray in that direction, as well. I don't know...I think there should be stronger female friendships in YA, but I also think it's realistic to show both types of relationships because both exist in real life.

  9. Exactly! It definitely makes you think more about your dialogue and how you're presenting your female characters.

  10. I've always seen the BT focused more on movies, but it's important to look at things like this in books too, obviously. I think since Hermoine focuses on so many things other than guys, but spends more of her time with her guy friends, that she's still a strong female character. She's really intelligent and caring, plus she cares about Muggleborn rights and Elves. Plus since it's Harry's story, it doesn't explore the times she was around other females and he didn't see it. I'm sure she would have talked more about studies and other things.

    I do think it should be more important to have more female characters and female interaction. My group of friends in high school talked about boys a lot, but we also talked about school, sports, family, books and so many other things. It's unrealistic for books to only look at the romance aspect of life, obviously other things are still happening! And even if something like a love triangle is going on in a girl's life, she still has other things going on in her life. Plus, a lot of times there aren't other female characters around, which is silly. Sometimes it fits but sometimes it's just like, really? Where are all the other females?

    I think of the BT sometimes, but not really when reviewing. Maybe I should think about it more. I think it's important for female characters not to only focus on relationships and guys. Strong female characters CAN think about those things (obviously) but they don't let it rule their life and they know that there are other important things.

    I'm not sure this comment made complete sense, but I liked your post!

  11. 3. about something besides a man.

    Okay, I have to totally agree with this. I hate to think that any lit has a checklist but....I'm tired of the never ending quest for a boy/girl friend lit.

  12. I do think that a bunch of YA books pass it, but I also think it depends on how strictly we're enforcing the BT. And yeah, a lot of friendships are based on that, but a lot don't revolve around those conversations and it is starting to feel like a trope, like a plot point - This is where Friend X needs to push MC toward Romantic Interest A.

    It's funny/sad, because I think a part of your comment reminds me of how harsh we can be toward female characters. I am speaking for my own experience, but when reading from a guy's perspective, and he's thinking about the girl and talking about her etc. etc., I don't get as irritated (well, unless he's being a jerk). Maybe it's a different style between the two perspectives? That one seems more like a passing comment and the other is more codependent? Blah.

  13. I also don't generally think about it while I'm reading, and I'm with you: I think it's got a lot of potential, but I haven't applied it to many things yet either.

    "So often it seems the message that authors are attempting to give readers is that growth and self-acceptance only comes with a relationship, when that shouldn't be the case."

    I think a part of this is because it's very rare not to have romance in a YA book (it's hard to sell, I think, if it doesn't), and in order to kill two birds with one stone, writers will sometimes have the growth derive from the romance. But I'd love to see more organic growth from the events around her - from her, as you said, loving herself and maybe just reacting to her surroundings. Almost anything can inspire us - why have the "freedom" and "power" be derived from someone else?

  14. You have a shelf on Goodreads for books that pass? That's awesome! I want to see! (Also, yes to BT as a starting point.)

    First person male narrator makes it really hard - well, actually isn't it impossible then? Unless it's a combination of first person plus some omniscience, but strictly first probably wouldn't work. Then again, if you are going to have a work that's incredibly feminist, I would probably wonder at the choice of the perspective. In an age where people are still uncertain whether men can be feminists too, is the best way to deliver your message through a strictly first person male narrator?

  15. The BT does seem to be aimed more at novels with a female perspective, I think, since it's very hard to pass the BT with a male perspective. (Though, I suppose one could argue that since the test makes it doubly hard to pass with a male perspective, it's more aimed at getting the male perspective to showcase the female characters in an unexpected way.)

    I'm not 100% against love triangles (Some of my favorite classics have them--how could I be?). I'm against a lot of the ones I've seen in YA though.

  16. Yeah, checklists are almost never a plus for me, but this one at least gives a starting point to head away from the never-ending-romance-defines-you quest.

  17. I don't think that the BT is against romance - I am definitely a romance addict myself. But I do think that it's saying that those contemporaries need to open up a bit and make the MC more complex than someone whose whole goal is just that.

    I have read Nightshade. lol, one of my posts on love triangles might have been a bit based on that series and its ending (Ren, no!!!)... The way the triangle was resolved and how Calla acted with her choices was not my favorite to say the least. That's partially why I don't like love triangles. I had really liked Calla as a character but a lot of her actions then were turning me away from her.

  18. YES!! I love Nehemia & Celaena's (I always want to misspell her name) friendship for that very reason. (Have you read Crown of Midnight yet? This is a question I must ask of anyone who mentions ToG haha :D). And I too definitely have had friendships that were based on boy talk, but generally those were the ones that I didn't keep because that was all that was sustaining us, and when the boys were no longer there, what else was left? I do think it's realistic to showcase both, but I think the BT is getting at how we need to show that one type of friendship may be more focused on *who you are* versus someone else. And how that sometimes may get lost in YA.

  19. Yeah! Hermione I will always hold high. It's sad, though, that in the few chapters that are not in Harry's perspective, we don't get to see other sides of some of the female characters... but I do understand that it's ultimately Harry's story, and a lot of the religious themes that Rowling was exploring made it hard to include some of these other elements.

    "And even if something like a love triangle is going on in a girl's life, she still has other things going on in her life. Plus, a lot of times there aren't other female characters around, which is silly. Sometimes it fits but sometimes it's just like, really? Where are all the other females?"

    YES. Omg. Yes. I'd read a review of a book where one girl goes on a road trip with three other guys. Okay, so that's gotten rid of the potentials for other females, but then all the guys like/have a crush on her. What? I hate it when females are artificially removed to create a vacuum of romantic tension.

    "Strong female characters CAN think about those things (obviously) but they don't let it rule their life and they know that there are other important things."

    True, like Katsa from Graceling (or really any of Kristin Cashore's protagonists.) And I don't tend to think about the BT either when reviewing unless it's made really obvious by situations like the one listed above.

  20. Ah, yes! I liked Calla so much in the first installment, but her actions in #2 and #3 were just.. plain weird. I wouldn't have minded Shay winning because we all knew it was coming, but why kill off.. oh, man. Have you read that #3.5 novella of Adne, Connor, Ethan and Sabine? It seems that Ren may not be entirely lost after all. He's either alive or he's back in some ghostly form. I want to read Snakeroot and the rest of Adne's series since I really became to love her and the other three. Plus, if there's any chance of Ren coming back, I'll take it in any form. lol.

  21. OH NO. NOoooooooo. That's like my #1 pet peeve. If you're going to kill off the interest, you can't bring him back because all your fans have complained! AHHHH. I haven't read the novella nor was I planning on reading Snakeroot until I read Rise but argh. Nononono. I liked Ren, but accepted his death. I wouldn't be able to read this with a clear focus.

  22. This is really interesting! The Bechdel Test was one of our main focuses at school when learning about the reality of the television/movie industry. I actually had to do an assignment regarding this which was by far my favourite project of the year (who says no to watching movies?) so I'm excited to see this pop up again! This is a bit new though because I've only seen the Bechdel Test used for movies.

    When we did our assignment, our teacher added another guideline and that was that the two female characters had to talk to each other about something other than a man for at least one minute. You'd be surprised how much this new guideline changes things! It really narrows down the number of movies that pass and in my opinion, offers a more accurate view of the male/female situation in film.

    I think there needs to be that same extra guideline added when judging books. Of course that's a bit harder because you can't time a conversation characters are having on page. And who's to say the number of paragraphs or sentences or pages that might be equivalent to a minute?

    But really, you should be taking this all with a grain of salt. Like you mentioned, there are a lot of things that are not specified in the test and that can change a lot. So I do think that the test is flawed but it still offers interesting insight!

  23. What you said really surprises me because the friend I mentioned who was unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test graduated with a BA in media studies :O,

    I suppose, if you were to convert it from minutes, it would have to be from something like the audiobook or reading aloud to yourself to see whether their conversation without male-mention lasted for that long. That actually seems like a pretty practical way of applying the test without making it super limiting and having the conversations be nullified if after that minute, a guy got mentioned. What a cool assignment :).

  24. I thought about adding the Bechdel test to my reviews for a bit, but I wasn't sure of the fine lines. If the conversation is a couple of lines, does that count? If it's a male first person or third person limited and a male observes the conversation, does it count? If they have a long conversation and mention a man briefly, is it invalidated? I just didn't know.

    I think it maybe could be helpful, but we would need to cement it for YA lit. The difference in perspective from books to movies makes things a bit more complex, I think.

  25. In adding the BT to reviews, you'd probably also have to explain what it is. I think, in addition to the very limitations you've pointed out, it still is struggling with mainstream recognition, especially being applied to books. The one time I thought it was done really well in a review was by Kate Bond from Blythe's blog. I think it was the Proxy review (?) and she went into depth about how the characters didn't pass. Another way of cementing its application for YA lit is using the suggestion that another reviewer here: maybe the conversation has to be at least *one minute* long - you could narrate it to yourself to see, or if you're listening to the audiobook, see then.

  26. Thank you so much for starting this dialogue. As soon as I finished Throne of Glass I wanted to see if others mentioned Celaena and Nehemia! I mentioned this blog discussion in my review! ~Sheri

  27. Thank you, Sheri! I am definitely going to stop on by in a bit :). I love any chance to discuss Celaena and Nehemia and the Bechdel Test!


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