If you’re following this blog so far, you’re probably on board with the idea that women are pretty awesome. And we are! Just like, you know, human beings in general, we are fascinating creatures of wonder and horror with the capacity for genius and love and cruelty and stupidity, all in equal measure. But . . . but. The stories we see about ourselves in the world don’t do us justice. And because of that, I think, the stories we base our lives around suffer from the same problems.
You may already be familiar with the Bechdel Test, which asks the following question about a work of fiction: Does it feature at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man? If you’ve heard about it before, you’ve likely heard how frequently films fail this test. This year, that included two best picture nominees (The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game). It’s so impactful because it’s so simple. But it’s also problematic for the same reason. It’s not enough of a requirement in some cases – can’t we do better than two women who might say one line to each other about shoes? In other cases it’s too much, too simple: Is Gravity not enough of a female-centric story because Sandra Bullock is the only woman, even though she’s pretty much solo for 90% of the film?
But the Bechdel Test is not the end of the discussion, it’s the beginning. The real discussion is about women seeing their stories being told. We are so often relegated to supporting characters in a man’s journey that it feels vital and urgent to see some woman, ANY woman, having their story told.
Consuming media that passes the test can help remind you that life is not all about a Man and his Journey (gag). Here are some things I enjoy that qualify:
- The Good Wife. Alicia Florrick, Diane Lockhart, Kalinda Sharma – they kick ass and take names and make hard choices and have romances but the show isn’t about those things and CATHY-COMIC-LEVEL-ACK I LOVE IT SO MUCH. There are dudes in this show too, and they’re great, but frankly who cares because the women are the best part and often the main part. They’re high-powered attorneys working near the top of their profession and just being unabashedly great about what they do. I hesitated to watch this show because I was thinking it would be about Juliana Marguiles crying about her husband, but it’s so not. Plus, the clothing is gorgeous, and I can care about that too if I want to. BONUS POINTS for the show being super real about Chicago politics and segregation.
- Agent Carter. Agent Carter doesn’t ace the test, as it doesn’t have tons of women main characters (outside of Peggy Carter), but it does have several supporting characters (and a villain!) who are women, and they all have their own shit going on that has nothing to do with men. Plus it’s fantastic and nerdy and funny. BONUS POINTS for the show turning the spotlight on how stupid traditional masculinity can be for men, and how Jarvis is pretty domestic and is like IDGAF, I’ll put on an apron and cook for my wife after the ironing is done, NBD.
- Orphan Black. They are all clones, but they have their own interests, concerns, lives. It’s funny and tense and just fun to watch. BONUS POINTS for everything Alison Hendrix does. Funny and bizarre.
There are probably others that I’ve forgotten or haven’t seen yet, so share those in the comments below if you’re so inclined.
But it’s not just about the stories we see and read. How can we expect to improve the world for women if we can’t see examples of women living life for themselves? If we can’t write our own complex stories? So here are my ideas on how to make my life pass my personal Bechdel Test:
- Spend time with women. To my discredit, I used to say stuff like, “I just get along better with guys,” or, “Girls/women are harder to talk to.” I did this mostly in a misguided attempt to be cooler than I was, and to make myself attractive to dudes. Not true for everyone who says this, but true for me. The ability to be friends with women, to create deep friendships based on mutual interest and admiration, has come to me since I’ve matured a little bit. It’s based on my ability to be OK with myself, and to see the world as a bountiful place, where another woman’s talents and beauty and intelligence aren’t a threat to me, because there’s plenty of room for a multitude of talent and beauty, and it doesn’t all have to be the same. I know some incredible women (see: everyone who writes for this blog), and it only enriches my life to spend more time with them. This is something I’m trying to actively improve for myself, since my default position is probably staying inside on the couch with Netflix.
- Spend time with men. The Bechdel Test is so important because it shouldn’t be that hard to pass it – just have two named women who talk to each other, right? But the stories that are told in various media are so often men’s stories that women get left behind, cast as supporting characters, isolated to their small part of the hero’s journey. So when I spend time with men, especially in male-dominated places (as my workplaces have been in the past few years), I try to assert myself as the protagonist of my own story, and resist the urge to back down into the supporting role. Research has shown that women who assert themselves in the workplace are viewed negatively, so we’ll see how it works out. But I don’t see another way to go. I am, after all, the person who told my boss what mansplaining meant. I might be a little assertive by nature.
- Be passionate about things. Part of the Bechdel Test is talking about something other than a man, which again is so simple. I do not care if what you’re passionate about is traditionally “female” – that’s great! We need to stop making things that have been traditionally feminine into things that we automatically think are silly. How are Barbie dolls more silly than fantasy football? Spoiler alert: they aren’t. The point is being willing to be passionate about something, and to prioritize that interest in the exact same way that men are encouraged to do. Leisure time to pursue interests is something that men assume they should have, and women are told is a bonus once the housework is done (for more on this topic, read this). So whatever you love, make time for it, make it happen. Bonus points for teaching others to do whatever it is you love to do. It’s an incredible way to expand your universe and the universe of others.
- Ask for things (or take them). I hesitate a little with this one, because whenever we as women are told to just “demand change” or “lean in”, there’s a certain amount of willful ignorance of the barriers that exist for us (and even more so for women of color, poor women, immigrant women, etc) which cannot be overcome by simply asking for things. BUT in my life, I know no other way of affecting change than asking for it. It’s still a risk for us to do, since we’re more likely to be seen as pushy or bitchy rather than ambitious. Risk is life. Ask. Demand. Don’t wait to be provided for (financially or otherwise) if you’re not ready to wait forever. Manage your money. Make art for yourself. Negotiate your salary. Ask for help. I try to do this as much as possible and it’s painful. It’s scary. I am afraid every time. I do not always succeed. I always try to ask. For myself, but also for others. Ask. Demand. Take. Make.