You may be aware of the Bechdel test. If you’re not, it’s a pretty straight forward idea – it’s a form of criticism, primarily of movies but which can be applied to any other form of fiction. To pass the test, the story must
Include at least two women,
Who have at least one conversation,
About something other than a man or men.
The Bechdel Test isn’t an in depth test of how feminist or misogynist a piece of fiction is. But it’s a simple way to measure if female characters are seen, and have their own problems and personalities, rather than just being defined through their relationships to the male characters.
I bring this up, as I’ve recently come across two similar tests.
The Troy and Abed Test, named after the Community characters, follows the same pattern listed above, but with two characters of colour (Troy is black, Abed is of Palestinian descent, and the pair form the ‘bro-mance’ at the centre of the show. For the ‘man or men’ in point 3, I’d assumed ‘white characters’ would be the appropriate replacement. The pair are pop-culture goofballs, with most of their conversations revolving around pop culture or their friendship, and have at least their own share of plots, rather than being background characters, obsessed solely with the lives of the other characters.
The Will and Jack Test, named for the characters in Will and Grace, follows the same pattern again, but with two homosexual characters. Again, I’d assume ‘heterosexual characters’ would be the appropriate replacement.
I honestly couldn’t tell you what their conversations are mainly about, but as they’ve been cited as a positive example, I’d assume they work in the same way Troy and Abed do.
None of these three tests is a perfect measure of how a story treats ‘minorities’ (though I think women currently make about 51% of the world’s population). But given that many of the most powerful and influential storytellers in the world right now are white men, it’s an interesting way to make sure a broad, minimum level is reached most of the time.
I’d like to add two more tests.
The first is a criticism of the Bechdel Test. I’m sure I remember reading that When Harry Met Sally fails the test (it’s a long time since I last watched it, so I can’t be sure if this is true) despite having a strong central female character, and being written by a woman.
Given that a large proportion of the scenes take place between the two romantic leads, and that the friends are largely just sounding boards for their problems with each other, it’s possible to argue that WHMS is a feminist film, but fails the Bechdel Test.
The Reverse Bechdel Test could be used to balance out the results of the Bechdel Test, to show up possible ‘false negatives’ Bechdel provides.
While there are of course many works of fiction that would fail a Reverse Bechdel Test (I’d assume most episodes of Sex and The City do) male under-representation doesn’t seem to be the major multi-genre problem that female under-representation often is.
The other test would refer purely to science fiction. A large amount of science fiction, for reasons I don’t quite follow, shows us the universe through the eyes of a character who’s Human, and from Earth, or an Earth-like planet. There’s few high-profile friendships in science fiction that come to mind, where both characters are alien, and truly alien in their outlook. Given the near infinite potential of science fiction, it’s strange that most works seem to focus primarily on heroes who are human, or look strangely like humans.
The Quark and Odo Test is the best name I can think of for this, named after the characters in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Quark is a bartender, con-man and petty criminal from a race which prioritises profit above all else, Odo is an uptight member of local law enforcement, a shape-shifter obsessed with the idea of order.
There’s not exactly many real life space aliens being denied representation in the same way as the other examples, but I still think that it’s important to encourage readers and viewers to see things from the ‘other’ group’s point of view.
Anyway, that’s just some thoughts on the subject of storytelling.
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