I’ve been talking with my little girl, age 8, about how stories work. This started a couple of years ago when we read the first of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon books. When the hero, Hiccup, got exiled from his Viking tribe at about the midpoint of the book, my daughter burst into tears. My response was to start talking about how stories work, and how everything has to go wrong so that the hero can put it all right again. That fixed the tears and, since then, we’ve moved on to other aspects of storytelling, like act structure, how beginnings, middles and endings work and showing not telling.
One thing we’ve talked about that she’s really taken to is the Bechdel Test for gender bias in movies. She tells me how it’s disappointing that The Avengers failed, because it had three female characters and two of them shared scenes. She was very pleased that Frozen passed in the first scene (because snowmen don’t count), but it was noted that almost the entire supporting cast was male, including the reindeer (for the record, according to the script, there’s six other female characters with speaking parts, but only three of them have names and only two have more than two lines of dialogue – one is a servant, with four inconsequential lines, and one is a troll, who tops the list with seven lines, albeit most of them about a man). It didn’t spoil her enjoyment of these movies, but she noticed.
For a large-scale story, like a movie or a novel, with generally large casts of characters (Gravity, Moon et. al. honourably excepted), the Bechdel Test is (intentionally) a laughably low bar to get over: Are there at least two named female characters? Do they talk to each other? About something other than a man? If the Fast & Furious franchise and Joe Abercrombie (with Best Served Cold, at least, not so much with The First Law trilogy, from memory) can pass the test, any story should be able to. Unless it’s something like Saving Private Ryan (for example) there’s generally no good reason why a story shouldn’t get over such a low bar.
And yet, so many stories do fail the Bechdel Test – more than half of 2013’s top grossing movies failed or only nominally passed. It’s not that a majority of these stories had to be mostly about men, or that it would seem weird if characters were female instead of male. Rather, we’re just so thoroughly trained to see men’s stories as normal that it’s frighteningly easy not to notice the absence of women. And there’s usually no reason other than that unthinking default why that absence should be the case. For instance, if a story has only one character – like Moon – and there’s no pressing reason for that character to be one gender or the other, then it should be fifty-fifty whether they’re a man or a woman. But most of these stories will be about a man.
If male-dominated stories can be so easily invisible, you might assume it’d stand out or seem contrived if a story failed a reverse Bechdel Test, and men were largely absent, but that’s not necessarily the case. Miyazaki’s anime My Neighbour Totoro was one of my daughter’s favourites when she was younger, about two little girls who discover a magical troll living near their new house. It fails a reverse Bechdel Test – it has two male characters (not counting the troll) with major speaking roles, but they only speak to each other about the female characters. Watching the movie, you really wouldn’t notice unless you’re looking for it.
So, gender disparity can be invisible both ways (perhaps because we understand that stories aren’t a full representation of people’s lives?) but does that mean that a normative bias in one direction over the other is okay? I don’t think so. My daughter, aged 3 or 4, watching My Neighbour Totoro for the first time, turned to me in amazement and said, “Wow, Daddy, those girls are really brave.” She’s never said anything similar about a movie with male heroes, but it shouldn’t be any more remarkable for her to see girls being brave than to see boys.
I read an article recently by Michelle Nijhuis at The Last Word On Nothing, who had – at her daughter’s insistence – changed Bilbo Baggins’s gender when they were reading The Hobbit together. What she found was that it had no effect on the rest of the story and that girl Bilbo was “tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.”
It’s that last thing that’s the kicker for me. The story’s told without gender being an issue. Girl Bilbo keeps all of her male original’s qualities and flaws and quirks of character, her gender doesn’t mean that she has to be exceptional or unusual to be in the story. Her femaleness isn’t seen as the reason for any of her quirks and flaws, it’s just as incidental as the original’s maleness. And this isn’t just a fluke of that one character. Even within The Hobbit, you could sex change Gandalf (as Nijhuis also did), Elrond, Beorn, the Great Goblin, Thranduil, Bard, Smaug and half of the dwarves. Any of those characters could be female and it wouldn’t change anything else about the story. Hell, half those characters could be female. The only ones you’d have to even shave are Gandalf and Beorn.
This is something I’ve become conscious of in my own writing. In a short story, with a smaller cast of characters, the Bechdel Test can be a much more serious benchmark of gender balance. The normative default (my default, still, I’m unhappy / ashamed / exasperated to admit) is to cast characters as male unless they must be female. I did this with my story “Grey Snow in the Shadows”, published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in 2013. In my initial draft, without my even thinking about it, every single character other than the protagonist was male. So I changed half of them to women. And it didn’t change the story at all.
I’ve done this more recently with a story that seems at first glance more obviously a boy story. This one’s Vikings versus vampires versus werewolves. When I first started turning the idea over in my head I gave it an entirely male cast, except for the Viking lord’s daughter, who gets eaten by the werewolf. This time I caught myself before I started writing. Two of my characters were professional warriors, so I left them as men, but I changed most of the other major characters to women: the lord, a titled landholder, the head vampire and the werewolf. All powerful characters. (The kid who gets eaten by the werewolf I changed into a boy.) Now, I’ve only just finished drafting this one, so I can’t say whether it’s a good story or not, but what I can say it that – as with girl Bilbo – changing the genders of the characters didn’t mean changing the characters and what they could do in the story. And, most importantly, it doesn’t seem contrived.
The Bechdel Test isn’t a definitive test of a story’s representation of women. Thor passes the test in its first scene, for example, but does that mean it provides stronger roles for its female characters than The Avengers? I don’t think any of the movies or novels I’ve named above represented their female characters poorly (if they had them, Mr Tolkien) compared to their male characters. Sure, the Black Widow never talks to Agent Hill when they’re in the same room, but if my daughter wants to idolise the character, then I’m just as comfortable with that as I am with her little brother’s obsession with Iron Man (although it’d be nice if the MCU gave her Wasp, Scarlet Witch and/or Captain Marvel to choose from, too).
Gender balance doesn’t say anything about whether a story is good or not. I think every one of the books and movies that I’ve named above is awesome. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Fast & Furious movies and Joe Abercrombie’s knuckle-dragging, cod-swinging, hairy-backed manly stories without feeling the need to qualify myself by calling them “guilty pleasures”. I think my daughter should be able to enjoy stories about boys, just like my son should be able to enjoy stories about girls (My Neighbour Totoro was one of his favourite movies when he was littler, too, and he’s currently enjoying Diana Wynne-Jones’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle as much as his sister is).
But how many movies have Pixar and DreamWorks Animation made with female protagonists? A combined two-and-a-half out of thirty four – Brave, Monsters vs Aliens and the first half of The Croods. Pick up a kids’ book off a bookstore shelf and what are the chances that the protagonist is a girl? About 31 percent – and how many of those aren’t about fairies and unicorns?
Half of the kids we’re telling stories to are girls, so half the stories we tell them should be about girls and half the characters in the stories we tell them should be girls. And my daughter shouldn’t have to only read stories about boys if she wants to read about dragons. Or giant fighting robots.
(If this rant floated your boat, see here for a further lengthy digression on the topic, including an experiment in Girl Bilboing a couple of my own stories)