Feminism, Romance, and the Bechdel Test
It’s only been in the last few years when I have really taken on the feminist mantle. Not that I haven’t always been a feminist…I have. But I was a feminist in the “oh yeah, women are just as good, duh” kind of way. Not in the “noticing how women are treated by the media, pop culture, and society and being pissed off about it” kind of way.
From my great (sarcasm!) home state, for instance, came Todd Akin in 2012. Mr. Akin, for those of who may have forgotten, uttered the infamous “legitimate rape” comment during that election cycle. I am nearly 30 years old, and I’ve been liberal and proud of my womanhood every second. I’ve been aware of gender inequality, though not as actively as others, and since I was raised in a feminist home by a feminist mother who has had to break down gender barriers in her career, there were certain things I always just agreed with rather than really explored.
Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” triggered something in me. I stepped out of Plato’s Cave and really took a look around and began championing women’s rights in all aspects of my life, rather than just the political ones. Granted, I’d been cooking for a while. The attitude toward romance and erotic novels, for instance, which is prevalent in derogatory terms such as “mommy porn”, has always been a sore spot. I’m constantly annoyed by the derisive “it’s porn” attitude toward erotic romance. Furthermore, I’m annoyed with myself for helping perpetuate this by deflecting the question of “what do I write” out of some sense of wanting to avoid making myself or others uncomfortable. Yes, I have been guilty of this. Shame on me. This is a behavior I have identified and want to change; it’s not my job to make others comfortable.
I don’t want to turn this post into even more of a feminist rant than it’s going to be, so for readers who are interested, I highly recommend the documentary Miss Representation. It’s available on Netflix now, and if feminist issues are your issues, you’ll want to watch if you haven’t already. I don’t necessarily agree with all their conclusions, but the documentary is ripe with information and statistics on how women are portrayed in our society and how this negatively impacts young girls everywhere in terms of their views on their self-worth, body image, and more.
Being aware of how male dominated we are as a society can make a large impact on one’s work. I’ve noticed some pervasive male-thinking in my own writing. My Sinners and Saints series, for instance, is heavily male influenced, and I was a stone’s throw from making it even more of a sausage-fest before I caught myself. This is the danger of the sort of passive feminist I used to be. I would have contributed to the problem without even realizing it. How? I was about to introduce a group of beings into my world for Book 4 that were, just because, all male.
Well, honestly, I hadn’t given it too much thought. These fictional beings have a purpose in my world, and that purpose is to guard something of immeasurable importance. They have no other function. I mentally made them male. I had no reason to do this; it just happened. When I caught myself, I was stunned and ashamed, and quickly threw out the old plan and exchanged it for a new one. My Sins have a balance between male and female, and if I ever get around to writing all the Virtues, that balance will be the same. The two deities in the series are male, and the only female of comparable strength is a villain. I didn’t set it out to write it like this—it was just the world I developed. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with male characters. The problem is more subtle—it’s the message we’re not even aware we’re sending.
The message that women can’t be the protectors, the ass-kickers, or the gods. That their role in life is to be subservient, even if you don’t think it is. I like to think of Luxi and Ava as badass chicks, but at the end of the day, they still answer to Lucifer.
This is a message many of us are guilty of supporting, even if we ourselves don’t agree with it. Even if we don’t notice we’re doing it. It should not have been in the back of my head to make these protector beings all male just because that’s the way it is. I’m just glad I caught it before I committed, or before the idea had real steam behind it.
In fact, in this past year of removing and revising my older works for re-release, I have noticed how slanted my earlier works were. There were some things I reread in Firsts that made my inner feminist cringe, and I didn’t write that all that long ago. There were some things my female characters said to other female characters that seem unforgivable to me now. These things have been nixed and won’t appear in the revised version.
All this said, in fiction, it is important to tell the story you want to tell, and write true characters. You can write sexist things without being a sexist, make characters say or do horrible things without condoning their behavior. And even though I have since identified that my gods are male and even my strongest female characters ultimately end up answering to them, this is still the story I want to tell. For Lucifer’s function in this series, he wouldn’t work as a woman…especially since he’s eventually going to be the hero of his own book. What I’ve taken from my male-dominated world is I have even more of a responsibility not to make my heroines weak. They need to be independent and multi-faceted, and this needs to be demonstrated, not just stated. It needs to be apparent in everything she does that she exists outside the role of being a man’s conquest.
Where to start? The Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is rather simple. In a work of fiction, to pass the Bechdel Test, must have:
at least two (named) women in it,
who talk to each other,
about something besides a man.
That’s it. Now, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t necessarily make your work pro-woman or feminist campaign literature. There are any number of works that might fail but still portray believable, well-rounded women in positive ways. In fact, I’m pretty sure Firsts, even rewritten, still fails The Bechdel Test. However, going forward, I do hope to make The Bechdel Test the first hurdle in writing any book.
There’s a lot more I could say on this topic, and a lot of digressions I’ve managed to (mostly) avoid. I do think the conversation is needed, though, even if you don’t agree. Women are the primary consumers of romance fiction. We want heroines we can relate with, right? Doesn’t that mean the heroines need to kick as much ass as we do? I think it does. I’d love to get your thoughts as well.