In the parking lot outside the gym, all the trees that have been flowering for the past two weeks have started putting out leaves. They’re also, mysteriously, hung with what look like single strands of spiderwebs, clotted here and there with falling white petals, shifting in the breeze, impossible to avoid. As I brush up against the surprisingly strong strands, a tiny green inchworm detaches himself and clings to my arm tenaciously. He seems more distressed about being on my arm than being caught in the web, and as I finally shift him off me, I realize, “Oh. These are mulberry trees. This is what a silkworm looks like in the wild.” And suddenly what seemed creepy and in my way becomes fascinating, even miraculous.
The sad thing is that while I’m generally aware of and frustrated by the Smurfette character who is just there to be a love interest (or a soulless ballbuster, which male executives seem to think is what feminists want), I’m less conscious in my viewing of whether the things I see pass the main Bechdel Test, in part because I like characters talking about their feelings, which often translates to girls talking about boys, so I don’t read it as an irritant when that’s ALL the female characters do. I also think some movies and TV shows are better with few or no women; Lawrence of Arabia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern really don’t need tweaking. But it’s interesting that even a lot of tough chick movies and shows only allow for one tough chick in a world of men; she isn’t allowed to have sisters, friends, or (God forbid) a mother. And it’s disturbing that, as a writer, I’m mostly unconscious about how media portrayals of women that I’ve absorbed affect how I, in turn, portray women both as solitary characters and in relationships with male and female characters.
I started thinking about the shows, movies and books I like, and found some surprising (and not so surprising) Bechdel and Smurfette winners:
Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Full Metal Alchemist
Stargate: SG-1 (I know, it shocked me, too. Thank you, Janet Frasier.)
Highlander: The Series
Doctor Who (Yes, the Doctor counts as a man whom the female characters talk about.)
CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga
Jane Austen’s entire life’s work
Now, I still adore everything I listed on the losers’ list, and wouldn’t turn Sherlock and John into Cagney and Lacey, or make Lizzy Bennet and her sisters fight crime. But I was blown away when Battlestar Gallactica made the daring choice to turn some of the originally male characters female when they brought the show back, with really stunning results. Is it possible to create a fully developed character first and then decide on gender, and just see where that takes a show or story? Can we expand the types of stories and characters and dynamics in our repertoire? What’s my responsibility for doing so in my own work?