Bechdel revisited

I often find myself in disagreements with male friends about the Bechdel Test, because there are so many good movies and books that fail it, from Lawrence of Arabia to Pride and Prejudice. The Bechdel Test is NOT a strict yardstick of either feminist content or quality. There’s a lot of awesome media that flunks the test. Here’s what it does do well:

1. It raises awareness of when there’s only one woman in a story. Which allows for other conversations about gender imbalance, stereotypes, and tokenism.
2. It highlights the problems of stories where the only female characters are there as encouraging cheerleaders, love objects, or obstacles for the male protagonists and have no lives of their own.
3. It problematizes the cultural assumption that the only acceptable stories with female protagonists are ones where women are looking for love. (Nothing wrong with a good love story, but there’s a problem when that accounts for the vast majority of stories women are allowed to tell about themselves.)
The Bechdel Test is not a checklist that ends conversation. It’s a tool to begin conversation.

In my eyes

Rereading How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, I notice all over again how the book has one ideal heroic male or female face, one face for female villains, and a good dozen possibilities for male villains with really interesting character design. And I stare at that rogue’s gallery, thinking how I could riff off it to make interesting and varied character designs for women’s faces. But all I can think of are three.

It’s probably important to note that the villain faces are clearly exaggerations of character actors from B movies, and again, actors are allowed a broader spectrum of age, build, and attractiveness than  actresses. Which makes me realize I have a HUGE cultural blind spot here: Television and movies train us that certain faces or body types are worth looking at as objects of beauty, curiosity, or scorn, and we overlook the infinite variety we see in the real world if we can’t put that variety into one of those cultural boxes. We’re just starting to talk about these issues with people’s roles, like with the danger of a single story, or the constant erasure of women’s stories that don’t fit our beliefs about women’s history. But we’re really not talking about these issues in terms of people’s physical bodies. I’m staring at this page and suddenly realizing that I have been so indoctrinated that women are invisible unless they fit a narrow definition of beauty that I literally can’t make myself imagine these varied noses or chins on a woman’s face.

Clearly I have some work to do.