The Bechdel Test for Speaking Parts

I haven’t made much of a secret for my growing dismay at the entire thing with SF/F for adults – it isn’t “fair” to complain, I suppose, since the entire field is not in very good shape in terms of readership or earnings, and hasn’t been for some time.  I’m not going to say that’s anything like a permanent condition, because guess what, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining (1980) “Here’s Johnny . . . I’m baaaack!” – yes, the horror shelves are baaaack in the bookstore, and the books are selling.  As to horror, this is essentially literary fiction and doesn’t suffer from the same problems as fiction based more in heroic tales, etc. – i.e. SF/F for adults.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan, wrote about her works in progress and where they fit along the “Bechdel Test” continuum.  This came up originally on the Broad Universe e-mail discussion list.  The Bechdel Test is a simple test originally applied to film and TV – does the film/show have more than one female character, and do the female characters talk to each other about something else other than a man.

I’ve been around long enough that I even have a “test case” – I wrote the same story twice, first from a male POV (father and son) and second, in a better version, about a mother and daughter in a similar situation.  Story A is indeed published – it’s my second Writers of the Future story, “My Son, My Self.”  This one was such a “winner” that I broke my own rule knowing my eligibility to win any type of prize in that contest was growing short (3 published – I figured out early on it wasn’t “sold” but “in-print”) and sent this in without sending it to F & SF or another magazine (probably at that time, I was thinking SF Age before it went out of business, I suppose hoping I’d get one of the Adam-Troy Castro slots).  It indeed “worked,” and I got my prize out of it in the very last quarter I was eligible.

As to the other – it was pointed up to me by a male writing partner that “no father would do what the dad did to Denny” in “My Son, My Self.”  The plot is this – a single father has cloned a son for reasons of companionship, the all-purpose son “Denny” (read my work – Denny appears a few times as different kids).  Denny is nearly grown when his father learns that he’s got inoperable liver cancer and his only option is a transplant.  The denouement of the story is the terrible decision the dad makes.  Unlike “Perfect Stranger,” the original dad chooses . . . a new liver.

In the second, improved version that I wrote a couple of years later with a little more skill, the mother is the first truly successful female film director and her isolated daughter offers her the chance to survive with a lung transplant.  In this version, the mother makes the opposite choice at the end.  This story didn’t sell, and in fact was incubated by a well-known, now pretty-much-unemployed editor – the first of a series of “incubations,” as I like to call them.  Incubation is when the editor allows the material to “cure” in their office before rejecting it for a variety of reasons.  I am pretty sure the motive for “incubation” is the desire to help the material mature, like a soft-rind cheese.  I actually sort of sold this story to an anthology that is in book-limbo, but that was years after its initial writing and marketing.

I have published precisely one well-known, highly-successful story with a female protagonist.  You might count “Jenny With the Stars in Her Hair,” but that barely made it in the Writers of the Future book. The successful female protag story that does pass the Bechdel Test would be “To Kiss the Star.”  It’s 8,000 words long and has three female characters, and all three do talk to each other about something other than a man – although the “man” is the source of the main character’s original conflict. This story did and continues to do well for me, and of course I believe strongly in it.  It was written “for all the right reasons,” and I’m actually heartened that something written the right way, for the right reasons, was able to work.  Another story, “The Renascence of Memory,” featured an aged female protagonist who grew younger during the course of the story.  This one suffered from a similar “incubation” process to “Everything I Have is Yours,” the mother/daughter side of the “my cloned child could be my organ donor” concept.  It was eventually published in a female-edited online magazine, and also appears in my first collection.  When people actually read “The Renascence of Memory,” a strangely autobiographical story, they like it and ask for more.

The end of my “female protag” short fiction process came when I wrote a yet-to-be-published story that I thought was hilarious and poignant, and it featured an old lady based on a real archaeologist I’d known when I was young, a real Neanderthal living in a desert trailer, and the now-named aliens from “Mad for the Mints,” back for more hot intergalactic eBay sale items.  After this one’s lengthy incubation – it dawned on me that – it had NOTHING to do with quality, originality, interesting story, etc. – I was writing for markets that would find a female-protag story difficult to “swallow” (sorry for the metaphor, guys) and the older the gal was, the less appeal the story would have.  I had express proof with two good stories, stories whose quality was better than other male-protag or male-interest ones I had sold. That realization occurred in 2007 or so.

So right now, I’m not writing short science fiction for ANY market, because the amount of time I have to write is limited, and I’d rather be published than not.  Does it have to do with the Bechdel Test?  Yes.  It also has to do with a number of other matters of taste, interest and capacity.  As to what I am writing now, I’ve got the two projects going.  One will pass the Bechdel Test – eventually.  The other, yes of course it does:  it’s the novelization of “To Kiss the Star.”  As to the rest?  Am I sorry that SF/F has died the death it has?  No.  You can’t really get from here to there with only a small number of the people pushing . . . no matter how much you wish you could.  Sexism like the racism in the casting of The Last Airbender film?  Not so much.

You can read a number of my stories for free at Book View Cafe, and this week my featured publication is Blood Lite 2: Overbite, available September 28.

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The Bechdel Test for Speaking Parts — 5 Comments

  1. Very interesting, Amy. I hadn’t heard of the Bechdel Test, and I see it can be very useful. This might explain why my short pieces sell to anthologies and not the magazines, for the most part.

    This leaves us with the question — have SF/F readers grown up at all? I have always been willing to read about either male or female protagonists. But I have not always found that flexibility everywhere. In fact, many readers will read only SF and not fantasy — or vice-versa. How do we lure people out from where they’ve barricaded themselves?

  2. Hi Kathi – I was just reading some of Kelley Armstrong’s work. There’s no lack of sex, guys, paranormal activity, hard-boiledness, and females talking with each other about something other than men, werewolves, demons, etc. But this is “urban fantasy” or whatever they’re calling it. You know, I think she’s a much stronger writer than Jim Butcher, but . . . er . . .

    I can’t tell ya! I would LOVE to know why it’s a set-in-stone belief that some people would only read SF, and only SF of a certain sort, and only about certain characters. I will say that, even though they know that readers like stories with more varied characters, emotion and interaction, I think that the very narrow viewpoint . . . some of the traditional venues are starting to remind me of restaurants that need Gordon Ramsey’s help, but who won’t accept it . . .