2/10/2016. THE GENDER BIAS BLIGHT IN NOVELS
Think about the novel you’re reading now. Is the main character or protagonist a man? If the protagonist is a man, does the story also have strong female characters and do they get a reasonable amount of time in the spotlight? If the protagonist is a woman, how are the men defined? How often are they seen? In some of the very best novels, both classic and contemporary, most of the good parts are taken over by characters of one gender or the other. In fact, the high quality of writing in some novels helps mask the disparity in gender importance. Readers just don’t notice that the most interesting characters are all men—or women.
In 1985, Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist and author of the graphic memoir Fun House, suggested a way to recognize gender inequality in films. Since then, readers and critics have applied the same criteria to novels with revealing results. The standard, known as the Bechdel Test, has three parts:
- The movie (or novel) has to have at least two women in it,
- Who talk to each other,
- About something besides a man.
Bechdel acknowledges that she is actually not the originator of the test; she only introduced it in her cartoon strip Dykes To Watch Out For. She credits her friend Liz Wallace for giving her the idea and says she prefers that it be called the Bechdel-Wallace test. She also notes that Virginia Woolf made a similar observation in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own:
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. …[A]lmost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the opposite sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.
Novels with strong female protagonists are generally accepted as passing the Bechdel test. But what about novels with male protagonists and strong female secondary characters? In many ways this is an equally important test. Even if the female characters are not the star of the show, they should be presented as fully developed human beings who, as Woolf said, have important lives outside of their relationships with men. Otherwise, they become devices for propping up the hero.
And the same is true for male secondary characters in novels about women. Do their lives revolve totally around the protagonist? Who are they other than husbands, boyfriends, convenient adversaries? The novels I write have female protagonists, and since I learned of the Bechdel test, I have become more conscious of the scenes I give to my male characters. Do they talk to each other about anything other than the protagonist and her problems? Do they have an important role to play in advancing the plot?
Attention to secondary characters of both genders is important because it makes us aware of the way we regard each other. Fictional characters contribute to accepted conceptions of what people are like. Gender bias matters because it feeds the idea that people of one gender exist to serve people of the other. Characters, like people, are important for who they are, not just for how they can be defined in terms of the heroes.