Here’s a handy thing to know:

If someone is writing about how females are portrayed in fiction, they are not automatically guilty of feminist diatribe.  And talking about minority portrayal is not the sole province of extremists and radicals.  These topics are worth talking about, and just because someone might feel uncomfortable with the conversation, it doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t worth happening.  In fact, it’s probably the exact opposite.

More and more, I find myself frustrated by the pushback that comes with any attempt to discuss these taboo topics.  Nobody admits to racism / sexism / bias, but those biases still exist despite that.  And there’s no better way to see this than to try to have a simple, civil conversation about them.

It’s like when you point out that Fight Club fails The Bechdel Test, and then you get every jerk with a chip on his shoulder crawling out of the woodwork saying that women want to ruin all movies.  The Bechdel Test, by the way, is a measure of female presence in a story.  It goes 1) Is there more than one named woman in the story? 2) Do they have a conversation with each other? 3) Is it about anything other than men?  The test isn’t meant to be an immutable rule.  It’s not even meant to be a measure of feminism.  It’s just there to see how important women are to a story.  And women aren’t really that important to Fight Club.  That’s not an indictment to the film.  A world where EVERY story must have a strong female presence would limit the stories you could tell.  But it’s still something worth noting.

To put it in perspective, if we reverse the Bechdel Test, if it is about the prominence of males in stories, almost EVERY single story passes.  That says something important.  It says that we live in a society which focuses on malesm (almost always white ones).  Simply put, not every story has a place for prominent females, but nearly every story does have one for prominent males.

The same observation could be said for minorities, who struggle to find more than token roles.

The point is that American culture, for all its melting pot idealism, is still reluctant to allow certain types of people to share the spotlight.  And when people want to discuss that problem, they aren’t automatically accusing you of prejudice for not noticing it before.  And they aren’t out to chickify your favorite stories or guilty of reverse discrimination.  (A ridiculous concept, worthy of derision.)  They’re just talking about culture, sharing their point of view, and even if you don’t agree with it, it’s still valid.

We benefit from being a more inclusive, more socially aware society.  It’s not political correctness to try to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and update our culture.  Giving women / minorities / robots more prominence isn’t an attack on the stories of old.  It’s just part of the forward motion that keeps our stories relevant to who we are.

So the next time you read a story or watch a TV show or go to a movie, take time to apply the Bechdel Test.  And even if you aren’t a woman, realize just how often woman are stuck on the outside of our culture.  Or how often being a minority (of any kind) is the beginning and end of a character’s personality.  Once you look at it honestly, you’ll see that it’s a bigger problem than most people think.

And, no, that doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person for not noticing it before.  It just means you’re a human being busy living your life, but sometimes, you have to do more than that.  Our culture will be the better for it.  More importantly, you’ll be better for it.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted May 15, 2012 at 3:04 am | Permalink

    Great post! I agree 100%. There is a lot of push-back, and sometimes I feel like women’s social progress has taken backwards steps since the 1980s.

    I’ll be at Armadillocon this year, and hope to meet you!

  2. VultureTX
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Since we are here due to SF, Heinlein said stories had 3 plots

    The Little Tailor

    The Man Who Learned Better

    Boy meets Girl

    So maybe the common element is now considered misogynist , but last I checked nobody’s stopping good ideas/stories from being shared here in the West.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted May 28, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think there is anything innately male-centric about any of those formulas. They are often couched on those terms, but that has more to do with the nature of language than the storylines.

      This is part of the problem though. A story can just as easily be Girl Meets Boy. And The Little Taylor doesn’t need to be a guy. The problem isn’t the stories, but the way they are so often portrayed by default.

      Thanks for the comment.

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