For reasons that I need not go into, late last month I decided to read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. I went into it with some trepidation because the genre tends to be dominated by ubermenchie boyfests, which are not my favorite fare. Sure enough, as the chapters went by it became clear that was pretty much what was happening. I probably would have abandoned it, but I happened to be simultaneously reading Joanna Russ’ The Female Man for a book club, and Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex on loan from a friend. The three together created such a lot of fascinating food for thought that I was able to mush my way through the deep snow of the ubermench world all the way to the end.
Among many other things, this got me to thinking about the Bechdel Test. (Or to honor Allison Bechdel’s preference, the Bechdel/Wallace test since it was actually invented by her friend Liz Wallace.) Name of the Wind most certainly fails, in fact it fails pretty spectacularly. I was a few chapters in before I started to wonder where all the women went, so I might have missed something early on but as far as I can tell the first female character appears after seven chapters, there are nine chapters before a female character speaks, forty chapters before a female character has an actual conversation, sixty chapters before two female characters appear in the same scene and speak to one another and never do more than two women appear in any scene nor do they speak to one another about anything except a man. Which would be so much less weird if this were a novel taking place in a monastery or some equivalently gender segregated space.
I mentioned this spectacular Bechdel fail to a few people. Some had never heard of the Bechdel, some had noticed the problem but pushed on through, some had abandoned the book, and some asked me variants on the question why does it matter anyway? Which got me to thinking, what does it mean to pass or fail the Bechdel and why DOES it matter anyway?
Passing the Bechdel doesn’t mean the book is a shining example of egalitarian literature. The Bechdel is intentionally a pretty low bar. A book that can’t get over it really isn’t trying very hard. Failing it doesn’t mean the author, or the book or its fans suck- severally or en masse. They might, they might not but simply being clue free about gender is a widespread condition that affects all sorts of people and creative produc ts that still have many other redeeming qualities.
Also, as I said before there are perfectly valid reasons to fail the Bechdel. Books set in a gender segregated space, books about creatures without gender, books that only have one character. BUT if a book isn’t set in a monastery, isn’t about silicon creatures from Epsilon Theta who reproduce in triads, and it still doesn’t manage to have enough female characters to fill a phone booth or to actually give them any lines, then it’s a book that I personally don’t particularly want to read.
Because here’s the thing, I grew up in the patriarchy and I already have enough noise in my head about how my gender is secondary and not that important and mostly of use as support system for the real movers and shakers. I absolutely do not need to invite more of those voices into my head. I’m working really hard on shoveling out the ones that have already crept in there. And a bunch of them are slippery little buggers who keep sneaking back in as soon as I shovel them out!
I started to imagine those nefarious little notions that creep in and infest your brain when you’re just trying to enjoy a nice adventure story as those weasels that creep into Toad Hall when Toad is in jail. Drinking all the booze, swinging from the light fixtures, wiping their hands on the drapes until I sweep in with Badger and a big stick to drive them out again!
So if I’m going to read a book that is going to infest me with more thought-weasels that I have to hunt down and remove, then I – personally – your mileage may vary – have to argue with it as I go along. I yell at it. I sometimes throw it. I certainly complain about it. A lot. Because that’s my way of beating back the thought-weasels. That takes quite a bit of energy and sometimes annoys the bystanders. So often, I just wont bother. I will get a few chapters in, discover the book is full of thought weasels, and abandon it. In this case I didn’t so there’s likely to be another blog post soon where I battle the thought-weasels of this particular book.
For now I just wanted to share my Bechdel musings. How about you? Do these kinds of things inform your reading? Do you battle thought-weasels? If so, what do yours look like and how do you battle them?