In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote about a character who would only watch movies that passed a certain test. At first, it was nothing more than a fictional character’s wish list, but it has since moved into the mainstream as a litmus test for gender diversity in movies and plays.
The test itself is simple: at least two female characters must speak to each other about something other than a man. Common variants of the test also insist that the characters be named, and not just some minor character like “blonde waitress” or “salesgirl”. Seems easy, right? No requirement that they be main characters, or smart, strong, or even respectable. They just have to have names and talk to each other, and not make it about men. You know, like in real life.
And yet a surprising–or not so surprising, I suppose–percentage of movies fail even this basic level of gender inclusion. It’s worth noting that a movie can pass the test, and still be horribly sexist (Weird Science, I’m looking at you), while others that would otherwise seem like a lock to pass actually don’t, even while having a “strong female lead” (Run Lola Run).
It’s even worse in my chosen genres of science fiction and fantasy. All the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies fail the test, as do all the Star Wars movies aside from The Force Awakens (and some question how well even that episode passes). The Princess Bride fails as well, due to its titular character being wholly dependent on her True Love–male, naturally–to push the plot forward (not even Miracle Max could conjure a lesbian royal wedding in a 1980s children’s movie).
What has any of this got to do with my book? Simply put, I wanted to pass the test. It’s not just about getting credit for it, or earning the right to fly my feminist colors, although those are worthy enough pursuits. The fact is, it forced me to analyze my character selection and development, rather than follow blindly whatever internal biases I have–and yes, I have them. I doubt I’ll ever be compared favorably to Tolkien, Heinlein, or Lucas, but I don’t want to make the same mistakes they did by largely ignoring the potential of my female characters.
In the end, it’s about making my stories believable. I’m already asking my readers to suspend their disbelief long enough to accept dragons and interstellar planetary colonization; I don’t want to strain credibility further by suggesting that only straight white cis males are worthy of being plot-driving characters. I can’t imagine a world in which women aren’t both champions and catalysts (although it’s entirely possible to imagine a world in which they get no credit for it). Fiction, to be believable, must acknowledge this.
I faced two challenges in this epic quest. First, my main character is male. Second, my POV is third person, over the shoulder, meaning the only thoughts the reader hears are William’s, and all conversations have to take place within his hearing. Rather than change either of these–something I was unwilling to do–I decided to contrive a way to pass the test under these conditions.
It was easier than I thought it would be, and the solution was pretty much what it is in real life: respect. My main character had to respect women enough to listen to them, especially in their areas of expertise. Also, he had to shut up, and not assume his ignorance was equal to their knowledge. (Stay tuned for a future post in which I mansplain what mansplaining is).
The first episode in which William does this, he is recovering from a serious injury. Motivated to find out more about Rachel, who has declined thus far to share any personal information with him, he feigns unconsciousness while he listens in on her discussion with Maya about how strangely the wildlife is acting. Not exactly an honorable reason for “allowing” two women to speak to each other, but we have to start somewhere.
The second instance is forced upon him by both Rachel and Maya, who want to inspect the tunnel they’ve just stumbled on without the interference of William and Jack, who don’t share their experience in such things. William, to his credit, agrees to this without argument.
It’s not until the third time that the moment of respect comes of his own volition. Faced with near certain death, William tries to distract the members of his team with jobs suited to each of their skills, and assigns a task to Maya and Rachel that blossoms into an excited conversation about how they might escape their predicament. He doesn’t expect results, or even a chance to try out their ideas, but that’s not the point–he simply recognizes his own limitations, especially in light of their greater experience.
During all three of these conversations, William refrains from interrupting. His reasons for this evolve over time, ranging from self-interest and curiosity to actual respect. My intent was not to portray him as perfect, but as someone willing to face his shortcomings, including in how he relates to women. It’s how I see myself, too. I have a lot of work to do in showing the respect that I feel, and while bad habits learned early are the hardest to break, I refuse to shy away from the challenge.
I especially look forward to hearing from any women who think I could have done something better. I promise I’ll listen.