Well, it’s been another year. Sunrise officially began on February 12th, 2008, when this horrible-looking page was posted to the then-very-rough website I’d set up at the time. (The cover of Issue 1 appears to have been posted the day before, but was actually posted somewhat later, with the date adjusted to ensure correct position in the archive.) Now, some 230 pages later, it seems like a good time to look back and see what I’ve learned from this little experiment.
I recently learned of the Bechdel Test, a three-part test used on works of fiction to determine how well its female characters are developed and integrated. It was devised by none less than Alison Bechdel, author of the remarkable graphic memoir Fun Home (which you should read if you haven’t yet). There’s already an entire website devoted to evaluating movies with the test, but of course my immediate concern was how well my own works would fair under scrutiny.
The test is as follows: A work must have (1) two or more female characters (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man. Sounds simple enough! Let’s see how I fare.
Sunrise. (1) Yes. (2) Yes. (3) Yes. Verdict: Pass! There are a few examples, mostly from Issue 4, but some from other issues as well. Still, it couldn’t hurt to try harder, as I do notice that these examples are few and far between.
Realm (1) No. Verdict: Fail. Back to the drawing board for Realm. Luckily, I haven’t plotted out the entire book yet so there’s still plenty of time to revise.
Zirconius. (1) No. Verdict: Fail. This is not an entirely fair application of the test though, as the Zarks are basically genderless. Still, they are referred to with male pronouns so I suppose this still counts as a violation.
Let’s look at some recent short stories (not available online, unfortunately).
“Imagine the Violin.” (1) No. Verdict: Fail. Only one female character, and she’s going insane. Sigh.
“Constance.” (1) Yes. (2) Yes. (3) Yes. Verdict: Pass! A story about two women who talk to each other, and only briefly about a man! As clear a pass as anyone could want.
“Real Space Experience.” (1) Yes. (2) No. Verdict: Fail. Quite a few female characters, but they never speak to each other. Granted, there isn’t a whole lot of dialogue in the story, but it’s still a violation.
Let’s look at a few other things.
Barnacle Bert in “Hands Up, Jellyfish!” Oh, no. You can’t be serious. Ah well, here goes: (1) No. Verdict: Fail. But– but–two of the jellyfish are female, and they’re talking! I think! No, wait, if they are talking they’re probably talking about Bert. Argh. Well, at least the anglerfish is female.
The Violinist. (1) No. Verdict: Fail. Having a female protagonist is not enough to pass the test.
Remnants. Some of you may recall this novel from a few years ago, which was available online for a while. Let’s see how it fares: (1) Yes. (2) Yes. (3) Yes. Verdict: Pass! Finally. Flawed as this book may be, my brief foray into it just now yielded three Bechdel-Test-worthy conversations. Yena, the female protagonist, talks to Mrs. Tamila (a grouchy customer), Rimel (an utter imbecile), and Morica (the villain). All loathsome characters, unfortunately.
Just to round out the number to an even ten, we’ll look at “Lander,” my astronaut story that probably a few of you have seen. (1) No. Verdict: Fail. Sigh.
So, to summarize:
Works examined: 10
Works passing Bechdel Test: 3
(Aside from the obvious, that is.)
I recently finished reading a book about fandom, Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins. It was published in 1992. It examines various aspects of the fan community, and in a section about how fans interpret material by re-watching it, I found this choice quote:
“Each time I see [Star Wars], a new level or idea about something in it shows itself. [Part of the fun is] piecing together from the few clues what the Old Republic was actually like, who the Jedi were, what Han’s background was, … what the Clone Wars were[.]” (Roberta Brown qtd. in Jenkins 1992, 73)
That’s the entire fan controversy in a nutshell, right there. Fans watched the original movies and came up with their own theories about the background material. By keeping the background in a liminal, undefined state, it was alive and exciting. By solidifying his own version of the past in the form of the prequels, George Lucas effectively killed the fans’ grounds for speculation. That, more than the shortcomings of the films themselves, is what inspired fans’ ire.
Bonus: A moral for writers of fiction. Gaps in stories are not necessarily meant to be filled. Interesting background is often more exciting when it’s undefined; when we see the trappings but don’t necessarily know what’s behind them. This is a rocky road to tread (background still has to at least appear to have a reason to exist, you can’t just make things up at random), but it pays to remember that some things are better off unexplained. Bill Watterson never defined what “The Noodle Incident” was, and you can bet if he had, it wouldn’t be as absurd as you imagined it.
Years ago I used to put all my short fiction on my website, but one of my professors (Leigh Grossman) told me that this counted as a form of publication and therefore might make it impossible for me to send the same stories to “real” publishers. Despite the fact that publishing is tanking, I still like the idea of doing things the old-fashioned way, so I removed the stories from my website. Much to my surprise, some of my fiction is now available for perusal in a few places online.
Here’s “Lander,” my short story about an aging astronaut.
Here in my lap I have eighteen pages of lined paper ripped from a notebook. The obsessively neat handwriting is mine, as is the story. Both date from when I was ten. The story takes place on Crystalia, a world that had a pseudo-medieval society and a landscape dotted with giant inexplicable crystals. For a short time the place fascinated me, but now these few pages are all that remains.
Treyl’s foot slipped on the slick crystal. As he ascended up the side of the crystal, he wondered whether this climb would really succeed in getting him up high enough to be picked up by hot air balloon. He had to head to the island of Taloba to have his corn ground and sold.