Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Bechdel-Wallace Test

Alison Bechdel (b. 1960) is a MacArthur Grant Awarded cartoonist, creator of the long-running strip Dykes To Watch For and the graphic novels Fun Home and Are You My Mother? As a young theater artist in the 1990s reading Dykes in the Gay People’s Chronicle was a primer helping me to see beyond coarse stereotypes about lesbians when my circle of friends were either largely straight or closeted.

Click on to enlarge.
An edition of Dykes titled "The Rule" featured two friends discussing what movie to see. One explains she has three rules which dictate whether or not she’s interested in seeing a movie:

  1. One, it has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who, two, talk to each other,
  3. about , three, something besides a man

Now generally referred the Bechdel Test, the cartoonist prefers joint attribution with the person who originally thought up the criteria, an old friend names Liz Wallace -- whose contribution, you will notice, was noted on the original strip. Though "The Rule" is thirty years old, the term has become a meme in the past decade and a starting point for discussion about gender parity across all spectrum of media.

Breaking Point (1989)
What do the results signify? You could deduce from the dearth of roles for women in film that the point is representation. You can also consider what those roles consist of; do the female characters exist merely as romantic foils or objects of sexual desire - do these female characters even have names?

The bigger question, and the question I have been asking myself of late, is what stories are we telling? It’s not about cramming more women into your movie, and it’s not even about employing more women writers - although that would go a very long way to ameliorating the discrepancy. We should be asking ourselves what stories we writers choose to present to the world.

Scripts written for the theater (call them plays) have a handicap when it comes to passing the test, if only because most plays by design will have fewer total characters. But the challenge remains the same, what story do we choose to tell?

The first play I tried writing was the one-act Breaking Point, based on my own college comic strip. One night, as I was conversing with my stage manager and fretting about the one female housemate in an apartment of four. She was as smart and smart-alecky as the rest of them in the strip, but distilling several months of story line into a thirty-minute play, I realized how all the male characters treated her like shit.

“I write terrible female characters,” I sighed.

“Yeah," she said, shaking her head somewhat sympathetically. "You do.”

The Vampyres (1997)
I didn’t have another play produced for the better part of ten years. When I finally started composing The Vampyres in the mid-90s (finally, as in, why wasn’t I writing plays before this?) I had a story I was burning to tell, about a cynical med-student and a couple of poseur vampires which also included a former crush of the protagonists and a teenage barista onto whom he transfers his affection.

No, the two women do not talk to each other. If they did, it would certainly have been about the men. However, by that time I was aware of sexism in my writing, even if I didn’t know exactly what to do about it. I strove to retrofit the character of Mary so that she was a strong women who had her own agenda as an artist, but really, in brief she fell in love with a male vampire because he was irresistible in the way we are all told we just have to accept.

The story belonged to the male characters. It was a struggle between he and the other two hes. And it was represented in a battle over possession of the two shes. Giving the female characters their own personal agendas does not change what was the central conflict of the plot.

More recently, I have been working on a two-hander, the as-yet unproduced The Way I Danced With You. There’s two people in this play, one man and one woman, so the Bechdel Test does not really apply. But is the story equally theirs? Is the pursuit of her goals on an equal footing with her pursuit of her own goals? I believe that it is, and it is important to me that it is -- and not merely to satisfy an agenda. As I reported previously, the reception of this play changed from the Valdez reading in June and the Cleveland reading in November.

My breakthrough in creating feminist plays, however, comes largely thanks to my work in children’s theater. Who knows why this is, perhaps because at a distance I can tell stories to children in which gender has the fluidity that children themselves possess.

White Garlic and Red Onion
Adventures in Slumberland featured a protagonist in the form of a five year-old boy, who could be a girl, and was, in fact, played by a woman, and probably usually should be. His hero’s quest ostensibly is to find the princess (this is eighty years before Donkey Kong) but that’s a McGuffin, it’s really about a child growing to appreciate their own personhood.

Rosalynde & The Falcon turns the princess story on its head, as a young woman is persecuted by her wicked stepfather the king, and escapes to the wood where -- instead of looking after a band of thieves (or dwarfs, what have you) she becomes the leader of the thieves, and eventually the ruler of her nation. There are two named female characters … I guess it’s funny that one of them doesn’t even speak until the very end, but they certainly do not talk about the men, they talk about governance.

Early next month my latest work, Red Onion, White Garlic, opens early next month. I hate to describe a play by what it is not, but I did not set out to create a feminist children’s play. It was not my intention to create a play which passes the Bechdel Test entirely and without qualification.

What I did do was investigate Indonesian folktales, arrive at one which centers upon the relationship of two sisters, and every moment I found myself searching for a new character to add to the narrative, she was always female. I even considered male characters, but they never made sense as part of the story. It is not that men are absent. The tale belongs to women.

Red Onion, White Garlic opens April 8, 2017 at Talespinner Children's Theatre.

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