July 23 2014 11:50 AM

Popular fiction has evolved, but big-time fails in female representation mean the challenge is still relevant

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Photo by Elena Seibert

Tatiana Maslany was robbed.

When the Emmys were announced earlier this month, the actor was conspicuously missing from the list of nominees. Her fans were shocked: The Canadian star deserved not only outstanding lead actress for her role as con-artist Sarah Manning in Orphan Black, but also outstanding supporting actress several times over for playing all of Manning's clone sisters in the sci-fi series.

With Orphan Black, BBC America and Space have created something unique: a TV show about women engaging with women about serious issues other than their male love interests. Maslany's many characters have distinct, imperfect personalities—from transgender bandit to suburban soccer mom, Russian psychopath to hipster scientist—and they're both kind and cruel to each other.

Orphan Black doesn't just pass the Bechdel Test; it obliterates it. Too bad the show's such an anomaly.

The Bechdel Test is a simple thought experiment that requires works of fiction to feature at least two female characters talking to each other about something other than a dude. It's a ridiculously low bar that a surprising number of contemporary works fail to reach. And while women are increasingly being represented in fiction as more than just big-breasted love interests or one-dimensional sidekicks, there's still a long way to go.

The ground rules for what became known as the Bechdel Test were first laid out in this 1985 "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic strip
by Alison Bechdel.

"It is sad that so many things still fail," says Alison Bechdel, the longtime Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist and author who included the test in one of her early comic strips. "But, for me, I feel like there's been so much progress, too. I mean, when I wrote that cartoon in 1985—almost 30 years ago—it was just a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper. Now it's something people are discussing in mainstream culture. So, to me, that seems like huge progress."

Bechdel is quick to admit that the idea wasn't hers; it came from a friend. After the strip resurfaced online and the test became a meme in recent years, she learned to stake more claim in it since the idea embodies one of the main goals of her life's work—representing women as normal people who do normal things. She says she's enjoyed seeing the rise of the more realistic everywoman in fiction.

"There's just been this evolution of women getting to be regular jerks, like men always got to be jerks," she says, citing television shows Girls and Broad City as examples. "I think that's really crucial."

Andrea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist and author who uses comic books, sci-fi and fantasy to explore psychological science, says the Bechdel Test is a good starting point. She likes that it relies on the interaction of women and the exclusion of romantic involvement, but she says that even when fiction meets those basic requirements, it often depicts women as "Mary Sues" or unrealistically strong females so fierce and so talented that the audience can't connect.

Andrea Letamendi

"It's taking that version of a strong female character to an extreme where it becomes hyperbole," she says, adding that there are many other aspects to consider when looking critically at how women are being represented in fiction.

Bechdel herself is among the first to point out her eponymous test's limitations.

"You can have a feminist movie that doesn't meet the criteria," she says. "And you can have a movie that meets the criteria and isn't feminist. So, it's not scientific or anything. It was meant as a joke, but I still think it's a very useful joke…. It's a bit surprising what does and doesn't pass." 

CityBeat likes a good joke, which is why we decided to look at this year's Comic-Con and the culture it celebrates through the lens of the Bechdel Test. Seth Combs talked to a local male comic artist about why he continues to depict women as sexy and idealized. Ryan Bradford watched trailers for some of this summer's blockbuster films and added a new test. Susan Myrland rounded up the best of this year's offsite events geared toward the Comic-Con crowd and highlighted the ones including women. And over there to the right, we looked at this year's schedule and found the panels to which Bechdel herself might give an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Women in Popular Culture: A team of women including Katrina Hill of the website Action Movie Freak and professional stuntwoman Lesley Aletter discuss the best and worst examples of powerful women in pop culture. At 3 p.m. Thursday, July 24, in Room 7AB.

Heartbreakers: Join the female-focused comic creators for a discussion about sexism, science fiction, comic books and geek culture. At 1 p.m. Thursday, July 24, in Room 32AB.

Gender Politics: Panelists including Laura Hudson of WIRED and IDW editor Sarah Gaydos explore the role and impact of gender politics in the mainstream and independent-comics industry. At 10 a.m. Friday, July 25, in Room 4.

Female Protagonists: Superheroines' journeys have been long and hard. Panelists discuss cultural barriers, societal sexism and how super-women have had to fight more than just crime in order to survive. At 4 p.m. Friday, July 25, in Room 9.

Witty Women of Steampunk: Steampunk women talk multiculturalism, science, sexuality, class politics and more. Panelists include Ay-leen the Peacemaker, editor for BeyondVictoriana.com, and steampunk model / performer Sarah Hunter. At 2:30 p.m. Friday, July 25, in Room 24ABC.

Nontraditional Roles of Women: Tess Fowler (writer / illustrator for Game of Thrones) and other female panelists talk about nontraditional roles of women in the comic and entertainment industries. At 3:30 p.m. Friday, July 25, in Room 26AB.

Strong Female Characters: Well-written, realistic female characters are celebrated in this panel featuring June Brigman (Power Pack), Amanda Conner (Power Girl), Colleen Coover (Bandette) and others. At 3 p.m. Saturday July 26, in Room 7AB.

More Female-Created Content: Female creators give attendees a solid plan of action to enter the industry. At 1 p.m. Saturday, July 26, in Room 23ABC.

Heroines in Paranormal Fantasy: Female authors, including Marjorie Liu (Labyrinth of Stars), discuss creating their protagonists and the paranormal worlds in which they live. At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, July 26, in Room 8.

Super Heroines: Female television creators, graphic novelists, artists and cultural commentators, including psychologist Andrea Letamendi, will talk about women in the superhero world. At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, July 27, in Room 23ABC.

Dave Maass contributed his geeky guidance to this and other features in this year's Comic-Con section.


See all events on Wednesday, Dec 7