by Will Viharo
More women than men are readers, statistically speaking, so if you want to sell more books, you should make your work accessible and relatable to that dominant demographic.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this. And not all of them will work.
First rule? Know the rules before you break ‘em. That means doing your homework, kids.
In a recent blog I addressed the task of creating characters of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds with a certain degree of authenticity and respect, even if the author does not share the particular background being described and conveyed.
There are many more instances where authors (and actors) undergo a creative sex change to tell a story from the point of view of the opposite sex, at least opposite to them.
Retaining a reverent and credible voice when undertaking this artistically risky but potentially rewarding challenge is equally important – and difficult.
There is one way to tell whether you’re towing the line when it comes to properly representing women in your work, no matter which public bathroom you choose to use. It’s not necessarily appropriate for all works of art, but it is still applicable to basically any sort of creative expression.
Cram for the Exam
According to Wikipedia, the “Bechdel Test” – AKA “the Bechdel-Wallace Test” – “asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.”
The term originated in 1985, first appearing in a comic strip called “Dykes to Watch For” by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who actually gave a friend of hers named Liz Wallace credit for the concept, while also citing the works of feminist author Virginia Woolf as inspiration.
Since then, the “Bechdel Test” has been applied to various mediums when addressing the portrayal of the lead female characters. It’s a rather rigorous filtering process, so don’t feel bad if you’re on of the many, many writers that fail to earn a passing grade.
Typically the Bechdel Test is most frequently applied to films, of which most inevitably fail. Thelma and Louise (1991) is perhaps the most famous example of a film that passes with flying colors.
I would add the Russ Meyer cult classic Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965), but it might not pass muster since even though star Tura Satana spends a lot of screen time dominating men both amorously and violently, there is indeed a romantic aspect to the mayhem, which negates the basic principal: female characters that are not relying on males, for anything, to express themselves as well-rounded human beings.
You may not be interested in even giving your female characters this “test.” But some of your readers might, so it’s a good idea to at least be aware of its existence, especially since the issue of equality is such a hot button issue in today’s society, as well as popular culture.
Uncovering, Without Unraveling
I have never attempted to write a story from a female first person perspective, but it can be done, and quite successfully. Wally Lamb’s acclaimed bestseller She’s Come Undone (1992) is an astounding example of a male writer writing a complete novel in the persona of not only a wholly unique individual, but a person of the opposite sex, with complete conviction, to the point where female readers flocked to bookstores by the millions so they could consume the heartbreakingly hilarious adventures of Dolores Price, who struggles with a weight problem, among many other personal challenges. It was even featured on Oprah’s Book Club.
I met and interviewed Wally Lamb when his breakthrough novel first came out, and I can tell you first hand that he could not be more different than his famous character, in every possible way – even his weight! But since Dolores Price’s preoccupations primarily revolve around personal and familial issues, more so than romantic relationships, I would say it passes the Bechdel Test. But then since she does wind up getting married, it might not pass per some purists.
Bottom line? Don’t worry so much about pleasing everyone, or anyone but yourself. But don’t ignore them, either. Always write with honesty, no matter who or what is your subject.
Graduate with Dishonors!
Myself, if someone forces a litmus test on me, regarding pretty much anything, I’ll fail it on purpose. But as an author, I am acutely aware of the fact that some portion of my audience might be sensitive to certain issues raised in my work. I may not appease them, but I need to respect them.
And let's face it: every single novel in the two of the most popular literary genres, Romance and Erotica, would fail the Bechdel Test with resoundingly, even though their biggest audience is...women.
As I keep saying, it's a matter of perspective and agenda.
However, there's no ignoring the fact that sexism is just as rampant in our society (and pop culture) as racism, and it should not only be acknowledged by anyone addressing the topic, it should be avoided in our daily lives at all costs - even if the definition can sometimes be subjectively interpreted for the sake of art.
That's still no excuse to be a jerk.
I doubt if any of my female characters would pass the Bechdel Test, since themes of sexual obsession and promiscuity dominate my pulp fiction, as does the basic yearning for human love to cure the often devastating, universal malady of loneliness.
Nothing wrong with this, of course. At least by the only standards I care about: mine. But that’s just me. I am willfully ignoring the Bechdel Test, or any test. But I know what it is. And simple awareness of the world around you is all anyone can expect from you, especially if you want them to pay to visit the inner world you’re creating.
PHOTO: MIPSY RETRO
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New Orleans, LA