How well do I Bechdel?
Over the past couple of years there’s been a lot of discussion about representation and diversity in genre media in various contexts, such as the debate over the past two years’ Hugo nominations, the importance of Mad Max: Fury Road, the excitement about the Wonder Woman movie and the frustration about the delay in getting female-led Marvel movies, and so on. It got me curious to see how well my writing measures up by one standard of representation, the Bechdel test. This is a metric popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel as a way of assessing how well women are represented in media — or, rather, of revealing how poorly they are represented in American movies overall.
A work of fiction passes the Bechdel test if it meets three criteria:
- It includes at least two named female characters…
- who have a conversation with each other…
- about something other than a man.
Now, whether an individual work passes the test isn’t necessarily an indicator of whether it’s feminist or portrays women in a positive light. The classic illustration is that Gravity fails the test while Showgirls passes. And certainly not every story has to pass it to be worthwhile; for instance, one of my favorite movies, 12 Angry Men, is an obvious fail just from the title. (There have been versions with women in the cast, but they’d still technically fail because all the characters are unnamed.) Its use, rather, is in the aggregate, to help assess how well or poorly women are represented in an overall genre or body of work. Which is why I plan to apply it to my whole body of published work, though it’s taken me a while to slog through the whole list.
Some of my shorter works would fail Bechdel due to not having enough characters overall, so it’s worth bringing in the related “Mako Mori test.” This test, named for the female lead in Pacific Rim, was conceived to fill the gaps in the Bechdel test for films like Gravity or Pacific Rim in which there’s only one significant female character, but that character is still presented in a strong and positive way, as an independent protagonist in her own right. The parameters for a work of fiction to pass the Mako Mori test are:
- It includes at least one female character…
- who has her own narrative arc…
- that isn’t about supporting a male character’s arc.
I don’t think this excludes the female character from supporting any male character at all — just that she have her own personal goal driving her, rather than being motivated solely by helping a man achieve his goals. Mako does support Raleigh as his partner, and vice-versa, but she has her own independent motivation and quest that would have still been present even without Raleigh being there.
So I think I’ll start with my original fiction, in publication order.
“Aggravated Vehicular Genocide”: Passes Bechdel. There are two human female characters, Captain Cecilia LoCarno and the bit player Zena Bhatiani. The AI Arachne identifies as female, and the Chirrn captain/prosecutor Rillial is “currently female.” Bhatiani and Arachne briefly converse about the possibility of communication with the aliens. Cecilia, Rillial, and Arachne converse about the disaster; Cecilia and Bhatiani discuss language; Cecilia and Rillial debate in the trial.
“Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele”: Fails Bechdel because there are only three speaking characters, two of them male. Passes the Mako test since Safira Kimenye is the central character and her actions in defense of the titular cybers drive the story.
“The Hub of the Matter”: Fails Bechdel, as Nashira Wing is the only female character. Mokak Vekredi is hermaphroditic but identifies as male, and Nashira’s conversations with him are about David LaMacchia. I think it passes the Mako test; as with Mako herself, Nashira’s storyline intertwines with David’s and supports his to an extent, but she does have her own independent agenda informing her actions, which is somewhat at odds with David’s.
“The Weight of Silence”: Fails Bechdel by having only two speaking characters, one male, one female. The female lead Monali Chen is the narrator and lead character, but her arc is halfway about rescuing herself and her copilot boyfriend and halfway about rescuing their relationship. But I think it’s more a case of him supporting her arc than the other way around. Call it a half score Mako-wise.
“No Dominion”: Passes Bechdel. Lead character Tamara Craig interviews a female witness about her female roommate’s attempted murder and about her research, though Craig’s male colleague participates.
“Home is Where the Hub Is”: Passes, though not by much. Nashira and female alien Commander Relniv discuss the discovery of a new Hubpoint, though David and Rynyan then intrude on the conversation. Nashira briefly converses with another alien later identified as female, but it’s about David, and the alien isn’t named.
Only Superhuman: Solid pass. Multiple named female characters have conversations on a variety of subjects. For example: Emerald Blair and Bast taunt each other during combat; Emry and Koyama Hikari discuss their work and Emry’s bionic upgrades; Emry and Psyche Thorne have numerous conversations about politics, philosophy, sexual ethics, and more personal matters (some involving men, others not); etc.
“Make Hub, Not War”: Limited pass. Andrea LaMacchia and Aytriaew briefly discuss the quality of the latter’s relief supplies; Nashira and Aytriaew briefly discuss another relief mission (and revisit the topic later with David and Rynyan participating). Solid pass for Mako, as Aytriaew has her own strong agenda driving the story.
The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing”: Barely passes first two Bechdel parameters, fails the third. Mostly a two-hander with a female viewpoint character, Mariposa, and her male love interest, like “Weight of Silence.” A conversation with an incidental female character named Kipepeo is only summarized and is largely about a man. Mako Mori-wise, same issues as “Weight.” Mariposa’s arc involves rescuing and relating to a man, but that’s largely in service to her own character growth. Comes closer to passing than failing, but I’m not quite sure.
“Murder on the Cislunar Railroad”: Passes Bechdel. Has two named human female characters, Jaya Ramanathan and Lam Hang Bian, and a female-identifying AI, Athena. Bian and Athena have at least two confrontations in which the male lead also participates (though he joins belatedly in the first one).
So out of 10 published original works to date, only 6 pass Bechdel at all, most of them poorly. Of the remaining four, two definitely pass Mako and two ambiguously pass it. This is unexpected, since I’ve always thought I tended to write strongly female-centric fiction. Indeed, 7 of these 10 stories are told primarily or exclusively from the POV of their female leads, and two others (the first two) have dominant female leads whose actions drive the narrative but who are perceived mainly through the male leads’ POV. “Cislunar” is probably my most strongly male-centric story in terms of POV and character gender ratio, yet the story is largely shaped by its female characters’ agendas. Still, my female leads tend to be paired off with male characters rather than other women, and are outnumbered by men more often than I’d realized. (To be fair, though, I don’t have many male-male pairings to speak of either, aside from David and Rynyan in the Hub stories.)
In the aggregate, I’d say I come out ahead, but not by nearly as much as I expected. This is what things like the Bechdel and Mako tests are good for — to identify blind spots and unconscious habits that have been overlooked.
There’s also a strong but unintentional tendency toward heteronormativity in these works, with Only Superhuman being the only one that features a same-sex relationship between lead characters (although there is passing discussion of a casual lesbian dalliance between supporting characters in “No Dominion” and a brief allusion to Mariposa’s bisexuality in “Butterfly’s Wing”, and added material in the Hub Space collection establishes David LaMacchia as bisexual). I’m already working to improve LGBTQ representation in future stories.
Moving on to tie-ins, let’s start with Marvel.
X-Men: Watchers on the Walls: Passes Bechdel. Multiple female X-Men including Jean Grey, Rogue, Shadowcat, and Storm, plus other female characters like Val Cooper, the alien leader Poratine, and the new female students at the Xavier Institute. Lots of conversations on various topics.
Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder: I’d have to call it a fail. There are several named female characters who have conversations with each other, but all are about men, usually Spider-Man. There is one bit early on where one female student of Peter Parker’s makes a comment and another reacts to it with a wisecrack, but they’re both technically addressing Peter. So it’s only a 2/3 Bechdel pass. I don’t think it quite passes Mako; Mary Jane Watson-Parker has an independent narrative arc (drawn from the comics) involving her pursuit of a stage career, but it isn’t a major element of the story.
These results make sense, I’d say, since X-Men is an ensemble series with about an equal mix of male and female characters, while Spider-Man is a male-led solo series where basically every other character is there to relate to Peter/Spidey in some way. Again, it’s not necessary for every work to pass Bechdel; it’s more an aggregate assessment. And two works is too small a sample to get a meaningful aggregate result. Let’s call this a wash.
And finally Star Trek, again in publication order:
SCE: Aftermath: Passes Bechdel. Multiple named female characters, including Sonya Gomez, Domenica Corsi, Carol Abramowitz, and “Pattie” (P8 Blue), converse about the mission and strategies, though men participate as well. Gomez and female alien scientist Varethli have a heart-t0-heart.
DS9: “…Loved I Not Honor More”: Fails 2/3 of Bechdel and fails Mako. Only two named female characters (Grilka and Jadzia Dax), who do not interact and who are there to support Quark’s narrative arc.
TOS: Ex Machina: Passes, though not massively. Uhura, Reiko Onami, and Spring Rain discuss the latter’s past, goals, and physiological needs, as well as discussing Uhura and Reiko’s memories of Ilia. Also, High Priestess Rishala discusses politics and strategy with several named councillors of both sexes.
VGR: “Brief Candle”: Borderline pass. Captain Janeway grants a request from B’Elanna Torres. Marika Willkarah briefly debates with Torres whether a mission is too dangerous. (There’s also a scene where Marika and Torres both try to convince the Doctor to agree to a request from the latter, but they don’t talk to each other in that scene.)
Titan: Orion’s Hounds: Passes. Various interchanges, including: Melora Pazlar and Orilly Malar discussing the latter’s reasons for being aboard; Deanna Troi counseling Orilly (more than once); Deanna and the alien Oderi discussing the latter’s racial history; etc.
TOS: “As Others See Us”: Passes. Two female Sigma Niobeans, Admiral Deyin and Captain Nohin, have a lengthy discussion about an impending contact with native islanders. Deyin later has an exchange with the island matriarch.
TOS: Mere Anarchy: The Darkness Drops Again: Passes. Two female Payav, Raya elMora and Asal Janto, discuss their past friendship and current political opposition (though some men are discussed in connection with the political situation). They have a second confrontation later. Raya has another scene with her grandmother Elee and a young female protegee, Theena.
TNG: The Buried Age: Passes. Various interchanges, including: Stefcia Janos, Coray, and Xian Yanmei discuss how to enter an ancient ruin (with men participating); Kathryn Janeway, Stefcia, and Dr. Miliani Langford discuss how to penetrate a stasis field (ditto); Janeway and Ariel discuss rescuing more of Ariel’s people; Coray tries to recruit Ariel to her cause; etc.
TNG: “Friends With the Sparrows”: Fails 2/3 of Bechdel; there are at least three named women (Troi, Sofia Borges, Ambassador Denin), but they never converse. Not sure about Mako; Borges and Denin both have their own agendas, but narratively their arcs are in service to Data’s arc. I guess it depends on whether you define “supporting a man” in terms of a character’s intentions or in terms of her story function.
VGR: Myriad Universes: Places of Exile: Passes Bechdel. Vostigye Subspeaker Vitye Megon debates with Janeway and (separately) science minister Dobrye Gavanri about surrendering Voyager‘s crew to an enemy; Janeway converses with Vorta clone Kilana about a potential alliance; Annika Hansen convinces Janeway to let her take a risk; etc.
TNG: Greater Than the Sum: Passes Bechdel from the first page onward. T’Ryssa Chen wheedles Dawn Blair into putting her on an away team; Seven of Nine, Crusher, and Admiral Nechayev discuss Chen’s experience (with men participating); Miranda Kadohata clashes with Chen over her attitude; Crusher, Kadohata, Chen, and Jasminder Choudhury play poker (with Picard, La Forge, and Worf); etc.
TTN: Mirror Universe: “Empathy”: Fails part 3 of Bechdel. Christine Vale and Aili Lavena have conversations, but they’re primarily about men. Fails Mako, as they’re primarily there to support male characters’ arcs.
TTN: Over a Torrent Sea: Passes. Lavena, Vale, and Pazlar discuss the planet Droplet and its life forms (with males participating); Pazlar discusses their findings with various male and female crewmembers; Lavena and Pazlar privately discuss the squales (and then start discussing a man, Dr. Ra-Havreii); etc.
DTI: Watching the Clock: Passes. Teresa Garcia and Clare Raymond discuss being displaced in time; Garcia and Dr. T’Viss discuss temporal physics; Garcia, Pazlar, Ellec Krotine, and Lirahn discuss the Axis of Time; Agent Shelan speaks with a time-displaced Dina Elfiki and later with Jena Noi; etc.
TNG: Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within: Passes. T’Ryssa Chen and Jasminder Choudhury interact repeatedly on Kinshaya mission; Crusher tries to reason with female rebels Velet and Dirin; etc.
DTI: Forgotten History: Passes, mainly just in the opening scenes. Garcia and Heather Peterson discuss Elysia (with one male, Ranjea, participating); Captain Alisov and Peterson discuss the subspace confluence; not much else.
ENT: Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures: Passes. Various work-related exchanges among T’Pol, Hoshi Sato, and Elizabeth Cutler. T’Pol and Sato are later held captive together and converse about their situation.
ENT: ROTF: Tower of Babel: Passes. More T’Pol/Sato/Cutler; T’Pol debates with Boomer leader Freya Stark; Sedra Hemnask and T’Rama discuss their careers (with Archer participating); etc.
DTI: The Collectors: Passes. Jena Noi converses with colleague Jeihaz about timeline changes, and interacts extensively with another female character (spoilers!).
ENT: ROTF: Uncertain Logic: Passes, though not massively. Val Williams converses with security subordinates including Julia Guzman and Katrina Ndiaye. Devna and the Deltan woman Pelia discuss their cultures’ approaches to sexuality, but only briefly in connection with men. Maybe a few other brief bits.
ENT: ROTF: Live by the Code: Passes, though not massively. More Williams/Ndiaye in action. Two female Vol’Rala bridge officers, Breg and zh’Vethris, discuss recent events on Breg’s home colony. A few group discussions among personnel of both sexes. (I’d expected I could count the scene where T’Pol, Sato, and Cutler confront Orion merchant princess Gyrai, and the scene where T’Pol confides a secret to Sato, but in both, the conversations are about male characters.)
I can also confirm limited Bechdel passes for my next two Trek works, DTI: Time Lock (in which the featured female guest character has some discussion with two established female cast members pertaining to the crisis) and TOS: The Face of the Unknown (barely, through brief exchanges between Uhura and a guest character and between two guest characters). Time Lock strongly passes the Mako test, but I think TFotU is borderline on that one.
So out of 21 published Trek works so far and 2 more to come (wow), every one passes at least part 1 of Bechdel. Only 3 fail Bechdel as a whole, at least 2 of which also fail Mako. That’s about 87% success, a very good record. Arguably better, since all three fails are novelettes. There are a number of borderline passes, though.
It’s worth noting that on the whole, the passes generally involve book-original characters or series, the exceptions being in TNG (Crusher and Nechayev), VGR (Janeway, Torres, Seven), and ENT (T’Pol, Sato, Cutler). For the most part, the Trek shows are fairly male-dominated, and the strong Bechdel showing of Pocket’s tie-in line is largely due to the efforts of its authors to improve the gender balance. My TNG works benefit from drawing on female characters introduced by previous authors (e.g. Keith DeCandido’s Kadohata and David Mack’s Choudhury and Elfiki).
I and other authors have also tried to counter the default heteronormativity of the Trek franchise to date by incorporating LGBTQ characters. I’ve included same-sex relationships as “onscreen” events or plot points in at least four works (“Empathy” and ROTF books 2-4) and included significant or incidental LGBTQ characters in at least nine more, including characters inherited from other authors (such as SCE’s Bart Faulwell and TTN’s Ranul Keru — and Jadzia Dax, probably the only canonically bisexual series regular in Trek). So I think I’m doing moderately well on that score, though as with my original work, it’s something I’ve been trying to do more of in recent years.
I’m honestly a little surprised that I’ve done a better job passing the Bechdel test in my tie-in fiction (where I expected to be somewhat hampered by the male-dominated casts of the source material) than in my original fiction (where I generally gravitate toward female leads and perspectives). But I think maybe that’s an artifact of the relative lack of long-form works in my original bibliography. Short stories only have room for a few characters and relationships, and I tend to pair off a male lead and a female lead, or have two of one and one of the other. So I do well on the Mako Mori test, but I think I’d do better on Bechdel if I had more original novels. Even so, there’s room for improvement in some respects. Of course the goal isn’t to try to mechanically fill some quota in every story, but this kind of assessment is good for keeping overall patterns in mind and identifying areas that could use more emphasis or more variety. At the very least, I’ve satisfied my curiosity.