Presence (stage, screen, or otherwise)

I’ve recently read two different proposals for a gay version of the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is described in a comic strip by Allison Bechdel back in 1985. It is usually described as a simple way to gauge the active presence of female characters in Hollywood films and just how well rounded and complete those roles are. The test is in three steps, 1) There must be at least two named women, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something besides a man.

It is frightening how many movies and TV shows fail the test. Having just watched, over the course of a month, the first five seasons of Supernatural, for instance, I can report that not a single episode out of those 65 episodes passes the test. To be fair, since I’ve also watched a few later episodes out of order, I can report that one recent episode in which Felicia Day reprises the role of a lesbian hacker played in an earlier season very nearly passes the test. Nearly.

While the results of applying the Bechdel Test to your favorite shows can be depressing, it is even worse if you try to apply a similar test about gay characters. If you transliterate the Bechdel Test into a test of how gays are treated in storytelling, it might look like this proposal:

  1. Are there at least two gay/lesbian/transgender people?
  2. Do they talk to each other? Or even do more than shock horror kiss?
  3. Do they talk about anything other than sex/being gay/shopping/cats?

With extremely rare exceptions, only movies made by queer writers/directors and explicitly aimed at a gay audience pass the test. Most fail at item number one. And most of the few who pass would fail if you changed it to say “is there one out gay/lesbian/transgender character.”

I insist on the “out” part because, I’m sorry, characters such as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter stories don’t count. He is never identified within the books or the movie as being gay. It isn’t even really hinted at in a meaningful way within the story. Having the author tell people during a book tour (and then only after having been confronted umpteen million times about the lack of gay characters), that one character who is portrayed as completely asexual throughout the books doesn’t count. Because this is about recognizing the existence of gay people, not compounding the closet.

Of course, Brokeback Mountain fails this test, because the only gay characters who appear are all deeply and tragically closeted. Which was true to the historical period, but also integral to the fundamental point of the story. Because of that historical reality, I find this other version I found a bit more useful:

  1. The movie includes two gay characters who interact in some way,
  2. Do not offer sassy advice to the protagonist,
  3. And are not dead by the end credits

At least with this test, Brokeback Mountain doesn’t fail until the third bullet.

The point of the original Bechdel Test wasn’t to assess whether a movie treats female characters equally, or whether there are stereotypes, or even whether or not it is misogynist. All it does is establish a baseline that the writers have actually imagined the women in the story as being full-fledged human beings, with lives and feelings and interests of their own. It’s useful not so much as a way to judge a specific movie or story, but to make us think about the presumptions of story telling.

Movies and books and stories are full of a variety of fully realized male characters, who range from good to nasty, from important to silly. And even most of the throw-away male characters have hints of a life and personality of their own that isn’t defined by the protagonists or their family. Where as the default position for female characters are to be the sister, wife, ex-girlfriend, or mother of one of the characters who is actually doing something in the story.

And let me just say, it’s disturbing, as a writer, to go apply the Bechdel Test to your own work and discover just how many of your own stories fail it!

So, the two versions of the Gay Bechdel Test aren’t quite the same as the original. Both have at least one step that focuses solely on clichés rather than just establishing whether the writer has actually developed a personality and backstory for the characters. So I think I prefer this version:

  1. The movie/story contains one identified gay, lesbian, or transgender character,
  2. Who has a conversation with any other character,
  3. About something other than sexuality*.

With the corollary that under sexuality we include topics that are typically (and lazily) considered a subset of “queerness.” So if all they talk about is gay rights legislation, or AIDS prevention, or who uses which bathroom, those count as a failure, too.

Not that we need to be the stars, or that we need to appear in every story, but we’re part of reality, and there are far more of us than there are people capable of dodging dozens of machine gun bullets while driving a car at very high speed through a crowded place without hurting anything other than a single vegetable cart, while reloading their gun and explaining the intricacies of a multinational conspiracy.

And we see thousands of them in movies all the time.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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