Bechdel’s Rule

(While there are no explicit plot spoilers here, I will be referring, however briefly, to the way in which some characters are handled. I will mention if certain acts occur within certain novels. I won’t give details away, but there you go, you won’t be shocked when you come across them.)

I am a semi-regular reader of Karen Healey’s “Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed)“. I do recommend checking it out, if you read comics and are an internetting sort of reader.

Anyway. Healey mentions, every so often, Bechdel’s Law. It’s one (one) of the keystones, in Healey’s view, of representing full-developed women in literature, comics, film etc. It’s a quick rule of thumb to figuring out how hostile to women (not necessarily in the I-Hate-Women sense, but definitely in the I-Have-Objectified-Women-In-My-Head-And-They’re-Really-Good-For-Making-The-Hero-Look-Good sense.)

The Law, loosely paraphrased, can be summed up thusly:
Does the story have
1. More than one Woman?
2. Do those women talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
3.a. (added by me) More than once?

Obviously, simply following these rules won’t mean that you have a completely developed female character. (Or, with different questions, a male character.) But Healey insists, and I have come to agree, that it makes a significant difference to how those women feel as characters.

I was looking through the books I have recently read, trying to figure out which of them pass, and do not pass, the law.

Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself does not. (Both female characters in the novel are products of abuse, by the way.)

Hal Duncan’s Vellum does not. (Vellum also seems to trace the Rape-on-the-path-to-becoming-a-stronger-woman storyline, which I find annoying.)

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings does not. Neither does his The Hobbit. I’m iffy on the rest of the material, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say No. (Tolkien has few rapes in there too, but Celebrian isn’t an important character – or is she? In any case, Rape is not the Motivation for the female character in question. Nor does it form the major motivation of the [male] characters who are closely linked to her. It is Important. But not The Ultimate.)

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time passes the Bechdel Law, though the feminism vs. masculism debate gets a bit more complex. (Within the text, Larry assures me, the female villains have been raped at certain points. It forms a significant but not all-overpowering part of their subsequent motivation. On the other hand, rape was not the reason they became “evil” in the first place, and in any case their current situations are not feminist-friendly.)

Lynn Flewelling‘s Nightrunner series and Tamir Triad fulfill Bechdel’s Law. Just about. (Rape is a continual textual undercurrent, given that every so often someone’s chastity is implicitly or explicitly threatened. Usually it is the more “feminine” of the two romantic leads.)

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books fulfill the Law. So do, if I recall correctly, her Hainish novels – though currently I am thinking of The Telling and not any of her other novels.

Robin Hobb’s Farseer books didn’t fulfill the law, as far as I can recall. The Liveship books do. So do the Tawny Man books, just about. (The Liveship books do involve an extremely convoluted rape – thankfully not something that motivates the plot in any way – and all of the books are deeply concerned with child abuse.)

I’m not sure what I want to talk about here. I’m just leaving it open to those of us who want to go somewhere with this. I suppose part of the point I’ve been (not successfully) making is that there seems to me to be a definite difference in the way male and female authors depict female characters – and to a lesser extent, children.

Thoughts? Sticks and Stones? Words?


7 responses to “Bechdel’s Rule

  1. Interesting – I’ll have to keep this law in mind as I read. It can be quite sad how women are treated in books, particularly genre books.

    Anyway, as I though about this, there is an author who passes this – Steven Erikson (though rape does happen on occaision). It’s interesting to think of SE writing in that way – not expected.

    Also, Charles de Lint jumps to mind. I seem to recall you not being a fan of Onion Girl – I haven’t read that one, so I can’t comment directly to it. But, he is definately a male author who passes these laws in his writing.

  2. Mainstream books often do not pass it either – I cannot guarantee, for instance, that Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana does.

    I’m always rather iffy on the subject of rape. I think for me the rule falls down to (a) How often does it happen to a named female character with plot and character and (b) How often does rape motivate a male character who knows that female into action? (c) How often does it motivate the female character through her path in the plot?

    I think I didn’t read The Onion Girl at all because Incest is a peculiar sort of bug bear for me. Maybe I should. And soon. I think I might be missing out. I read a short story of his a while ago and it was lovely.

    Erikson has a fairly borderline failing grade on the rape thing. I wouldn’t call it anti-feminist/humanist, but it is a thing that makes me go, Hrmpf.

  3. Can we have a 3.b Without getting naked together under some random pretext?

    Just for Robert Jordan?

  4. Thanks! And I agree that women need better depictions in just about all literature. And I can’t believe we’re still fighting this battle in the 21st century!

  5. I’m a woman who enjoys to write and I somehow fail at female characters (though I think that’s because so many of them in the fantasy gerne are horrible) but those three questions gave me a bit to think about and hopefully will help me write/create better and more believable female characters. Thank you!

  6. To L. Flewelling: We bent under the oppressor’s yoke for *centuries* but expect to free ourselves in a decade. That only works in a bloody revolution… and we can’t afford to have that. We *can’t*. It’s going to take time. And rage. And calm. I feel sometimes like we’re running out of them all.

    (I’m 22 years old, I feel like a fraud.)

    To Meg: I think the problem with finding a history of writing strong – or at least, well-rounded and believable, because not every human being is strong – female characters is that we have little SFF literary influences to follow, to allow to influence us. I mean, they are there. But they seem to be mostly Big Name writers. And to be honest, depending on where you look it is hard to find a well-rounded male character too. SFF sometimes has been… more about landscapes than about individualised people. And so to write a well-rounded person one has to look to specific books within and outside particular genres. And then write from scratch. Or, always, to talk to each other.

    Good luck with your writings!

  7. Pingback: The Onion Girl by Charles de Lint « The Pearls Are Cooling

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