Writing Good Female Characters: Feminism and Literature

One of the more popular methods of determining whether a story—be it literary, film, or otherwise—gives equal footing to men and women is the so-called Bechdel Test, which was first put forward by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”. This litmus test has three key components:

  1. There are two or more female characters with names
  2. who interact with one another, i.e. have conversations
  3. about something other than men.

While this is important not only for considering target audiences but making a story more convincing and life-like, the Bechdel Test undermines several key points crucial to making a story more egalitarian between the sexes. To begin with, how are these named women characterized? Do they always wear makeup, skirts, and heels? Do they all prefer pink, purses, and chocolate? Are they teachers, secretaries, and waitresses?

Beyond that, we must consider the situational context in which the female characters interact. Are they talking over cell phones after one of them has had a spat with her boyfriend? Or are they chatting about an upcoming conference on their way to the office after lunch? The former still forces them to rely on men to produce the conversation, the latter is the result of women pursuing careers in business and working together on the job without necessarily interacting at a male’s prompting.

Additionally, women must talk about material that is deep, insightful, and spurs the story onwards. Consider when the women are not talking about men but still playing into preconceived notions of female conversation topics—they are still being portrayed within the societal stereotype. If they only talk about lipstick and pushup bras or perhaps how terrible Suzy’s dress looked yesterday, that’s not going to cut it.

With all of these ideas mulling around, it seemed appropriate to come up with a new test. Here are more comprehensive (though by no means perfect) criteria:

  1. The characterization of the well-developed female characters should not fit stereotypes.
  2. These females should not interact in stereotypical contexts and media
  3. and must have some degree of meaningful conversation that does not include stereotypical subject matter.
  4. Within the above, the female characters must be able to act, interact, and converse without any sort of male context, framework, or causation.

My personal reasoning for this heavy emphasis against societal stereotypes is this: these molds are designed by the largely patriarchal ideologies ingrained in our Western culture for centuries and perpetuated by government, media, social, and religious groups largely led by men. These male-dominated (and sometimes phallo-centric) perspectives of women therefore need to be overturned or at the very least ignored by female characters in literature if one is to craft a truly feminist piece. Naturally, stereotypes about women and girls must be present to some degree in one’s story not only to make it natural and life-like but also to allow for one’s opinion about these misconceptions (or conceptions, if one is inclined to agree—stereotypes can stem from fact).

What I have found most compelling in my experiences writing well-developed female characters is that they add a new dimension and bring insightful direction to my stories. And, as Rachel will probably attest, it makes my stories better.

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Posted on June 11, 2012, in Stuart, Writer Advice. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Interesting post. I’m not necessarily with you on the stereotype thing – my feeling is that some stereotypes really do exist, and can do so without dis-empowering women. By this, I mean you can be a devoted stay-at-home mother, for example, and yet not necessarily be waiting with bated breath for every word that drops from your husband’s lips. But I don’t think it’s fair to assume that because she is at home looking after kids that she is not a thinking, creative, independent person, nor indeed that her husband necessarily has nothing worth hearing to say.

    I do think that conversations by women which are about lipstick and how dreadful Suzy’s dress looked yesterday should probably be dropped because, let’s face it, they are boring conversations! I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’d like to read and write about good strong female characters because they are more interesting, and because they make for a great story, rather than because they are necessarily furthering a feminist objective.

    I hope you don’t take this in the wrong spirit. I’m totally with you on the need to have good examples out there in literature. 🙂

    • Sorry for taking so long to reply to your comment, katkasia. I have been out of town working on research and therefore unable to keep in touch with the blog.

      First and foremost, I appreciate your criticism of my argument! In retrospect, I realize that I know of several competent, empowered women with college degrees that have voluntarily (and even excitedly) taken on the role of housewife at least on a temporary basis. Secondly, you make an even better point that an engrossing story with compelling male and female characters is equally important (if not more so) than meeting certain feminist criteria. No matter how feminist a work of literature may be, if it reads like a textbook it will still be boring.

      My initial inspiration for the post (now with the addenda of your two key points) comes from the fact that the majority of literature, classic or otherwise, falls short of portraying women as capable, strong, and independent. I’m happy to hear that you agree about the need to have good examples of women in literature. Even better is your constructive criticism. Rachel and I love to have feedback and positive dialogue about our posts (as I’m sure you have seen in the past). Please keep reading and letting us know your thoughts.

      • Thank you – I’m flattered that you’ve taken my comments on board, as I always enjoy reading your posts.
        I agree that it is incredibly frustrating to see women being portrayed as being somehow ‘lesser beings’, and also really not what we usually see in real life. I’d like to think so, anyway! 🙂
        I wonder if it stems from a need for our characters to have some weaknesses to keep them interesting, and it is easier, if lazier, to fall back on traditional stereotypes with their inherent weaknesses?

  2. It’s funny that you talked about this. This past week, I think it was on the Mary Sue they talked about the Bechdel Test and how a writer (Joss Whedon) known for having strong female characters (I think it’s one of his most well known quotes) failed in the Avengers. Yes, Hill and Romanoff would in real-life being strong characters regardless of gender, they never interact and people are still insisting that the Black Widow costume was fan service (compared to the comic costume, it wasn’t).
    I should add that Campbell’s hero myth does allow for women to both function as the temptress and a worthy sort of feature. Of course the temptress gets more inclusion in modern hero myth since that’s more interesting.

    • Stuart and I talked about how Romanoff kind of got the short end of the stick the other day! And also how though she obviously has a backstory (which I’m sure is fleshed out more in the comic books), it’s not seen as enough to get her her own film.

      Also I think it’s a fine line to walk re: the whole temptress vs. worthy. Sometimes I think, “Why do all women, even the strong ones, have to be portrayed as temptresses?” but at the same time, I think I’d be equally up in arms if the strong women WEREN’T portrayed as desirable, because then I’d see it as their strength or intelligence as being deterring.

      • Romanoff’s back story is kind of convoluted (it’s a comic staple it seems with numerous reboots, different writers, and different universes- especially since it seems the movie was going off the ultimate universe) so it almost seemed like an out to not give her much. There is a mild push for her and Barton to have their own movie- but I don’t see that happening since he has both the Borne and MI movies now. It’s also a fairly dated story that would need an excellent writer to not have the audience say “well, I’ve seen that before” with the whole soviet secret spy stuff. Remember that she and Barton are more or less the “norms” on the team, they’re not especially super human, they aren’t necessarily super geniuses, they’re just super athletic/accurate/etc.
        (Wait… you saw Avengers?)

        Campbell holds that there are two *separate* roles women can fulfill. When you combine the two then you get messes like the Madonna complex in northern-Mediteranean-possibly-Italian-locality-I-can’t-remember-because-I-took-the-class-over-a-year-ago-and-I-threw-out-my-notes-in-celebration where the desire of an individual woman (the mother in this example) and the need to see her as a sort of divine mother figure creates inner conflict (that was a fairly Freudian concept so take it with a huge grain of salt). In Last Crusade, Elsa provided the role of temptress but in Up the House serves as the goddess/divine marriage to get Carl to complete his quest and receive the ultimate boon, sort of, there are better examples in the Popol Vuh for that one but I’m too lazy to find my copy. So it’s not necessarily (in Campbell’s theory) temptress v. worthy but rather light or dark. Are they going to hinder the hero in completing his quest or serve as an aid or reward?

  3. You have remarked very interesting points! ps decent website.

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