In a recent New Yorker article about actress Anna Faris, Tad Friend cites a test for gender bias in movies. The test, outlined by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip (Bechdel credits her friend Liz Wallace for the original idea), asks three simple questions:
Does a movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man?
I was struck by the simplicity of this test and by its patent validity as a measure of gender bias. As I thought about it some more, it occurred to me how few of the classic works of literature that I teach to my high school freshmen would pass this test: The Odyssey? Nope. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass? Nope. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nope. Romeo and Juliet. Nope.
What’s wrong with me?
For the past two months, I’ve been working my way through War and Peace. I’m about three-fourths of the way through right now, and I’m both exhausted and exhilarated by the experience. Richard Pevear is not exaggerating when he writes the following in the introduction to his and Larissa Volokhonsky’s 2007 translation of the novel:
War and Peace is the most famous and at the same time the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other. Yet if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life forever.
Tolstoy, as a writer, is alive to seemingly everything, from the heights of military and political power to the most ordinary details of everyday life. As Isaac Babel noted, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”
Yet even War and Peace passes Bechdel and Wallace’s test only barely. I’ve read 935 pages so far, and I’ve encountered quite a few female characters. Only occasionally have they talked to each other, however. Even rarer are the times when they’ve talked about something other than a man.
What’s wrong with Tolstoy?
Decades after film critic David Denby graduated from Columbia University, he went back to his alma mater and took the Great Books course over again. He wrote a book about the experience. Near the end of the class’s study of The Odyssey, Denby became uneasy with the brutal treatment of the disloyal serving women, who are hanged by Telemachus after he forces them to clear out the corpses of their lovers recently slaughtered by Odysseus.
This brutal execution—which inspired Margaret Atwood to write The Penelopiad, a re-telling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife—is given tacit approval in Homer’s epic. Denby is appalled:
In Homer’s terms, of course, the women belong to Odysseus and Telemachus; the men’s property has been sullied, and as Odysseus’ heir, Telemachus has a right to exact punishment, and that’s that….
O evil patriarchy! I was outraged.
Yet Denby, guided by Professor Edward Tayler, comes to see his outrage in a different light:
A book like the Odyssey can never be simply appropriated by one social view or the other; it’s too complex, it bursts one’s little critique (which in any case is only everyone else’s little critique.) The slaughter of the suitors and the serving girls is a morally disastrous moment in Western literature, but having said that, one also has to say that criticism of the Odyssey on feminist and moral grounds is largely beside the point. It would be hard to say the poem suffers as art from its patriarchal assumptions.
So wait—is Bechdel’s test “beside the point”?
Is there nothing wrong with Homer, or with Tolstoy, or with me?
In the past fifty years or so, more and more intellectual work has been done, both in the academy and outside of it, to lay bare the ways in which our society—our culture, literature, art, politics, religion, even the most mundane details of our everyday lives—are biased in terms of gender, race, sexuality, and class.
One response to that work has been to sneeringly reject it as bleeding-heart claptrap, as whining political correctness.
More sensitive souls have seen the insights of this work and used them to examine their own consciences—or the consciences of the literary works they admire.
No doubt this process has led to some salutary results. Some people may have amended their patterns of sexist, racist, classist, or heterosexist behavior. Others may have come to see their favorite literary works in new and illuminating ways. Consciousness, to one degree or another, may have been raised.
But this type of examination of conscience can also take on a less salutary aspect: a more defensive posture, a desire to absolve.
Scholar Jeffrey B. Ferguson, in an article in the Winter 2011 issue of Dædalus, speaks to this issue when he writes of the post-civil rights period’s “public drama of continuing black anger, the notion of ‘pulling the race card,’ and the seemingly bottomless need from whites for confirmation from blacks that racism no longer exists, or at the very least that they as individuals bear no visible trace of the unspeakable sin.”
On a literary level, I know how this works: Having been challenged at various times about teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that some parents consider racially insensitive, I have labored long and hard and, I like to believe, successfully, to prove that Huck is an anti-racist novel and that Jim is not a racist caricature but instead a moral hero.
And yet, when I think of Bechdel’s test, I realize that such defensive interpretations—both of self and of texts—are also “beside the point.”
It’s just a different point.
When I realized that even War and Peace, a novel so vast, all-encompassing, profound, and moving, presents a seriously diminished portrait of the lives of women, I began to see that the deeper point of Bechdel’s test is not to accuse Homer, or Tolstoy, or me of being sexist.
Instead, the test reminds us that biases like sexism, racism, heterosexism, and classism are the water in which we swim. They pervade our culture. They are our culture, and to such an extent that we sometimes forget about them until someone like Bechdel reminds us.
Instead of seeing sexism—or racism, etc.—as “unspeakable sins” whose taint one must avoid at all costs, maybe it would be healthier to accept that it would be virtually impossible for an individual not to be thus tainted—in other words, to see these sins as not unspeakable but rather common as dirt.
Then, aware of our common dirtiness, we can get down to the business of studying how things get dirty, how dirtiness causes problems, and how, struggle though we may, we can never get ourselves or anything else permanently clean.
Frank Kovarik teaches high school English in St. Louis, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He blogs at Corresponding Fractions.