Sunday, September 21, 2014

TV: Orphan Black and the Reverse Bechdel Test

I posted this on a writing forum, and it occurred to me that in six months I might wonder, "So where was it that I was talking about Orphan Black and the Bechdel test?" So I thought I'd post it here, too.

So, I've considered the Bechdel Test to be a worthwhile concept--on a statistical level--since I heard of it. But it's only after watching a series that almost fails the "reverse Bechdel test" that I really understand the test's significance. I understand why some writers protest the idea that they should somehow make their stories pass the test, but I also understand even more deeply why it's a very bad thing, statistically, that so few movies pass the test.

The Bechdel Test, just so you don't need to Google, is an evaluation of whether a work of fiction has:

1) Two named female characters
2) who have a conversation
3) about something other than a man.

It's not a test that means that a single work of fiction is "good" or "bad." A very good work can fail it. A very bad work can pass it.

I see it as a test that evaluates whether a work has a significant number of important female characters. They don't have to be female characters that are strong or powerful or feminist or intelligent; they just have to be important to the fictional work.

The TV series Orphan Black has a lot of female characters. Sarah, Beth, Kira, Cosima, Alison, Helena, Rachel, Siobhan, Delphine, Gracie, etc. And it's about those characters. About their history, about their battles, about their relationships, about their safety and their happiness and their future.

Many fictional works have the smart guy, the tough guy, the funny guy, the uptight guy, the damaged guy, and the girl. Orphan Black has the smart girl, the tough girl, the funny girl, the uptight girl, the powerful girl, the damaged girl, and so on.

Of course, many of the characters can be described with more than one characteristic--Helena is tough and funny and powerful and extremely damaged; Alison is uptight and smart and tough in some situations and maybe just a little bit psychopathic, and so on. I'm not trying to describe the characters with a bunch of simplistic adjectives. I'm trying to do the opposite--I'm pointing out that Orphan Black covers a great deal of the complex spectrum of human behavior and personality, and it does it with women, instead of with men.

Orphan Black also has men. Felix, Sarah's brother. Donnie, Alison's wife. Daniel, Rachel's monitor. Paul, Beth's boyfriend. Leekie, Rachel's guardian and colleague. Art, Beth's partner on the police force. Vic, Sarah's ex-boyfriend. And so on.

These are great characters, well-rounded and interesting. But are you seeing a pattern here? The men in Orphan Black are defined by their relationship with the women. The story is about the women. It revolves around the women. And that means that when two men are talking to each other, they're almost always talking about a woman. The male characters exist to serve the women's stories.

And it would be hard to insert conversations between those men that aren't about the women. It's hard for Orphan Black to naturally pass the reverse Bechdel test.

Conversations between the men that aren't about the women would seem weird, seem like a waste of screen time. I can only think of one male-to-male interaction that wasn't about a woman--Felix's date with Nicholas. Even that is a little dubious--their first words exchanged refer ot the trouble that they've had with the police, trouble that was about Felix's sister. And their date is interrupted, because of Felix's sister and niece.

Ah, there was that scene between Henrik and Mark about the cow, but we eventually realize that that scene is about the women, even if it's not clear when we see it.

Anyway. Orphan Black is a story about women, in a world packed full of women--strong women, weak women, good women, bad women, smart women, stupid women, women in power and women with no power. Orphan Black amost fails the reverse Bechdel test.

I think that Orphan Black is a great series. But if most movies and TV series revolved around women as totally as Orphan Black does, I suspect that a lot of men would be annoyed. A substantial percentage of movies and TV series revolve around men as totally as Orphan Black revolves around women, and I am annoyed.

The Bechdel Test, again, isn't a test of the worthiness of an individual work. It's a test of the extent to which women exist, where "exist" means that they matter and their stories matter, in the fictional world of television and movies.

Edited to add: Hmm. There's also the conversation between Felix and Tony. But discussing that in any detail would get me into spoilers, which I was trying to avoid.

Link Roundup:

I see that Luz Delfondo at Disrupting Dinner Parties made the point about failing the reverse Bechdel Test long before I did.

Slate has an interesting article, The Brilliant Misandry of Orphan Black. I don't agree with the article's dismissal of the male characters, but it's interesting all the same.

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