Posts Tagged ‘Bechdel Test’

Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency – had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our awareness of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on her physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because, to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality, as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race – or along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour – can provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze – those facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story – is similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please

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Once upon a time in the 90s, there was a critically acclaimed Australian TV series called SeaChange, which ended at the height of its popularity for the pure and simple reason that the creator wanted it to. Take a moment to appreciate how rarely, if ever, that happens in modern television, and you might begin to understand the scope of how awesome a show this was. After just three seasons, Deb Cox and Andrew Knight – the creators of what was, at the time, the highest rated program on Australian TV – turned down offers from every major commercial network to fund new episodes of SeaChange and declared instead that it was done. They’d closed everything out the way they wanted; the characters were in a good place, and even though they could have made a lot of money by extending the show, they opted not to milk the cashcow at the expense of running a good thing into the ground. Internets, nobody does this, and it’s really, really stupid. The otherwise universal fate of good shows is either to keep on plugging away, season after season, until they start to turn bad enough that they lose their funding, or else be prematurely cancelled by idiots. Nobody ever quits while they’re ahead, because the idea of discontinuing a popular story for the sake of artistic integrity is not how TV works.

But somehow, somewhen, Cox and Knight put their respective feet down and let things end. Three seasons of awesome, with an ending that closed out everything that needed to be closed out, left open what needed to be left open, and was utterly true to both the characters and the narrative ethos.

I watched SeaChange when it first aired, between the ages of 12 and 15, and have rewatched it multiple times since then. The premise is simple: Laura Gibson, a high-flying corporate lawyer and mother of two, has her whole world come crashing down in a single ill-fated day which culminates in her husband, Jack – who has just been revealed to be having an affair with her sister, Trudi – being publicly arrested for fraud. Utterly bereft, Laura remembers the last place her family was happy: a small town called Pearl Bay, where they spent their last good holiday before her career took off. Leaping at the chance to become the new magistrate for Pearl Bay, Laura promptly relocates – along with her teenage children, Miranda and Rupert – and instantly becomes embroiled in the various feuds, friendships and eccentricities that make up small town life, with the cases she rules on as magistrate providing a constant source of moral dilemmas and tragedies.

Main Female Characters 

Laura Gibson: Neurotic, stressed and out of her depth, Laura spends much of the show learning how to slow down and reconnect with people – particularly her children, but also the people she meets in town. She has two romances over the course of three seasons: one with Diver Dan, a local man with surprising depths, and one with Max Connors, a former journalist who returns home to Pearl Bay for personal reasons. Laura is sharply drawn, inviting sympathy even as she makes you want to strangle her, but always in a realistic way. For all the mistakes she’s made that have adversely affected her nearest and dearest, she’s honestly trying to atone for them, and in many ways is revealed to have been her own biggest victim.

Meredith Monahan: Laura’s first friend in Pearl Bay, Meredith is an older woman who runs the local pub. Possessed of a perfect memory for names, dates and faces, Meredith is sharply intelligent, a left-leaning town matriarch struggling to counterbalance the influence of the right-leaning mayor, Bob Jelly. Though usually rational, fair and compassionate, and always a fierce defender of the underdog, Meredith has a prickly streak, too, and is prone to letting her own stubborn biases get in the way of her judgement. She has spent the majority of her adult life in an adulterous relationship with the previous magistrate, Harold, who lives with her despite still being technically married to someone else.

Heather Jelly: Wife of Mayor Bob Jelly, Heather is, on the surface, the perfect housewife. Devoted to her husband, home and teenage children as well as being a prominent participant in local ladies’ groups, her seeming bubbleheadness conceals a brighter, more passionate person than anyone, especially Bob, gives her credit for. Over the course of the series, she steadily changes from being a passive to an active participant in her own life, slowly confronting the various ways in which Bob takes her for granted, discovering her own personality, and asserting herself outside the home.

Miranda Gibson: Laura’s eldest child, Miranda initially protests the move to Pearl Bay, but soon begins to settle in. Finding an unexpected best friend in Bob Jelly’s son, Craig, she struggles with her parents’ separation while coming into her own as a teenager, clashing with Laura over her hippyish leanings, but ultimately becoming much closer to her mother in the process. When Max arrives, she talks him into starting a local paper – the Pearl Bay Oyster – as part of her quest to become a journalist. She is spirited, sometimes reactionary, loyal, an activist and creative.

Carmen Blake: Meredith’s wayward niece, Carmen is a free-spirited hippy who shows up pregnant to an unknown man and settles into town life in preparation for her daughter’s birth. Prone to straying a little on the wrong side of the law, Carmen is sharp, stubborn, opinionated, spiritual, outspoken and fiercely independent.

Karen Miller: A dedicated police sergeant, Karen wants nothing more than to marry her long-time fiance, Angus, and settle into motherhood. Though enthusiastic, driven and a little naive, Karen is also deeply traditional, occasionally judgmental, possessive and insensitive. Her development over the course of the series is both touching and believable: though she never wavers in her affection for Angus, she also goes on something of a journey of self-discovery, finally exploring the world outside Pearl Bay and, consequently, coming to see it differently on her return.

Phrani Gupta: A local businesswoman, Phrani is scrupulously honest, unfailingly cheerful, and fierce in the defense of the people she loves, though sometimes prone to anger and defensiveness. As the series develops, she comes to have a closer relationship with Kevin, the owner of the caravan park, with the complicated reasons behind her relocation from India eventually being revealed to hinge on domestic troubles. Like Meredith and Heather, Phrani plays an active role in town politics, and often clashes with Bob.

Main Male Characters

Daniel ‘Diver Dan’ Della Bosca: Dan is Laura’s first love interest in Pearl Bay, a widely-traveled man who runs the school ferry and lives above his cafe, which is housed in a boatshed. Adventurous, unconventional and wryly humorous, Dan takes it upon himself to try and calm Laura down, infuriating her almost as much as she infuriates him in the process. Though seemingly cool and collected, he’s had a lot of hard knocks in his life, something which occasionally shows in his quickfire temper. Dan has little tolerance for the rules of ordinary society, and tends to live much as he pleases. He is chaos to Laura’s order, but cares a lot more deeply about most things than he lets on.

Bob Jelly: Mayor of Pearl Bay, Bob is also a real estate mogul and all-round genial patriarch. Though neither as intelligent nor as dignified as he thinks he is, Bob is bluff, corrupt, politically incorrect and prone to massive obliviousness when it comes to his wife, Heather. Bob develops hugely over the course of the series: challenged by the success and failure of various schemes, the implications of Laura’s arrival and Heather’s self-assertion, he slowly changes into a (slightly) better man. For all his faults, he’s a sympathetic character, and not without redeeming qualities, the most important being that, when it really matters, he tries. An equal source of comedy, outrage and pathos, Bob is frequently an antagonist, but never – crucially – a straw man.

Max Connors: A former foreign correspondent, Max returns home to Pearl Bay as a damaged man, his defensiveness and seemingly cheerful sarcasm masking the pain of recent loss. Unable to put his investigative instincts to rest, he amuses himself by hunting down Bob’s various corruptions and bringing them to light, and expresses his attraction to Laura via the adult equivalent of ceaselessly tugging on her pigtails. Max also has a tense, often destructive relationship with Carmen: the two share an inquisitive, journalistic bent and both have suffered trauma, but Max has no patience for Carmen’s spirituality, and the pair are as often at each other’s throats as not. Max is contrary, loyal, empathetic, stubborn, curious and a prankster, and delights in every opportunity to circumvent authority.

Harold Fitzwalter: Meredith’s paramour and the ex-magistrate of Pearl Bay, Harold is also a recovering alcoholic. Now representing clients in his old court, he struggles with getting older, with sobriety, with family and with life. He loves Meredith dearly, and as the two of them deal together with the new resurgence of old secrets, he begins to recover his passion.

Rupert Gibson: Laura’s younger child, Rupert has been the most challenged by their move to Pearl Bay. He misses his father, and is constantly scheming for ways to get his parents back together. Finding a best friend in Trevor, the son of Kevin the caravan owner, Rupert’s various observations about life, his academic struggles and his various shenanigans often end up causing Laura no end of trouble, but as the series develops, he starts to come into himself and not only accept, but embrace his new life, though never losing faith in his father.

Angus Kabiri: The court clerk and Karen’s paramour, Angus is a quiet young man of set routines and (very well hidden) depths. Kind and compassionate but nervous of committing himself fully to Karen, Angus exists in a state of anxiety about what he wants to do, the sort of man he should be, and where his life is headed. His greatest passion is surfing, and he is often at a loss as to how express his feelings to Karen. Good-hearted, occasionally vague and prone to evasion, Angus’s constant worries nonetheless give him a strangely existential bent, while his occasional passionate outbursts on court matters are a strong counterbalance to Laura’s usual deference to procedure.

Graham Grey: The local police sergeant, Grey is a frequently mistrusted authority figure more often allied with Laura than the rest of the town and still considered an outsider by many, both because of his job in court and because he’s still looked upon as a new arrival. He feels this isolation keenly, and walks the difficult line of trying to fit into a town whose citizens he must simultaneously police. His home life is complicated, and though he sometimes clashes with Max, the two are on friendly terms. Grey is also given the unenviable task of mentoring Karen, whose enthusiasm for policework often expresses itself in inconvenient ways.

Kevin Findlay: The owner of the caravan park and father of Trevor, Rupert’s best friend, Kev is sweet and hard-working, but far from being the sharpest knife in the block. For this reason, he is frequently manipulated into being Bob’s dupe in town matters, and though Phrani defends him fiercely, he is often the accidental cause of more problems than might otherwise be the case. Despite his difficult childhood, Kevin is kind, thoughtful in his own way, and as the series develops, he becomes increasingly confident in standing up for both himself and others, even when this means crossing Bob.

Jack Gibson: For all his faults, Jack is never a straw man. Trying to rebuild his relationship with Laura and his children, he presents as both a weak and sympathetic figure: weak, in terms of his business failures, jealousy of Laura’s success and ongoing relationship with Trudi; sympathetic, in that he was and remains and excellent, devoted father, one who tries to mend his mistakes even as he keeps making them. Though sometimes acrimonious, Jack’s relationship with Laura slowly improves over the course of the show, though not without pitfalls on both their parts.

There are other supporting regulars with smaller parts – notably Craig and Jules Jelly, plus local blokes Griff and Simmo – as well as other, more important characters who only appear in a handful of episodes, but despite its size, the cast is universally well-developed. Across all three seasons, everyone grows and changes: relationships form, fall apart, develop and start again, friendships mutate and evolve, secrets are revealed, and challenges are surmounted. There is tension, drama, humour and tragedy, with just a touch of the improbable thrown in (Pearl Bay itself is prone to a surprising number of improbable weather phenomena, ensuring that the bridge to the mainland always ends up broken). It is, in short, an incredible show, and one which defined both my teenage years and my sense of narrative in multiple significant ways.

What really sells SeaChange is the characterisation. The cast is dominated by strong women, all of them exploring love and relationships in different ways, but none of them perfect; and by the same token, even the antagonists are given fair shrift, with no straw man characters and development for all. There’s a decidedly left-leaning bent to the narratives: every episode passes the Bechdel test and there’s an undeniably feminist flavour to the proceedings, but never at the expense of demonising the more traditional characters, all of whom are shown sympathetically. Like the population of Pearl Bay itself, SeaChange walks the line between extreme local conservatism and extreme far-leftism, with hippies like Carmen taking the same gentle mocking as right-wingers like Bob. There’s an amazing sense of strength and community to the show, and despite the number of heavy issues touched on in various episodes – corruption, homophobia, domestic violence, euthanasia, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, prejudice, sexuality and suicide being just a few – the writers never preach to the audience, leaving the ultimate decision up to the individual viewer. Dark moments are leavened with humour, and there’s an endearing self-awareness to the occasional moments of absurdity.

SeaChange is an amazing show, but one which few people are likely to have heard of outside of Australia. If you can lay hands on a copy, I highly recommend doing so.

Is that it exists.

I am a fan of anime, and have been since I was about twelve. The earliest stuff I remember seeing was Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Vampire Hunter D, with some snippets of Rurouni Kenshin and Gunsmith Cats thrown in for good measure. The first series I ever properly watched were Evangelion, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040Cowboy Bebop and Noir, with the Lain soundtrack providing background music to many a high school party. Later, at the start of university, I was introduced simultaneously to Ninja Scroll, Love Hina, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the works of Hayao Miyazaki, which is a surprisingly thorough gamut for the range of anime narratives. Since then, I’ve been watching pretty much anything that gets recommended to me or which catches my eye, the most recent examples being Last Exile, Fruits Basket, Bamboo Blade and Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge. All of which is a way of saying: I love anime. It’s been part of my life for thirteen years, and at no point during that time has my interest for it been passive or half-hearted. Which is perhaps why it’s taken me so long to come to realise that there is, in fact, a caveat on those affections. Because when you love something deeply – and particularly when it’s a thing you’ve loved since the cusp of adolescence – it can be very, very hard to pull back and deal with that thing in a critical manner.

But.

I hate fanservice so fucking much.

Anyone who’s ever watched anime knows what I’m talking about. For anyone who hasn’t, allow me to demonstrate the scope of the problem as follows:

Yeah. About that.

To be clear: I still watch anime that contains fanservice. Partly because, in the case of shows I knew and loved prior to the revelation of my hatred, it doesn’t taint my appreciation of them; partly because fanservice does not, by itself, make the rest of a show terrible; but mostly because there isn’t an alternative. While there’s certainly anime out there that lacks fanservice, it’s a definite minority and can be tricky to find, particularly if you’re wanting to watch a show with multiple female characters. Fruits Basket and Nadeshiko, for instance, while both awesome and non-fanservicey, are also examples of male harem shojo, meaning that the female protagonists – respectively Tohru and Sunako – are effectively lone women surrounded by gorgeous men, the extent of whose Regularly Demonstrable Sexiness tends to hinge on bishie sparkle, cross-dressing and occasional shirtlessness. Which is, of itself, noteworthy, because I can’t think of a comparable genre/form that regularly creates male harems or caters to female sexual fantasies that way. What strikes me in the comparison, though, is that moments of male sexiness are almost never built into costume design in the way that female fanservice is. The practical upshot of this is that while Fruits Basket looks like this:

and Nadeshiko looks like this:

Motoko Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex still has to spend a season like this:

while Cowboy Bebop’s Faye Valentine gets to wear this:

To highlight the disparity further: both Fruits Basket and Nadeshiko are romantic shojo, meaning that they are specifically aimed at women and actively concerned with relationships – in other words, the type of show you’d most expect to get fanservicey if it were written for men. But Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk political thriller with existential undertones, while Cowboy Bebop is a hard SF drama about bounty hunters in space.  Which begs the question: if that’s the base level of fanservice in shows that aren’t aimed purely at men and which don’t have any inherent investment in sex, romance or relationships, then how bad does it get when those elements are also in play?

Internets, allow me to introduce you to Hyakka Ryoran Samurai Girls. It looks like this:

It’s shows like this which make me love Boobs Don’t Work That Way so very much. And that is the only good thing I will ever say about Samurai Girls.

The strongest attraction anime has for me is the profusion of female characters doing every conceivable type of awesome thing. They are hackers, warriors, starship pilots, psychics, mages, priestesses, ambassadors, thieves, bounty hunters, police officers, mothers, students, friends, sisters, daughters, alchemists, mechanics, cooks, wives, dress-makers, geeks, villains, heroes, anti-heroes, athletes, goddesses, demons, chosen ones and unchosen ones, carpenters, cleaners, queens, doctors, psychologists, nurses, witches, waitresses, writers, gunsmiths, swords-fighters, shapeshifters, teachers, confidantes and lovers. They are everything, and what’s more, they are everything equally, as though there were never any question that a top-level military submarine might have a female captain or an experimental space station be populated by as many women as men. I cannot describe the thrill of elation that went through me as a teenager when, after channel surfing one night, I landed on SBS and caught the last ten minutes of what I only later learned was an episode of Gunsmith Cats. Still new to anime, I was amazed by a cartoon that depicted violence, but flat-out hooked by the idea of one where the gun-toting, badass protagonists were women. I didn’t notice the fanservice, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known what to call it. What mattered was the ladies themselves: the fact that I was watching, not just a show where women did awesome things, but where their ability to do so went unquestioned.

Here’s what saddens me about anime: that shows like Samurai Girls pass the Bechdel test at the same time as their visuals undermine everything that it stands for. So do Full Metal Panic, Azumanga DaiohLucky Star, Love Hina and just about any other shonen-oriented, slice of life or female harem story you care to name – but all while upskirting, side-boobing, cleavage-enlarging, skintight-wearing, fetishenabling, proportion-warping artwork creates a visual dissonance with characters whose dialogue, friendships and personalities would otherwise stand on their own merits. Even in shows which don’t pass, like Ghost in the Shell: SAC and Cowboy Bebop, lone female characters who are tough, multifaceted, intelligent, complex, competent and believable still end up drawn like Playboy bunnies for reasons that have nothing to do with plot and everything to do with pandering to a horny male fanbase. This isn’t just an argument about unrealistic portrayals of women (though that’s certainly a parallel concern), but of what happens when you draw beautiful girls for the sole purpose of sexually objectifying them – and worse, when doing so is deemed to be such an integral part of a given culture that you not only start to expect it, but make allowances for it. Because anime is just like that, and how can I say I like anime if I’m going to criticise it? Isn’t that like saying I like fruit, then bitching about strawberries?

No, actually. It’s like saying I enjoy sex, then bitching about rape.

Some of the shows I’ve listed are ones I love; others I’m ambivalent towards, or actively dislike. But in almost every instance where I’ve ever stopped watching an anime, the reason has nothing to do with a dislike of the plot, premise or characterisation, and everything to do with how the women are treated. Samurai Girls and Full Metal Panic both have plots and settings that appeal to me; in both cases, I’ve turned away, furious, because I can’t stand to watch another upskirt shot or listen to another hatefully forced conversation about women’s boobs or underwear. And then I see something like this:

and end up angry all over again. Because, look: I know that poster’s meant as a joke. And I have a sense of humour! But for female viewers, fanservice is not gravy. Fanservice is sexism’s way of making us accept our own objectification for the sake of a good story, even where the story would be just as good – if not considerably better – without it. Because ultimately, the logic behind all fanservice can be boiled down to the following sentiment: that female characters, no matter how powerful, awesome and complex, are at their most interesting and relevant when drawn to look fuckable.

And to that I say: FUCK NO.

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative –  the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and  focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms  is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.

Recently, N. K. Jemisin wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of womanhood in fantasy.  Together with Kate Beaton’s take on Strong Female Characters, Kate Elliott’s discussion of gender and culture, and Overthinking It’s analysis of why strong female characters are bad for women, the essay illuminates an increasingly problematic disjunction in our treatment of femininity. The success of feminism means that women can now choose to live beyond the confines of their traditional roles; but despite/because of that freedom, there’s a fearful sort of disparagement reserved for women who still elect to be wives and mothers, or who shoulder the bulk of domestic duties. As though, somehow, feminism has made all such occupations redundant; as though a perfectly equal society is one in which nobody ever has to get married, give birth or do the washing-up. Doubtless there’s some who’d call such a world Utopia, which is fair enough. But here in reality, being a stay-at-home mother isn’t the same as being anti-feminist, and the definition of a strong female character is not exclusively one who eschews domesticity – or love, for that matter.

Commenting on Jemisin’s post, one woman remarked:

“Sure, the romance narrative is helping sell the books, and I freely admit I eat that stuff up, but… reliance on that central romantic narrative undercuts female power pretty dramatically. The entire story basically becomes a failed Bechdel test, even if it passes technically.”

Which is another way of saying that romance in narrative is innately anti-feminist. Frankly, it’s a sentiment which terrifies and chills me, not least because of the way in which it echoes the historical discrimination against working women who dared to get married. Find a man, this logic went, and you loose your credibility: married women should be (or are, depending on your preferred flavour of sexism) incapable of devoting time, effort and intelligence to anything other than marriage itself, and therefore can’t be trusted in the workforce. The modern version is subtler. In this scenario, women shouldn’t (or don’t, depending on your preferred flavour of feminism) need men to fulfill them; positive depictions of male/female romance contradict this tenet by linking happiness with heterosexual  romance, and are therefore anti-feminist. To be clear: the overwhelming preference of our culture for embedding marriage as the standard Happily Ever After is still problematic, as is the marginalization of happy non-hetero love and the idea that singleness is always the same as loneliness. What I’m objecting to is the idea that being romantically involved with men is, by itself, enough to undermine the feminist worth of female characters.

Imagine a group of macho men disparaging love as ‘chick stuff’ and an affront to masculinity, calling their married friends pussy-whipped and questioning the manhood (not to say intelligence) of any man who changes his lifestyle for the sake of a woman; the whole ‘bros before hos’ nine yards. Ugly, right? Then imagine a group of modern women disparaging love as a means of patriarchal control and an affront to feminism, calling their married friends submissive backsliders and challenging the feminist cred (not to say intelligence) of any woman who changes her lifestyle for the sake of a man; the whole ‘housewives and breeders’ manifesto.

Yeah. Still ugly.

To wax briefly lyrical, love is the great leveler: if you don’t lose your dignity at some point during the process, then I’d contend that you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, and as treacherous an idea as it might seem to our sensibilities, loving another person does fulfill us in a way that nothing else can; nonetheless, love is not our only means of fulfillment, nor even – necessarily – the most important. Love is unique; it fascinates and enthralls. As countless narratives from Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice have been at pains to point out, neither love nor loving is a weakness. Which isn’t to say that love is never destructive, ill-conceived, fleeting, hurtful, wrongheaded, violent or stubborn. It can be all that and more – but the saving grace is, it can also be exultant, glorious, unexpected and gleeful. Contrary creatures that we are, it can sometimes even be all those things at once. To quote e.e. cummings, whose wisdom in such matters is unparalleled:

‘and being here imprisoned, tortured here

love everywhere exploding maims and blinds

(but surely does not forget,perish,sleep

cannot be photographed,measured;disdains

the trivial labeling of punctual brains…’

That being said, I’m not about to issue a blanket indemnity for each and every romance ever written. Just as many real-world relationships are abusive, one-sided, airheaded and/or undertaken for all the wrong reasons, so too can narrative relationships turn toxic. The vital point here is whether the author intended the relationship to be positive or negative or somewhere in between, to what purpose, and whether or not they’ve succeeded. In this as in so many things, your mileage may vary; but more of that shortly. Assuming momentarily that adherence to feminist canon must always be the rubric by which we gauge the narrative success or failure of fictional relationships (it’s not, but that’s another post entirely), failure on that count isn’t the same thing as failure overall. By which I mean: a story which deliberately chronicles the ups and downs of a negative relationship is not automatically anti-feminist. But wait, you cry: weren’t you asserting only moments ago that positive relationships were the problem? Well, hypothetical reader, I’m glad you asked me that, because the sad fact is that some proponents of this view will have you coming and going. Negative hetero relationships are called anti-feminist because, nine times out of ten, they show women being mistreated by men, which – yes – is awful, but frequently on purpose, which is to say, the mistreatment is written deliberately to raise exactly this point; which is to say, a point that some commentators – not many, but enough to notice the pattern – persist in missing. But positive relationships are still called anti-feminist, too, because isn’t it just so contrived and backwards and cliche that a heterosexual woman might fall in love with a man, or want to? Why is it even necessary?

Look, you got me: it’s not necessary (or at least, not necessary to everyone). That doesn’t make it irrelevant, and it certainly doesn’t make it unrealistic. I mean, dragons aren’t necessary, and they’re still fucking awesome – but hey, if you don’t like dragons? Maybe read a unicorn book! Or something.

This is why I get irked when novels – or more specifically, their romantic plotlines – are reviewed in line with this somewhat warped version of feminism. To directly refute the Jemisin commenter, you do not fail the Bechdel test by having your heroine fall in love, even if it’s with an awesome, powerful dude; but perhaps you do fail at writing a feminist heroine if, for whatever reason, love turns her into a doormat and her love interest into a douche without any indication that this is, in fact, suboptimal. Similarly, to play something of a strawman argument – and without wanting in any way to suggest that lesbian relationships aren’t legitimate, beautiful, awesome things – having your heroine fall in love with a lady does not automatically make her more feminist than if she falls in love with a dude; so why would heterosexuality prove a feminist handicap? So often in these debates, I feel like narrative context becomes optional in assessing a story’s merits; we get hung up on whether or not the heroine is making the same choices we would under the same circumstances when the whole point is that the story’s not about us.

Returning finally to the subject of strong female characters, then, wives and mothers of any kind are no more anti-feminist than kickass warriors in skintight leather with multiple sexual partners are the feminist ideal. Suggestions to the contrary may well be a fault of terminology; despite appearances, the strong in strong female character doesn’t refer exclusively to physical attributes, but rather to strength of character – interesting, three-dimensional ladies with a range of capabilities, backgrounds and interests being, for my money, a far more workable and compelling definition than just ladies who can fight. But then again, I’m happily married, so I guess that means my life fails the Bechdel by default.

Rats. And I felt so strong, too.

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide affirmative action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

My husband and I went to see The Sorcerer’s Apprentice yesterday afternoon. On the basis of the trailers, it looked like it might be decent fun, if not exactly a life-altering future classic. And, for the most part, it was fun: Jay Baruchel and Nicholas Cage had a decent on-screen repartee, there were some genuine laughs, the magic looked beautiful, and if Baruchel was convincing as a hopeless-but-really-not physics nerd, then Cage, with his dishevelled wizard-hair and giant leather coat, was unexpectedly, well, hot. (Doubtless that’s a minority view, but I’m sticking to it.)

That being said, and even taking into account my low expectations, it was a film that niggled. The opening voiceover scene, wherein the entire backstory is explained in such detail as to moot all later reveals, was both cheesy and redundant. None of the female characters had any character development or personality whatsoever, their sole purpose apparently being to serve as narrative justification for certain actions of the male protagonists. Disney films, for all their faults, usually manage to pass the Bechdel Test – but not The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And then there was the Merlin issue – a personal bugbear which never fails to set my teeth on edge.

In the opening spiel, we learn that Merlin, greatest of all wizards, had three apprentices: Balthazar (Nicholas Cage), Victoria (his love interest, who gets two lines at the end of the film) and Horvath (the villain), to whom he taught his secrets. Their enemy was Morgana, aka Morgan le Fay, who wanted to cast the Rising, a terrible spell that would raise an army of undead sorcerers and allow her to conquer the world. Horvath, of course, betrayed the Good Guys, during the course of which Merlin was killed and Morgana imprisoned. As his master lay dying, Balthazar was charged with finding – wait for it – the Prime Merlinian, a powerful sorcerer who would one day defeat Morgana, and who Balthazar could identify through his affinity with Merlin’s magic ring. Ignoring the fact that this massive infodump occurs in the first five minutes, I am so sick of lazy writers namedropping Merlin as a means of stealing narrative legitimacy. Merlin has his own awesome, complicated mythos: either adapt it intelligently – which isn’t that hard! – or go out on a limb and do something else. Similarly, while Morgan le Fay doesn’t come off well in the Arthurian legends, she was still a complex, powerful character. Using her name to avoid the necessity of actual characterisation is a cop-out: if your ultimate villain only appears at the very end to deliver a handful of Stereotypical Bad Guy Threats, the least you could do is build up some sort of motive for her character in the interim, as opposed to letting everything rest on She Is Morgana And Therefore Evil.

Also, the lack of coherent worldbuilding? So irksome. Note to Hollywood scriptwriters: if you’re going to have two immortal wizards kicking around for thousands of years in opposition to one another, they are probably going to train some acolytes! Because this is what wizards do. I refuse to believe that Balthazar’s quest to find the Prime Merlinian prevented him from training a single Goddam ally, especially as Horvath and the Morganans have been proliferating for the same length of time. And riddle me this: if all wizards except the Prime Merlinian are unable to use their powers without the aid of a magic ring, then who made the rings in the first place? Violating casaul logic is not, generally speaking, considered to be a helpful narrative attribute. But then again, during the big climax scene, wherein dead Morganan sorcerers are raised from their graves all over the world, you were stupid enough to show a couple coming out of the damn pyramids – that is to say, buildings which predated both Morgana and the Arthurian myths by thousands of years. So clearly, chronological integrity wasn’t high on the list of must-haves.

Other minor points: that trope about magic coming from the other, unused ten percent of our brains was old in the 90s and is now in danger of becoming an antique. Find another explanation. The thing with the Tesla coils was new, but still lame. And please, for the love of God, do not make the love interest’s sole basis of attraction the fact that she’s pretty and blonde – some species of personality would be appreciated!

Ultimately, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was never going to be a spectacular movie. The fact that I still managed to get any enjoyment out of it was testament to the fact that quirky nerd heroes as played by the likes of Shia LaBouf, Justin Long, Michael Cera and now Jay Baruchel, while fast becoming a new stereotype, are still fun to watch on screen. And the magical effects really were lovely to look at. But with the Pixar team and studios now a part of their empire, regular Disney needs to lift its scriptwriting game. Audiences for young adult films, regardless of their age, have been taught to expect more. Either put up, or shut up.