The Bechdel Test and Race in Popular Fiction
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It occurred to me, after reading this excellent post on women in fiction and the Bechdel Test, that perhaps you could construct one to address issues of POC and race. The analog seemed obvious, so I just wrote it out.
1. It has to have two POC in it.
2. Who talk to each other.
3. About something other than a white person.
Now, you see the obvious issue there, right? Yeah, it has to do with number one.
Even in stories that feature prominent POC characters, it is so rare to find more than one present, let alone who know each other well enough to talk to each other, that I came up short on television shows or popular novels that even come close to meeting it.
Obviously, “urban lit” and other books that feature a mostly POC cast will pass this easily. But these books are so well segregated from the rest of mainstream fiction (see: the African American section of your local bookstore) that I wonder how best to include them in the discussion.
So, to make this easier to discuss, I’m going to limit myself to works of fiction or visual media in the science fiction/fantasy genres, since that’s what I read.
So, back to the POC!Bechdel test.
I’m going to list the television shows I can think that pass this test.
— Battlestar Galactica : Dee and Geta had a great friendship that lasted pretty much the whole show. Also, there was the priestess from the planet of black fundamentalists, but I’m pretty sure she was only around to lead the dying white woman to her destiny.
— True Blood: I’m not sure that Lafayette and Tara have a conversation that isn’t about Sookie or Jason, but Tara does argue a lot with her mother. And also with the witch woman about the “devils” inside her.
Okay, sorry, drawing a blank here. No Joss Whedon show passes (ha!). Supernatural doesn’t (unless you count “Route 666” a/k/a the racist monster truck episode…which I don’t). Being Human: nope. None of the Star Treks I’m familiar with do, though I’m not close to enough of a Trekkie to be sure of this.
Other shows that do, though they’re not in the SF/F genres (that experiment sure ended quickly!)
— Grey’s Anatomy: frankly, the ease with which this show passes both the Bechdel test and my POC version of it makes me wish that it were, well, a better show. Which is not to say that the first few seasons didn’t have their charms and some snappy writing, but these days it’s just so…lugubrious and self-absorbed.
— Veronica Mars. This show had Wallace, one of the most awesome black characters on TV (until the third season ruined him, at least). It also has Weevil, who was Hispanic, and they definitely had conversations. Unfortunately, they were all about Veronica. However, it passes because Wallace has conversations with both his mom and dad (and, later, with Jackie). Weirdly enough, Veronica Mars has a way harder time passing the actual Bechdel test. I don’t think an honest f/f conversation (not about men) occurs until Mac becomes a recurring character in the second season.
I’m sure there are others. You should let me know about them in the comments!
As for fiction, there must be significantly more in the genre that passes this test. All of Octavia Butler’s work easily passes it. Liar by Justine Larbalestier (now with a much better cover!) passes it a dozen times over (along with every other novel she’s published).
However, I’ll say that when a novel is written in close third or first from the POV of someone who is not a person of color, that makes it extremely difficult to fulfill the second and third criteria of the test, since by necessity the main character will need to be present in all conversations (or, at least, overhearing them). So, the Bechdel test (either version) is hardly a failsafe arbiter of works that are sexist or racist. It’s just a baseline, and something that can reveal problematic trends. Like the fact that I can only think of two genre television shows that meet this incredibly low bar.
So, something to think about. And in the meantime, Bechdel test (either version) your favorite creative works and see how they fare.