Covered in Scorpions - 4.8 on the Bechdel scale

May. 31st, 2014

10:29 am - 4.8 on the Bechdel scale

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Recently there was this thing purporting to measure relative sexism in Dr Who, between writers.

It struck me that the Bechdel test actually does a pretty lame job of measuring anything meaningful, because it simply assumes that men are strongly represented. As a simple flip-switch (as it was originally written) it's fair enough, but you can't validly draw conclusions from it, and it's especially poor for the purpose given in the article, measuring relative sexism.

To explain what I mean, I'll give my alternative; instead of (as the article does) measuring screen time and talk time for specific characters, we should measure all the characters' conversations. The classic Bechdel says we must have two female characters have a conversation with each other that's not about a man. A simplified expansion on this then, I say we should also check whether we have two male characters that have a conversation with each other that isn't about a woman. I suspect that many Doctor Who episodes would pass neither of these tests; if so then that's not sexist, it's just stories that aren't conversation-driven (or mostly involve conversations between two or more genders).

I'd also suggest some sort of exceptions for title characters. You can hardly call the writers of "Mr Magoo" sexist for most of the show revolving around a guy, it's clearly the focus of the show. That would be a totally separate measure of societal sexism, how many shows are based around males versus based around females. (How do we score Mrs Doubtfire on this metric? Maybe one point for LGBT?) If we were to roll that rule in on the Doctor Who measuring then my guess is the results would make it look like Russell's Who episodes were disjointed and rambling (but with female characters talking to each other!), whereas Moffat's episodes have strong focus and most of the time actually involve the Doctor. What a sexist bastard, strongly featuring the title character in a show he's writing. String him up.

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[User Picture]
Date:June 1st, 2014 01:03 am (UTC)
If he's the focus of the show, i.e. an invariant condition, then simply remove references to him from consideration. That way, if a little girl asks Leela what she and the Doctor are up to, and Leela answers they are trying to get the monster to follow them into the TARDIS so the Doctor can imprison it forever, then the subjects of conversation for purposes of Bechdel-like testing are Leela, the TARDIS, and the monster only.
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[User Picture]
Date:June 1st, 2014 07:06 am (UTC)
Yes, that's what I was saying. Though as I say, to some extent that modification could misleadingly suggest that a show is gender-balanced when it's actually almost entirely about some guys (eg. The A-Team.) But I'm not sure how misleading that really is, unless you're totally unfamiliar with the premise of a show and are trying to judge it entirely on its Bechdelliness. :)

Certainly when, as in the article context, you're comparing a show against itself, I think acknowledging the focus and discounting it would be totally fair. When you're measuring the A-Team there would basically be no valid conversations to count for either gender, but I think that's *right*. If an episode had women or other men talking amongst themselves it would be an interesting outlier, and that's what you'd likely want to be aware of in your measurements.

Not sure how I'd apply that rule to, say, Buffy though, where being the title character doesn't really make you the only *main* character. It's more just a rule that seems right for Doctor Who because he's barely gendered at all, he's an alien with a magic box, it seems wrong to measure that as "just one more straight white guy" even though that's generally what the actor is.
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[User Picture]
Date:June 2nd, 2014 07:16 pm (UTC)
I think you have the option of erring too strong or too weak there... it's a thing where roles for characters that aren't specifically meant to be straight white people are given to straight white actors. ("Whitewashing" is generally the term for that.) I know it was a big deal when the Airbender movie came out, that the whole cast was meant to not be white people but became so, and Earthsea, and the Hunger Games protagonist. So there is some worth in measuring skew there, because those characters were not meant to be "just one more straight white guy" but get cast as such anyway.

Ensemble casts do make it harder. I wonder if we followed your rule if they'd start calling them things like Firefly rather than Captain Mal, or Star Trek rather than Oh Boy William Shatner, etc. Maybe Buffy was just named more restrictively than the show reflects. [grin]
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