Posts Tagged ‘Bechdel test’

Tell me, where would you put Godzilla in this classification system?

For a while now, I’ve been thinking of the different kinds of antagonists in horror stories. Not divided by type, but by level of threat. What do I mean by this? I mean, aren’t all antagonists in horror stories a threat? I mean, it is horror!

Well, yes. But how big that threat is can vary from story to story, and can even influence what kind of tropes and stakes we can expect in the stories. To further illustrate this, let me categorize the level of threats using Starbucks sizes: Tall, Grande, and Venti. Yes, I know they have a Short size and a Trenta size, but I don’t know anyone who uses them. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the cups for those sizes.

Also, Starbucks, please don’t sue me. I’m just using your sizes to help illustrate a point.

Getting sidetracked. Let’s start talking about the levels of threat, starting from biggest to smallest.

Venti: While all horror antagonists are a threat to the protagonist(s), the Venti-level threats are usually threats to many or all people. Cosmic entities like Cthulhu or the Devil in stories taking place during the Apocalypse usually rank this high. They’re a threat to all life or to all we hold dear, and the suffering they could induce if they succeed would be terrible.

This level can also apply to threats like Pennywise, aka IT. While he’s restricted to the town of Derry, Maine, he’s responsible for countless deaths since the 17th century. Even when he’s not active, his influence over the town of Derry is such that he controls it at all times, causes all sorts of horrors while sleeping. IT is Derry. Thank goodness his children didn’t get anywhere, am I right?

Bughuul from Sinister is a great example of a Grande-level villain

Grande: An antagonist of this size may be a threat to many people, but they’re not as all powerful or have such sweeping implications as a Venti-level threat. Still, you wouldn’t want to cross one of these guys if you ended up in their stories.

An example of a Grande-level threat would be Leland Gaunt from Needful Things. A demonic figure who looks at things from a business-like perspective, any town he comes to faces annihilation once he sets up shop. Half of Castle Rock either ended up dead or blown up because of him, after all.

Another example might be Bughuul from the movie Sinister, a Babylonian deity that eats children. Throughout the centuries, he’s manipulated children into killing their families so he could eat their souls. Anywhere he goes, you can expect blood and death to follow. He’s definitely no small potatoes, though he doesn’t warrant the same level of panic as a Venti-level threat might.

Tall: While they may be the on the lowest level of horror antagonist, that doesn’t mean you should relax. In fact, these villains tend to be much more personal than the likes of Bughuul or Cthulhu.

Tall-level villains may only be a threat to the protagonist and a few others, but they bring with them the power to destroy everything the protagonist holds dear. Demons seeking to possess a soul, vengeful ghosts, stalkers and serial killers focused on one particular victim, cursed objects, etc. They may not be seeking to end the world or blow up a town, but they will destroy the protagonist’s happiness and sanity for their own goals.

I would even include the Overlook Hotel in this category. It may be powerful and evil, but it’s only able to be so in the presence of someone with the shining, and then it only seeks to add the shining to its own power so it can be active more often. In the novel’s case, it breaks down Jack and terrorizes Danny to make them more vulnerable and ultimately to possess the former and kill the latter.

Like I said, what they’re missing in power or scope of threat, they make up for in how personal they are.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a way to classify the threat level of horror villains.

Where does Jason fit on this scale? It’s not easy to tell.

That being said, it’s not perfect. What villains belong where is entirely dependent on who’s doing the categorizing. Is a slasher villain like Jason Voorhees a Grande because he has a particular hunting area and has killed many over the decades? Or is he a Tall because he’s only a threat if you step into his territory? And this doesn’t even cover stories like Gerald’s Game, where there is no antagonist but a pair of handcuffs and the protagonist’s own psyche. Even the Space Cowboy who visits her doesn’t really threaten her. He’s more of a reflection of her own terrors who turns out to be a real person than anything else.

So why do I write all this, if it’s not a flawed system? I do it because it’s not to categorize the villains themselves, but the stories they belong to. A story with a Tall villain is much more character-focused and can often lean into the character’s mindset. A story with a Venti-sized villain often requires the story to encompass a huge cast, lots of locations, and putting an entire population at risk. A Grande may straddle the line of the other categories, while also having varying kill counts depending on what the story requires.

In a way, The Starbucks Levels of Antagonism (copyright pending), are like the Bechdel or Mako Mori tests: exercises to examine stories, the decisions made while creating them, and how you can learn from them. And given the nature of fiction writing, as well as how difficult it is to categorize fiction like a scientific system, that’s probably for the best.

Thanks for giving me a chance to air some thoughts, Followers of Fear. I’m off to figure out where on this system I belong. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for a while now, but I only got around to it now after a friend of mine did it on her blog and I thought to myself, “Yeah, might as well get my butt in gear and do this already.”

So anyway, if you’re unfamiliar with the Bechdel test, it’s used to measure how feminist a work of fiction, usually a film or a novel, is. It was first created by cartoonist Allison Bechdel for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and has since become used in academic circles and with critics.

Here are the criteria for passing the Bechdel test:

  1. You have two female characters (sometimes having them named is a requirement, and I’ll do that here).
  2. They actually have to talk to each other.
  3. They have to talk about something other than a guy.

On that last part, I usually take it to mean talking about a guy who is in some sense romantically linked to one or both characters. After all, a lot of stories focus solely on a woman’s quest for love or marriage, and that’s it, and I feel like that’s what this test was designed for. And what if the two women are detectives and they’re talking about a suspect who’s male and how he’s difficult to bring to justice? That should be worthy of passing the Bechdel test.

Now before I begin, I want to make one thing clear: I don’t see this test as the end-all test for how feminist a work is. While some do use the Bechdel test in that capacity, I see it more as a tool to examine various works of fiction and promote discussion, rather than as the only way to get a work to be called feminist. Heck, even film organizations who use the test when rating a movie do it mostly for collecting information on gender inequality in films and to make viewers aware of that same gender inequality more than anything else.

So without further ado, here’s how my novels (I’d do the short stories as well, but there’s a lot of those, so I’ll pass) do with the Bechdel test:

  • Reborn City/Video Rage. I place these two together because they’re part of the same series. And they do pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. There are several named female characters in RC, particularly protagonists Zahara Bakur, Ilse, and Iori. And they do talk to each other about a lot of other stuff besides men, including the gang situation in West Reborn and how being a gangster is not for the faint of heart (a problem for Zahara considering she prefers peace and harmony to violence and gun fights). Similarly in VR, there are at least four or five named female characters, including the ones I mentioned above, and they also talk a lot about things other than men, including the situation they’re stuck in or the history of the war that made the world how it is in their present (our future).
  • Snake. Um…yes, but just barely. There are three or four named characters, including the female protagonist Allison Langland. However, as so much of the book focuses on the Snake’s quest to save Allison and then to keep her safe, she doesn’t have a lot of onscreen time with other female characters. There is a scene where Allison speaks with another character about events to come, but the Snake is also part of this conversation, so I guess it depends on your point-of-view on the subject. If there’s ever a sequel to this book, I may try to do better on that front while writing the story.
  • Laura Horn. Despite still working through the second draft, I can tell you LH passes the Bechdel test. There are several named female characters, including our protagonist, and that they do talk to one another about things other than men. Especially the fact that Laura’s wanted for a crime she never committed. Yeah, heavy stuff. Guys and romance actually don’t come up that much. Yeah, romantic feelings are part of the story, but by no means are they the focus, and I expect that will be the case still when I reach the final draft (whenever that is).
  • Rose. Again, this one just barely passes, and whether it does is a matter of perspective. As I’ve mentioned, Rose is about a woman held captive in the home of a man claiming to be her lover. Rose spends a lot of time on her own or with the guy whose house she’s in. She does have conversations with another female, but this female isn’t exactly human, and a few other things about this being call into question whether or not it counts. There’s also a conversation Rose has with another girl in a flashback, but I don’t know if flashbacks count either. So again, this one’s up for debate, one that might not be settled until after the book is published (whenever that is).

So the final verdict is that one half of my novels pass the Bechdel test, and the other half are a matter of opinion. Again, this test isn’t definitive by any means, and as demonstrated in the cases of Snake and Rose,  there are shortcomings to the test. However, it does feel good to know that half my work does pass the test, and the other half might. Surprisingly about half of all films don’t pass the Bechdel test, while quite a number of movies pass what is known as the reverse Bechdel test, which focuses on men (not going to bother with that, except to say that Rose is probably the only one that doesn’t pass). I like to think it says something good about my personality or writing style.

Perhaps in a few years I’ll try applying the Bechdel test to my works again and see what happens. In the meantime, I think I’ll focus on creating good stories in general. And possibly applying other tests to the stories I write (though I’m kind of afraid of what the results might be and what they say about me as a writer). We’ll see how I feel about it.

What are your thoughts on the Bechdel test? Do your works pass it? Why or why not?