Monday, 6 June 2011

Robert E. Howard and the Bechdel Test

/bech·del test/ n.
1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

As far as I can understand it, the Bechdel Test is a deceptively simple test which, while not damning or indicting in itself, does highlight a somewhat disquieting trend in the cinematic treatment of female characters.

This video from The Feminist Frequency (who I have my disagreements with, but largely respect her opinions on some matters) gives us the gist of it, as well as highlights how worryingly common it is, even in recent times.


I'll defer to the grand mistress TV Tropes to explain in further detail:

The Bechdel Test, Bechdel-Wallace Test, or the Mo Movie Measure is a sort of litmus test for female presence in movies and TV. The test is named for Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, who made it known to the world with this strip.
In order to pass, the film or show must meet the following criteria:
  1. it includes at least two women* ...
  2. who have at least one conversation...
  3. about something other than a man or men.
If that sounds to you like a pretty easy standard to meet, try applying the test to the media you consume for a while. There's a good chance you'll be surprised: mainstream media that passes is far less common than you might think. Now, by limiting yourself to shows/movies that pass the test, you'd be cutting out a lot of otherwise-worthy entertainment; indeed, a fair number of top-notch works have legitimate reasons for including no women (e.g. ones set in a men's prison or on a World War Two military submarine or back when only men were on juries or with no conversations at all, or with only one character). You may even be cutting out a lot of works that have feminist themes. But that's the point: the majority of fiction created today, for whatever reason, seems to think women aren't worth portraying except in relation to men. Things have changed since the test was first formulated (the strip in which it was originally suggested was written in 1985), but Hollywood still needs to be prodded to put in someone other than The Chick
The test is often misunderstood. The requirements are just what they say they are - it doesn't make any difference if, for instance, the male characters the women talk about are their fathers, sons, brothers, platonic friends or mortal enemies rather than romantic partners. Conversely, if a work seems to pass, it doesn't matter if male characters are present when the female characters talk, nor does it matter if the women only talk about stereotypically girly topics like shoe shopping - or even relationships, as long as it's not relationships with men
This is because the Bechdel Test is not meant to give a scorecard of a work's overall level of feminism. It is entirely possible for a film to pass without having overt feminist themes - in fact, the original example of a movie that passes is Alien, which, while it has feminist subtexts, is mostly just a sci-fi/action/horror flick. A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. Conversely, it's also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. What's a problem is that it becomes a pattern - when so many movies fail the test, while very few show male characters whose lives seem to revolve around women, that says uncomfortable things about the way Hollywood handles gender.

A couple of sites around the Internet have been talking about this test in the past few years.  Here's the original strip:

Now, you'll notice that in the fourth panel, where the first rule is mentioned, there is a poster for a generic film named "The Barbarian" in the background, complete with the sword positioned in a truly hyperbolic level of unsubtlety.  This is appropriate, since according to the Bechdel Test, Conan the Barbarian - the film - fails at the second hurdle, in that it has at least two named female characters, but none of them speak to each other. Somewhat perplexingly, the atrocious sequel Conan the Destroyer passes, albeit just barely - Jehnna and Taramis discuss the former's nightmares, while Jehnna and Zula discuss how to become a warrior. Red Sonja, on the other hand, passes comfortably, with Sonja & Gedren talking about the talisman, as well as Sonja and her sister Varna.  Proof that the test says nothing about a film's cinematic merits.

One commentator pre-emptively thinks the upcoming Conan film will fail the test, which is interesting, since from what I know of the script, it should actually pass.  That is, unless the character of Ilira has, in fact, been edited out, and Marique/Tamara aren't given any lines together, in which case... anyway.

Let's see if we can find some Howard stories that pass the Bechdel Test. Obviously those stories that don't have any female characters don't apply, nor do those with more than one who never meet or talk. However, there are stories where two female characters meet and talk, and most importantly, they have other topics of conversation than men. We'll start off with a few that I know meet the requirements.

"Black Colossus"

Yasmela and Vateesa spend much of the first chapter talking with each other.  The first conversation is over Yasmela's recurring nightmare, and though we later learn that Natohk is a human sorcerer, neither Yasmela nor Vateesa treat Natohk as male, or even human at all:

Vateesa: Was it - was it - ?
Yasmela: Oh, Vateesa, It came again! I saw it - heard It speak! It spoke Its name - Natohk! It is Natohk! It is not a nightmare - it towered over me while the girls slept like drugged ones. What - oh, what shall I do?
Vateesa: Oh, princess, it is evident that no mortal power can deal with It, and the charm is useless that the priests of Ishtar gave you. Therefore seek you the forgotten oracle of Mitra.

This follows much discussion about Mitra, and though Mitra is a god and not technically a man, he still registers as male, so it might not count.

"Xuthal of the Dusk"

Considering much of the conflict between Thalis and Natala is over Conan, you'd think they wouldn't talk about anything other than the Cimmerian. Yet...

Thalis: Scream if you will, little fool. It will only shorten your life.
Natala: Why did you do this? What are you going to do?
Thalis: I am going to take you down this corridor for a short distance, and leave you for one who will sooner or later come for you.
Natala: Ohhhhhh! Why should you harm me? I have never injured you!

"A Witch Shall Be Born"

Seeing as one of the main protagonists and the main antagonist of the story are both female and twin sisters, it follows that they would discuss things other than men - and, indeed, the vast majority of their conversation doesn't really have anything to do with either.

Taramis: Ishtar! I am bewitched!
Salome: Bewitched? No, sweet sister! Here is no sorcery.
Taramis: Sister? I have no sister.
Salome: You never had a sister? Never a twin sister whose flesh was as soft as yours to caress or hurt?
Taramis: Why, once I had a sister. But she died.
Salome: You lie! She did not die! Fool! Oh, enough of this mummery! Look - and let your sight be blasted!
Taramis: Who are you?

A little later:

Taramis: Who are you? What madness is this? Why do you come here?
Salome: Who am I? Fool! Can you ask? Can you wonder? I am Salome!
Taramis: Salome! I thought you died within the hour of your birth.
Salome: So did many. They carried me into the desert to die, damn them! I, a mewing, puling babe whose life was so young it was scarcely the flicker of a candle. And do you know why they bore me forth to die?
Taramis: I - I have heard the story - The mark of the witch!

Later still:

Salome: You do not love my caresses, sweet sister? You are not so ready with your tears as formerly, sweet sister.
Taramis: You shall wring no more tears from me. Too often you have revelled in the spectacle of the queen of Khauran sobbing for mercy on her knees. I know that you have spared me only to torment me; that is why you have limited your tortures to such torments as neither slay nor permanently disfigure. But I fear you no longer; you have strained out the last vestige of hope, fright and shame from me. Slay me and be done with it, for I have shed my last tear for your enjoyment, you she-devil from hell!
Salome: You flatter yourself, my dear sister,” purred Salome. “So far it is only your handsome body that I have caused to suffer, only your pride and self-esteem that I have crushed. You forget that, unlike myself, you are capable of mental torment. I have observed this when I have regaled you with narratives concerning the comedies I have enacted with some of your stupid subjects.

"The Black Stranger"

Tina and Belesa are among the only two females in a settlement, so it follows that a lot of their conversations might involve men by proxy.  That said, their conversation is not restricted to males:

Tina: Lady Belesa! Oh, Lady Belesa!
Belesa: What are you trying to tell me, Tina? Get your breath, child.
Tina: A ship! I was swimming in a pool that the sea-tide left in the sand, on the other side of the ridge, and I saw it! A ship sailing up out of the south! Look, my Lady!


Belesa: Tina! Where have you been? I thought you were in your chamber, hours ago.
Tina: I was, but I missed my coral necklace you gave me. I was afraid you wouldn't let me go if you knew - a soldier's wife helped me out of the stockade and back again - please, my Lady, don't make me tell who she was, because I promised not to. I found my necklace by the pool where I bathed this morning. Please punish me if I have done wrong.
Belesa: Tina! I'm not going to punish you. But you should not have gone outside the palisade, with these buccaneers camped on the beach, and always a chance of Picts skulking about. Let me take you to your chamber and change these damp clothes."
Tina: Yes, my Lady.

"Red Nails"

Valeria and Yasala have a very brief conversation, mostly Valeria interrogating Yasala:

Valeria: What the devil were you doing bending over me? What's that in your hand? The black lotus! The blossom whose scent brings deep sleep. You were trying to drug me! If you hadn't accidentally touched my face with the petals, you'd have - why did you do it? What's your game? Tell me, or I'll tear your arm out of its socket! Slut! Why did you try to drug me? Did Tascela send you? Do you fear someone will hear you? Whom do you fear? Tascela? Olmec? Conan? You sulky slut! I'm going to strip you stark naked and tie you across that couch and whip you until you tell me what you were doing here, and who sent you! Well, are you going to talk? "I can keep this up all night, if necessary!
Yasala: Mercy! I will tell. Wine! Let me drink. I am weak with pain. Then I will tell you all.

Valeria also talks to an unnamed Tecuhltli woman:

Valeria: Why did you bring me into this chamber to bandage my legs? Couldn't you have done it just as well in the throneroom?
Woman: They have taken the rest of the wounded into the other chambers. They will be carrying the corpses of the dead down into the catacombs, lest the
ghosts escape into the chambers and dwell there.
Valeria: Do you believe in ghosts?

Valeria and Tascela don't have a conversation, so much as Tascela monologues to her, plus there's a reference or two to men, and so I don't think it really counts. Still, Valeria does respond via gestures, so I might as well put it in all the same:

Tascela: Opening upon this hall, there is a chamber which in old times was used as a torture room. When we retired into Tecuhltli, we brought most of the apparatus with us, but there was one piece too heavy to move. It is still in working order. I think it will be quite convenient now. I have chosen you for a great honor. You shall restore the youth of Tascela. Oh, you stare at that! My appearance is that of youth, but through my veins creeps the sluggish chill of approaching age, as I have felt it a thousand times before. I am old, so old I do not remember my childhood. But I was a girl once, and a priest of Stygia loved me, and gave me the secret of
immortality and youth everlasting. He died, then - some said by poison. But I dwelt in my palace by the shores of Lake Zuad and the passing years touched me not. So at last a king of Stygia desired me, and my people rebelled and brought me to this land. Olmec called me a princess. I am not of royal blood. I am greater than a princess. I am Tascela, whose youth your own glorious youth shall restore.

So, that's at least five Conan stories which, as per my understanding, pass the Bechdel Test.  I can't immediately recall any others, but perhaps my fine readers can.  I'm positive they're out there.  Interesting that a white male Texan writing in the 1930s could write a story that could pass a feminist-minded test that wouldn't be invented for another 65 years...


  1. Ha, yeah. When I first heard of the test I figured my first book would fail too, I was surprised to find a spot where I had two women discussing their various gods/goddess's and thus I think I kinda passed.

    As for REH its the exact same thing as him being charged as a racist-when he is honestly way ahead of the curve.

  2. the artwork for that comic strip makes me want to quote Frank Zappa songs...