Jane Siberry’s This Girl I Know and the Bechdel Test

Jane Siberry - This Girl I Know - Bechdel TestLet’s get the hard part out of the way first: the Bechdel Test. It consists of three criteria for a work of fiction: it contains at least two female characters; they talk to each other at least once; and what they talk about is not a man. Now you would think that most fictional works would pass the Bechdel Test. But it is surprisingly rare. My first novel, for example, did not pass it.

I think of the Bechdel Test in a broader sense. I don’t think it should be limited to talking about “a man.” I think a conversation about men — how they suck, how they are seduced, whatever — should count. With this broader interpretation (because one could certainly see this as being implied), the situation is even worse.

The truth is, when I learned of the Bechdel Test, I was embarrassed. It’s not that I’m unaware that I have limitations when creating female characters. As much as I like woman, I’m pretty much a gnostic toward them. Certainly, from the age of 5 onward, I’ve felt that women knew things about the universe that I never will. (I still think it’s true and I think it is evolutionary and has to do with childbirth. Women create universes.) So women in my fiction tend to be dark and mysterious. I’m working on this, however.

“This Girl I Know”

But I was listening to Jane Siberry. I love the album, but I must admit to not paying attention to lyrics very much. That is until I pay a great deal of attention to them. The second song on the album is “This Girl I know.” It’s a conversation between two women. One of them says she is sick of being fat and that eventually she will do something about it. And the other is asking her why she doesn’t just do it now.

(There is also a typically Siberry touch of the other woman having a fight with people at another table. “Mind your own business, no, I don’t mean you; it’s the table over there; I think they think I’m being rude; I’m not being rude, I just want to know.”)

I thought it was interesting as I listened to it because it passed the Bechdel Test! But then we get to the bridge, and it all falls apart, “I’ll get some new clothes, I’ll change my style; I’ll cut my hair, I’ll meet a lot of men; I’ll have a lot of dates, I’ll discriminate.” Oh my, Bechdel Test fail!

It’s Not All Bechdel Test

But not everything is about the Bechdel Test. I do think it is a great tool for looking at how we think about women in our society. Obviously, women are better at transcending these prejudices than men. My friend Kristen McHenry’s first (thus far unpublished) novel, “Day Job Blues,” passes the test with such aggressiveness that one could be forgiven for thinking that was her intent. (It wasn’t.)

Although “This Girl I Know” fails the Bechdel Test in an almost classic way, it is still at core, a feminist song. Because the first woman does answer the question: she says she wouldn’t know what to do if a man thought she was “sexy or something.” And when we hear, “Am I supposed to throw away my career and hop into bed?”

Work and Sex

I think that does sum up a fundamental problem for women. For men, sexual politics work because men are seen as dominant on the issue of sex. So a corporate man who is attractive and “fit” has nothing to fear. But an attractive and “fit” woman seems nubile: someone you marry, not someone you promote. And as much as things have changed, that basic dynamic is still very much alive.

So the Bechdel Test isn’t all. One can critique sexual politics, even while failing it. And Jane Siberry does that in “This Girl I Know.”

8 thoughts on “Jane Siberry’s This Girl I Know and the Bechdel Test

  1. The new Ghostbusters movie passes the test. Which is nice.

    Writing good female characters is tough for any writer I think, even women.

    • Well, writing any decent character is hard! But Kristen didn’t seem to struggle with her female characters. If there is a complaint with her characters, it is the opposite of mine: her male characters are weaker than her female characters. Not a lot. But they’re a little more glossed whereas all there female characters are very distinct. I think gender is hard for us all. On the other hand, a man wrote Three Tall Women. But then, he only had to write one character — and it was his mother. Still: one of the greatest plays I’ve ever read.

  2. It’s an odd thing; I don’t know why that is. It could have something to do with lingering economic sexism. Eliot and Austen wrote amazing female characters; so did Hardy and James. But they were all open and upfront about women’s dependence on men for their livelihood.

    Now that we never talk about economics in art anymore, the very real pressures women deal with aren’t addressed. Few writers want to deal with how class affects gender roles. A rising female executive faces far different problems than a single mom, even if their personalities are identical.

    An actress I adore is Lizzie Kaplan, in “Masters Of Sex” (good first season, less so the second) and the brilliant “Party Down.” Her characters, driven to demand respect, are the best things in both shows. And it’s largely because both shows are upfront about class divisions.

    • A great deal of work has been done on the politics in Austen — I assume because most people miss it. It’s impossible with the other three.

      I’ve been meaning to write an article about how class conscious Bob’s Burgers is. It’s very pro-working class; highly skeptical of the upper-middle class; and thinks that the rich are just insane. I think it has things quite right.

  3. It’s probably totally uncool of me to admit that I’m surprised and excited that my yet-to-be-unpublished novel was mentioned in your blog post, but I don’t care–I am stoked about it!

    It’s true that I wasn’t consciously trying to pass the Bechdel Test, or any test, for that matter. I was trying to write honestly about relationships between women, and most of them in my novel are not perfectly smooth and life-affirming and “you-go-girl” supportive at all times and in all circumstances. But they are honest, (at least, that was my hope), and based at least in some part on my real-world experience of female friendship, which can be complex. I hope that the love and value I hold for my real-life female friendships bled through into my writing. My main character would challenge even the most saintly of friends. I hoped to create some fun alchemy with the various personalities that Harley navigates in her world, male and female–although the female relationships in the book tend to have the most interesting emotional charge.

    • I don’t see why you wouldn’t have women not being all girl power since real life women don’t always support other women and often tear them down. I saw that in the online sniping at Amy Schumer for something one of her writers wrote on Facebook-she got more shit then he did over it because apparently women are always responsible for what men do. So if the female main character is the opposite of perfect, plenty of women would be willing and eager to hurt her.

      • I don’t think I followed that.

        But to be clear: the women in Day Job Blues mostly are supportive of each other. The main character often can’t see that…

    • I was going to mention this to you, but I forgot. I’m glad you noticed it. You are right about Harley. As you well know: I found her really frustrating! Of course, I have no room to talk. It took me just as long to grow up. Not that I’ve really grown up, but like Harley, I’m not self-sabotaging.

      What is especially compelling about your female characters is that they are all complex enough to have mixed feelings about. And they were all very well motivated. Especially for a first-person narrative, it’s good at showing different perspectives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *