Friday, May 8, 2015

THOUGHTS on How I Structure these "THOUGHTS on" Posts: Tests for Feminism in Media

One of the main reasons that I read romance is that women characters in romance novels tend to have more agency than women characters outside of the romance genre do (despite a prevalent social opinion is that romance novels are incompatible with a feminist viewpoint). For this reason, I have decided to take a slightly more structured approach to my reading journal entries. While I will still consider whether the books in question are (i) funny, (ii) sad, (iii) gritty and (iv) grand, (and whether I enjoyed the book in general) I will also consider whether each book passes the following three tests for (various aspects of) feminism. The idea is that reframing my "THOUGHTS on" posts in this way will force me to systematically consider whether the romance novels I read really are feminist (at least according to these tests).

My favourite test is Kelly Sue DeConnick's "Sexy Lamp" test, which tests for female agency. Unlike the later tests, which focus on the movie/piece of media as a whole, the "Sexy Lamp" test applies to specific female characters. Applying the test is easy: If you can replace your main female character with a sexy lamp, and the story/plotline still basically works, then the story fails the "Sexy Lamp" test. The test works to indicate female agency because sexy lamps (well, lamps in general) do not/cannot make decisions and take actions that affect the way the world/story unfolds. If a female character lacks this sort of agency, then (no matter whether or not she is portrayed as typical  "Strong Female Character,") her inclusion in the story is no more feminist than the inclusion of a inanimate object. [1]

The second test, the Mako Mori test, derives from the movie "Pacific Rim."[2] In order to pass the Mako Mori test, the piece of media must (i) have a female character, (ii) who has her own narrative arc, and (iii) that narrative arc must not be about supporting a man's narrative arc. The Mako Mori test is important in addition to the "Sexy Lamp" test because it tests whether the female characters in the piece of media are complex to the level where they have their own individual aims and goals. A female character with agency might still only exercise that agency in terms of furthering a male-centric plotline. These two tests, the Sexy Lamp test and the Mako Mori test make sure that the presence of female characters in media aren't just window dressing to a ultimately male-centric/male-biased storyline.

The third (and most famous) test is the Bechdel test, was inspired by Allison Bechdel's comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For." The Bechdel test gauges a film for its degree of female presence or perspective: in order to pass the Bechdel test, the piece of media must (i) have at least two women in it, (ii) show those women having a conversation, where (iii) the aforementioned conversation is about something other than a man. As has been noted by several others, the Bechdel test does not indicate whether women are portrayed positively, or even whether they are portrayed as interesting, complex characters (as the male characters are more likely to be in Hollywood media) - as I understand it, the Bechdale test only gauges whether there's enough female presence in the piece of media for these questions to even arise. I think this is an especially important test when gauging a romance novel, however, because a female character in a romance novel can often lack a female support system. This often reflects internalized misogyny, and I'm really not down with internalized misogyny.

So these are three basic issues I'll consider in addition to my original four critera when writing up these reading journal entries - this sort of structure will make it much easier to write up journal entries for books that don't set off extreme emotional reactions, and hopefully, will make me more carefully consider and enjoy my reading!


[1] Although I don't think a technical definition is necessary, I'll include one for the sake of being explicit and transparent. I'll assume a STIT[1]-inspired approach to defining agency: in order for an individual, x, to have "agency," there must be a point where that individual, x makes a decision to take an action, a, where

  • (i) all of the worlds where the individual takes that action are P-worlds, and
  • (ii) at least one world where the individual does NOT take that action, is a not-P world. 

Thus in order for an individual to count as having agency, they must make decisions and take actions that have an actual effect on how the world/story plays out. The "Sexy Lamp" gauges for whether or not a character has this sort of agency, because obvo, lamps can't make decisions and take actions.

[2] I heard that "Pacific Rim" is a terrible movie, and haven't seen it, but that doesn't change the fact that the Mako Mori test is a good indicator of whether a female character is portrayed as complex and interesting in her own right.


The Sexy Lamp Test:

The Mako Mori Test:

The Bechdel Test:

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