The words “Feminism” and “feminist” have become controversial as of late, but I had always been planning to have this subject be a part of this series. For many of us living today, it can seem ridiculous to consider that half of the population was denied the right to vote (and some people denied it twice, once for their sex and again for their race), but the suffrage movement was considered radical in its day. There is an excellent display of photos, paraphrenalia and accounts by British suffragettes at the Museum of London, and I got a real appreciation for the violent opposition they faced for something which we now take totally as a given. Feminism of course transcends the right to vote, but equality between the sexes (or all along the gender spectrum, depending on who you ask) is the underpinning of it all.
You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, but in case you haven’t, here’s the skinny. Alison Bechdel wrote a comic strip in 1985 that featured two women discussing movies. One tells the other that she never sees a movie unless it satisfies three criteria: There are at least two female characters, who talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than a man (any man, it doesn’t have to be romantic). Later versions also include that the female characters must have names, and there are of course some biases here against settings or storylines where female characters wouldn’t work in the narrative, but it is the baseline often studied by statisticians. (It should also be noted that just because a work of fiction passes this test, that does not make it inherently feminist. There can still be an overall misogynist message or scenes that degrade women whether or not they pass this simple test. The point is that the test is incredibly bare bones and it is still difficult to pass).
It turns out this is actually incredibly difficult to find in most Hollywood films, and books and television don’t fare much better.
So let’s take these criteria one by one. First, there must be at least two female characters. It is so difficult to find anything that even satisfies this simple first step. I have noticed in several movies and books that there will be a nod to womankind in the form of a single female in a sea of male faces, and she is often the smartest or kick-assingest one in the cast. In the movie 9, for instance, there are sentient dolls which are totally gender neutral to look at, but one of them has a female voice actor behind it. This is the doll that takes action and performs acts of derring-do. Hermione Granger is the bright one in the Harry Potter trio and Leeloo from The Fifth Element is engineered to be a perfect being.
This is of course better than having no female characters at all, or falling into the timeworn pattern of the early days of film-making where women are only there to be rescued by the male heroes. But I still find this kind of tokenism problematic. In a way, these characters are given special abilities or power in order to justify their presence in the story, because just being a human isn’t enough. They have to be made somehow exceptional or they are not welcome to join “the boys’ club.” In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, for instance, Mina Murray is the only woman in the league (which of course, carries the word gentlemen in the title) and filmmakers thought it was necessary to make her a vampire in order to give her some cache in the group. (This is a deviation from the books, by the way, where Mina is the team leader through force of personality.)
Okay, so criteria #2: the two female characters talk to each other. I call this one “The Bond Girl Paradox.” Almost every spy movie features at least a few female characters in the story. They may be heroes or villains, they are always hyper sexualized, and may even be smart or good at their jobs to boot. But, they never overlap. They only interact with the male central figure, but rarely occupy the same space and even if they do, their focus is totally on the James Bond character. Again, this is a step in the right direction, but still puts the man at the very center of the story. This occurs in lots of films, books and TV shows, but I can only think of one movie I have ever seen where a series of beautiful men are throwing themselves into the path of a central female character, and that was Barbarella circa 1968.
I noticed something strange while I was working on my own novel. I couldn’t figure out why I was having trouble with a certain exchange between characters, and then I realized that could have been because it was a conversation between women. I have had so few examples in what I read (especially because I read a lot of scientific romances for my website) that I was probably having an issue formulating this conversation without the experience of reading to back it up. It was only a momentary issue, and I went on to write several scenes where my various female characters have talked to each other on a variety of subjects, but I can’t help but think of this strange moment of realization.
And now, the last step: These two women must be discussing something other than a man. In real life, women have jobs, hobbies, and friends that they talk about. Some enjoy discussing sports, others brew their own beer or go on wine tasting trips. My mother-in-law and I went on a quest to try all of the breakfast joints in her town, and I have sisters-in-law who make their own paper or spend free time practicing calligraphy. I have spent the last 10 days with over a dozen women, and only a few sentences this whole time has had anything to do with significant others or one’s relationship status. And besides giving a character something to talk about, hobbies and interests add depth to people and more interest to scenes.
In the Victorian era, your female characters may be more limited in the types of employment that they could have than today’s women, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have interests and hobbies. Before television, people read extensively, supported the arts, joined organizations like The Temperance League and volunteered through their churches. They had opinions, sometimes totally biased due to misinformation or culture in which they live (and isn’t that fascinating?), and they would discuss them with gusto.
If you are looking for some great Victorian-era women, I suggest you check out The Murdoch Mysteries series. In the first few seasons, it suffers somewhat from the tokenism I mentioned earlier (though occasionally side characters are female) in the form of the coroner, Dr. Ogden. Later, a second coroner comes onto the scene and these two women and their friends try to run a female candidate in an election.
Do you have a favorite steam era book, film or TV series? Does it pass this simple test? Please comment below!
(I will be expanding this article to explore what it means to be a “strong” female character for my upcoming nonfiction book, The Steampunk Handbook)
Want to read about more ways to “Punk Your Steam?” Check out my page for links to parts 1-5.