The Bechdel Test: Where two women talk to each other about something other than a man.
In this week’s podcast the conversations regarding the Bechdel Test surprised me a bit and I think we got a bit off track as to whether the conversation between Clara and Emma was probable as opposed to appropriate. As I said, I tend to give Doctor Who a bit of a pass when it comes to this particular gender bias test simply because the companion is our entre to the Doctor and is often the one people turn to for an explanation as to what in the hell is going on with this mad man in a box.
But in this instance, I was bothered and still am. Perhaps it is a generational or social context issue but I still stand by my claim that a woman’s opening gambit in MOST conversations with another woman isn’t who they fancy. Typically, it’s irrelevant and usually the least interesting thing about a person. However, I will concede that it is a probable conversation as my cohosts claim.
The real issue for me is, was it appropriate? Clara and Emma were not sitting in a bar having a bit of girl talk over a glass of Pinot Noir, they were in a haunted house, on a stormy night in 1974, being scared spitless by a ghost. Is that REALLY the most interesting thing that’s going to pop up in conversation? I realize Clara was trying to calm and distract Emma but there were so many other things they could have talked about that didn’t include the ghost or her romantic interests. Do I need to make a list? Because I could.
So let’s tackle this from a storytelling perspective. We already knew that Emma had feelings for the Professor and they were going nowhere. The beautiful scene where Emma reaches for his fingers and he pulls away, hesitating slightly was packed with emotion. We feel Emma’s longing, we know she wants to push the relationship forward and it is Professor Palmer who is pulling back. It makes sense to explore that further but why put the burden on the female character – did Emma tell us anything new in her conversation with Clara? Not at all.
Now flip this to the scene in the dark room where the Doctor is quizzing Professor Palmer. We get all sorts of meaty backstory – a broken man whose war record has been hidden from sight, suffering from near crippling survivors guilt. Sink your teeth into that manpain for it is delicious! How hard would it have been to slip in a question, a half question even: “So, Miss Grayling?” He wouldn’t have even had to answer, Dougray Scott could have just looked at the Doctor with a broken expression, a slight shake of his head and we’d understand he doesn’t feel he deserves love.
But that didn’t happen. We found out all sorts of interesting things about Professor Palmer but all we know about Emma is that she is an Empath In Love. Do you know what makes this sting a little bit more? Emma was the entire purpose of the trip. According to the story being told, she was the most important element and she was merely a tool both in the storytelling and meta sense: she was a tool to open the portal, a tool to move the “romantic” story line along and a tool to read Clara.
So why fuss over one conversation in a story that I otherwise really, really enjoyed? Because it is the type of conversation between women that we’ve become so used to seeing on film we don’t even notice it any more. But it is, overwhelmingly, the type of conversation we ONLY see between women. Watch carefully the next time you see two female characters on screen – what aspect of the plot are they being used to push forward? Is it the emotional or romantic story or is it everything, anything else? Do you want to guess how often the Bechdel test fails? The problem with this casual, insidious gender bias is that it narrows the scope of female characters, reducing them to tools as opposed to fully actualized characters. If there is any place we can shake up these assigned gender roles it should be in science fiction, particularly Doctor Who, where absolutely anything goes. The disappointment is when it goes down all too familiar paths.