Character or Cardboard?

Media and texts today might be better at their representation of women, but not all fictional content has posed women as active participants in their stories. But never fear, lovers of feminist and/or non-misogynistic texts! There is an easy way to test whether a film or another form of fiction has an active female presence and that is the Bechdel Test. First making an appearance in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, the test “gives films a pass or fail rating based on three linked criteria: “One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man” (Selisker 505). While passing the Bechdel Test does not mean for certain that the fictional content represents females well, the test certainly draws attention to the gender inequality that is in fiction.

Scott Selisker, Associate Professor of The University of Arizona, takes his interest in the representation of contemporary fiction and how it is reflected in social networks and goes a step further in his article, “The Bechdel Test and the Social Form of Character Networks”. The central purpose of his entire article is to “sketch out a pragmatic approach to the politics of networked agency within literary and social forms” through placing the Bechdel Test, and the networks that comes with it, within the feminist conversation about the agency of women (506).

After building the stage by introducing the Bechdel Test and summarizing its history of being used on popular media, Selisker divides his article into three sections. The first section focuses mainly on the role that networking technologies have on shaping and defining “literary strategies” when making detailed maps of the social world (507). Here, he brings in other scholars who are involved in this conversation. From the many discussion, Selisker takes interest in Latour’s “mediators” and “intermediaries” – the active and passive functions of the network, respectively – mostly because of how it perfectly defines the ‘traditional’ roles that women play in fiction, which is to play the passive conduits for the desires of others, namely, men (510). In the second section, Selisker talks about the results that other scholars who noticed the treatment of female characters in popular media. Not only are female characters rendered as supports for the development of their male counterparts, many notice, but there is also an “asymmetry” between the female homosocial and homosexual relationships and the male homosocial and homosexual relationships. Selisker, in his final section, brings networking theory and the agency (or the lack thereof) of the female characters in films and texts together with the Bechdel Test. He closes his article with the idea that, instead of replacing people with networks, the test can be used to see how the social world “both enable and constrain subjects’ development and actions” (519).

In order to support and flesh out his argument, Selisker brings in many other scholars and the way they used the Bechtel Test. He clearly explains and gives context to his sources as his readers’ clarity in the other studies also contributes to their understanding in the point that he tries to make in this article. Ranging from Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory to Anita Sarkeesian and her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, Selisker offers a variety of scholars who have either noticed the same pattern that he brings up in his article or have interacted with the same theories that he is trying to bring into conversation. Selisker also brings in a familiar face: Franco Moretti. Frequently referencing Moretti’s article, “Network Theory, Plot Analysis,” Selisker draws connections between his interests in network analysis being used in relationships between characters. He also makes the idea his own by bringing it into his interest in the representation of women in fiction and their relationships with other women. While many of the points Selisker raises is not new information within the sphere of feminism, the perspective that he raises is an interesting one. He also acknowledges that he is tackling an old and repetitive conversation. And yet, he also believes that his approach is not only a fresh angle, but also a potential path for more discussions.

“The Bechdel Test and the Social Form of Character Networks” is a weaving of many works, conversations, and ideas to prove a point. Even if I did not end up agreeing with his claims, I believe that Selisker has introduced many new scholars and ideas. With the Bechdel Test and the discussion about the agency of women and minorities in films, I have a familiar ground to stand on as I try to look at the same old conversation through a different lens. I certainly walked away from the article knowing more.

Works Cited

Franco, Moretti. “Network Theory, Plot Analysis.” Stanford Literary Lab, Pamphlet 2 (2011).

Selisker, Scott, “The Bechdel Test and the Social Form of Character Networks.” New Literary History 46.3 (2015).

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