This week's Friday Five is from Cecily Kane, who blogs at Manic Pixie Dream Worlds. We talk about te Bechdel Test for film all the time, but how's it work for books? And, more importantly, what books are out there that pass with flying colours? As always, please add your own reading recommendations in the comments!
It's shocking how little of our entertainment passes it. Even novels marketed to women, which you would think would do better, often pose their female protagonists in terms of their relationship to a man: The ____'s Wife,The ____'s Daughter. In our media we are bombarded with messages of how women allegedly hate each other; women both real and imaginary are far more frequently portrayed as rivals than as collaborators. This isn't the way most real women lead their lives, at least most of the time. Nonetheless, these are the models that we are most often shown: women competing over a man or occasionally joining together to aid the journey of a man. When, that is, female characters interact with each other at all.
I like fiction that subverts this model. Just passing the Bechdel test isn't enough, or shouldn't be; as nerds, surely we can aim for at least a B minus. These five books go the extra mile to ace the test. Each has a female protagonist who talks to a cast of mostly female characters, frequently about things that aren't men.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (2014)
This retelling of The Brothers' Grimm "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" envisions the dozen sisters as flappers in Prohibition-era New York City. Kept cloistered by a domineering father who can't wait to marry them off, the young women seek secret refuge in downtown dance halls. Saucy Louise, comical Doris, demure Ella, and responsible Jo -- or "the General" as the rest call her -- shepherd the rest of the girls during their clandestine nocturnal outings and seek better lives for them all. Valentine takes a fairy tale in which women are bartered and imprisoned, and liberates it.
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith (1992)
In Griffith's debut novel, anthropologist Marghe is sent to determine what happened on a planetary colony in which a virus killed the entire male population centuries ago. Being isolated from the rest of human civilization, the inhabitants of planet Jeep created new societal structures and forms of trade... and somehow, they're still making babies. Marghe must unravel the mysteries of Jeep before time runs out, and decide -- along with the rest of her new world -- whether to change.
The Secrets of Jin-Shei by Alma Alexander (2004)
Jin-Shei is a language known only by women and passed down from mother to daughter; it's also an unbreakable bond. To choose a Jin-Shei sister is to forsake all other loyalties if one is called on that oath. A poet, an alchemist, a warrior, a healer -- all will be imperiled by their promise to an empress desperate to achieve immortality. This lyrical secondary world fantasy showcases the bonds between women and all the sacrifice and joy they can bring.
Protagonist Julienne's life has changed since she discovered her aunts are a rebellious pair of demigods from Chinese mythology. A mortal who must navigate the world of immortals, Julienne is drawn into the quest to free a captured snake-woman as Chang'e and Houyi struggle to learn how to be good aunties to their orphaned niece. This mythic urban fantasy is an adventuresome romp through otherworldly cities both holy and demonic and explores different kinds of relationships between women: friendly, romantic, and filial.
The Other Half of the Sky edited by Athena Andreadis and Kay T. Holt (2013)
This anthology of space opera stories features entirely female protagonists, from commanders and refugees to pilots and A.I. Some stories are deeply emotionally resonant and some are explorations of ideas; many are both. This original home of Aliette de Bodard's Nebula winner "The Waiting Stars" is wholly inventive in the myriad ways it shows how science can transform civilization -- when, that is, women are allowed to lead it.