I began to seek the root of my problems with presenting women are protagonists.
There’s a new test circulating on the blogosphere, especially for sci-fi feminists, called the Bechdel Test that asks how many of the female characters for any story are in scenes where they speak to each other. Surprisingly, these scenes are absent even when the women have business together.
Here’s a critique of recent Oscar nominated movies with the Bechdel Test applied.
Throughout literature, men have presented women as objects of interest that must be kept ignorant of each other. Therefore, male writers offer the assumption that each woman is queen of her own island. This idea is as old as the Greek classics. Odysseus while trying to return to his wife Penelope in Ithaca visited many islands ruled by women and was continuously “captured” by them.
Calypso ruled on Ogygia where she kept Odysseus for 10 years, the same length of time he was in Troy. He also met the sea nymph Ino on Scherie, and the witch-goddess Circe on Aeaea where she turned his sailors into animals. And we cannot forget the island of the Sirens. In each case, the woman was blamed for keeping Odysseus from his purpose. And the various queens were unaware of rulers on other islands, apparently unconcerned with treaties or trade pacts or warnings of which sailors to avoid.
The island queens all feared Hera or Athena or Venus, however. Athena sent Mercury to force the release of Odysseus and, through Mercury, chastised Calypso for detaining him, sounding much like a mother-in-law or a Pastor’s wife. The female gods of Olympus spent no time championing the island queens or capitalizing on their strengths (such as location on trade routes) to improve commerce in the Mediterranean.
Odysseus met one woman who had and extended family named Nausicaa, but that adventure was just an excuse to show his legend had grown large in his absence. She was from a ruling family and was waiting for the right match in marriage, so Odysseus couldn’t stay since he was already married.
A modern version of separating the women takes place in Mo’ Better Blues where Denzel Washington was a trumpet player and Spike Lee played a bookie. Washington had two women who troubled him, and many scenes were devoted to keeping the two women unaware of each other.
One night both girls, Clarke and Indigo, show up at the same club (wearing similar dresses) and comedy ensues while the Spike Lee character tries to hustle them out. I wondered again — don’t Clarke and Indigo live in the same neighborhood and share cousins, hairdressers, call trees for the PTA, etc.? And why does each go to the blues club alone? Women go into clubs in packs for safety’s sake.
The queen of her own island is a gender bias phenomenon that is pervasive in modern (and ancient) stories. You will notice the blind spot more often now that its source is identified.