Navigating the waters of our biased culture


In a recent New Yorker article about actress Anna Faris, Tad Friend cites a test for gender bias in movies. The test, outlined by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip (Bechdel credits her friend Liz Wallace for the original idea), asks three simple questions:

Does a movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man?

I was struck by the simplicity of this test and by its patent validity as a measure of gender bias. As I thought about it some more, it occurred to me how few of the classic works of literature that I teach to my high school freshmen would pass this test: The Odyssey? Nope. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass? Nope. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nope. Romeo and Juliet. Nope.

What’s wrong with me?


For the past two months, I’ve been working my way through War and Peace. I’m about three-fourths of the way through right now, and I’m both exhausted and exhilarated by the experience. Richard Pevear is not exaggerating when he writes the following in the introduction to his and Larissa Volokhonsky’s 2007 translation of the novel:

War and Peace is the most famous and at the same time the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other. Yet if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life forever.

Tolstoy, as a writer, is alive to seemingly everything, from the heights of military and political power to the most ordinary details of everyday life. As Isaac Babel noted, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

Yet even War and Peace passes Bechdel and Wallace’s test only barely. I’ve read 935 pages so far, and I’ve encountered quite a few female characters. Only occasionally have they talked to each other, however. Even rarer are the times when they’ve talked about something other than a man.

What’s wrong with Tolstoy?


Decades after film critic David Denby graduated from Columbia University, he went back to his alma mater and took the Great Books course over again. He wrote a book about the experience. Near the end of the class’s study of The Odyssey, Denby became uneasy with the brutal treatment of the disloyal serving women, who are hanged by Telemachus after he forces them to clear out the corpses of their lovers recently slaughtered by Odysseus.

This brutal execution—which inspired Margaret Atwood to write The Penelopiad, a re-telling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife—is given tacit approval in Homer’s epic. Denby is appalled:

In Homer’s terms, of course, the women belong to Odysseus and Telemachus; the men’s property has been sullied, and as Odysseus’ heir, Telemachus has a right to exact punishment, and that’s that….

O evil patriarchy! I was outraged.

Yet Denby, guided by Professor Edward Tayler, comes to see his outrage in a different light:

A book like the Odyssey can never be simply appropriated by one social view or the other; it’s too complex, it bursts one’s little critique (which in any case is only everyone else’s little critique.) The slaughter of the suitors and the serving girls is a morally disastrous moment in Western literature, but having said that, one also has to say that criticism of the Odyssey on feminist and moral grounds is largely beside the point. It would be hard to say the poem suffers as art from its patriarchal assumptions.

So wait—is Bechdel’s test “beside the point”?

Is there nothing wrong with Homer, or with Tolstoy, or with me?


In the past fifty years or so, more and more intellectual work has been done, both in the academy and outside of it, to lay bare the ways in which our society—our culture, literature, art, politics, religion, even the most mundane details of our everyday lives—are biased in terms of gender, race, sexuality, and class.

One response to that work has been to sneeringly reject it as bleeding-heart claptrap, as whining political correctness.

More sensitive souls have seen the insights of this work and used them to examine their own consciences—or the consciences of the literary works they admire.

No doubt this process has led to some salutary results. Some people may have amended their patterns of sexist, racist, classist, or heterosexist behavior. Others may have come to see their favorite literary works in new and illuminating ways. Consciousness, to one degree or another, may have been raised.

But this type of examination of conscience can also take on a less salutary aspect: a more defensive posture, a desire to absolve.

Scholar Jeffrey B. Ferguson, in an article in the Winter 2011 issue of Dædalus, speaks to this issue when he writes of the post-civil rights period’s “public drama of continuing black anger, the notion of ‘pulling the race card,’ and the seemingly bottomless need from whites for confirmation from blacks that racism no longer exists, or at the very least that they as individuals bear no visible trace of the unspeakable sin.”

On a literary level, I know how this works: Having been challenged at various times about teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that some parents consider racially insensitive, I have labored long and hard and, I like to believe, successfully, to prove that Huck is an anti-racist novel and that Jim is not a racist caricature but instead a moral hero.

And yet, when I think of Bechdel’s test, I realize that such defensive interpretations—both of self and of texts—are also “beside the point.”

It’s just a different point.


When I realized that even War and Peace, a novel so vast, all-encompassing, profound, and moving, presents a seriously diminished portrait of the lives of women, I began to see that the deeper point of Bechdel’s test is not to accuse Homer, or Tolstoy, or me of being sexist.

Instead, the test reminds us that biases like sexism, racism, heterosexism, and classism are the water in which we swim. They pervade our culture. They are our culture, and to such an extent that we sometimes forget about them until someone like Bechdel reminds us.

Instead of seeing sexism—or racism, etc.—as “unspeakable sins” whose taint one must avoid at all costs, maybe it would be healthier to accept that it would be virtually impossible for an individual not to be thus tainted—in other words, to see these sins as not unspeakable but rather common as dirt.

Then, aware of our common dirtiness, we can get down to the business of studying how things get dirty, how dirtiness causes problems, and how, struggle though we may, we can never get ourselves or anything else permanently clean.

  • Alysa

    Highly thought provoking!

  • There is another test. Forget women talking to each other about topics other than men, ask when was the last time you saw a play or read a novel, short story, or watched a film or TV program where a female character wasn’t treatedly violently or killed – often without speaking at all.

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  • B9Bill

    Frank, I like your switch of metaphors from our cultural embryonic waters to the dirt in which we find our living selves. Having just reread the Calypso chapter of Ulysses last night, I came across Bloom’s thoughts about the dirt that cleanses Molly’s bloomers. To take up your and Bloom’s metaphor, I like the idea of accepting dirt as a stage in the cleansing process that will never end as long we care about people and honest community with people.

    I had a similar epiphany about biases about fifteen years ago when I read Judith Fetterley on Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. Fetterley’s objections to Fred Henry and Hemingway’s phallocentricity were so logical and so damn obvious I wondered how I had been so blind to it before. I tried teaching AFTA once more after that critic-guided epiphany, hoping to incorporate my readjusted vision into my teaching, but the novel’s limitations in excluding women’s integrity from its fabric left me wanting a better novel for myself and my students. I haven’t used the novel since.
    This past Congressional session, during the conservative’s posturing over Kagan’s biases, I was most upset at the notion that the current justices such as Scalia and Roberts and Alito were supposedly without bias. Of course they are biased, of course Kagan is biased. We are all of us biased. Your essay states our dilemma well and challenges us all not to pretend that we are not.

  • Thoughtful, well-written article on sexism, racism and other -isms pervade our culture

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  • Earnest

    You just believed that about A Farewell To Arms? Catherine is one of the most subtle and complete women Hemingway ever wrote. In fact, she’s almost not a woman, just as Frederic Henry isn’t a man, when they’re together, they are, instead, “alone against the others” (Ch. 34). They are not fulfilling any traditional gender roles. Fetterley’s combative feminism is hardly unbiased, and Hemingway is an obvious choice of target for the unsubtle feminist critic. Have you ever read “The Garden of Eden”? I would also recommend Harold Bloom’s Modern Critical Views collection on Hemingway.

    You need to revise your concrete viewpoint. I can’t think of a novel where a woman is given more integrity – from Ch. 34 again “the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.”

    Christ man, read the book not the critics, or if you have to read the critics, at least don’t believe them!

  • Beth B

    I think there are two different points here, and one of which you seem to not delve into. The fact is that literary (and cinematic) work does indeed exist across the history of these mediums that portray women as fully developed characters, not subjected to male violence or only present as relating to men. But it is undervalued in the “canon” of academia and therefore not as present, and underfunded and therefore less available for mainstream consumption (because it’s rarely viewed as something that will sell). But women (and men) are not only capable of, but are actively producing such work… just spend some time on blogs, small, local publications, zines, etc. It just needs to rise up to gain wide acceptance in our culture. In other words, let’s not get rid of The Odyssey (or Huck Finn for that matter), but present them within a context of more dynamic work.

  • Anonymous

    Amazing article. You managed to present very clearly some very important ideas. Thanks a lot.
    Is it OK if I translate an excerpt to Spanish, to share it in my gender/feminism blog?

  • It’s unfortunate but understandable if Homer and Tolstoy fail the Bechdel test. What’s really disappointing is that so many movies and books that are released now still fail it. If I didn’t know Bechdel’s comic strip were written in 1985, I’d say it could have been written yesterday.

    This prompts you to ask: “What’s wrong with me?” But wouldn’t it be better to ask how the failure to represent women’s voices in literature affects women? If you are only exposed to works of fiction in which your story is not told, might you not gradually start to feel that you are not important, and that your story is not worth telling? And doesn’t this process of silencing create a loss for the culture as a whole?

  • Hernana

    You were so close to getting it. And then you did not get it.

    Womens presence in media isn’t beside the point. Sure, these great works of literature must be considered in their context, blah blah. Look at books, television and movies today and see how many pass. Passing the Bechdel test isn’t scoring a point for women. It’s barely getting women to the arena.

  • Hernana

    You were so close to getting it. And then you did not get it.

    Womens presence in media isn’t beside the point. Sure, these great works of literature must be considered in their context, blah blah. Look at books, television and movies today and see how many pass. Passing the Bechdel test isn’t scoring a point for women. It’s barely getting women to the arena.

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  • Frank Kovarik

    Thanks, CommanderA. As for translating an excerpt, be my guest!

  • Frank Kovarik

    Hernana–This is precisely what I was trying to get at in the final section of the essay: that the Bechdel test, considered at a deeper level, pushes us beyond a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgment of individual texts (or of individual people) and toward an awareness of how bias of all kinds pervades our cultures and selves.

  • Frank Kovarik

    Those are very good questions, @oneiromantics, and I deeply sympathize with the answers you imply for them.

    As to whether it would be better for my essay to ask how the failure to represent women’s voices in literature affects women, I must say I don’t know. I wrote what I wrote because that’s what I was able to write at the time.

    I didn’t intend this piece to be the end of my thinking about this issue, or the final word in a discussion of it. So I thank you for pushing the conversation forward and reminding me of important avenues for doing so.

  • “I wrote what I wrote because that’s what I was able to write at the time.”

    This is a beautiful explanation, and I think it is often true for many writers. I hope you write more on this. And I hope my questions weren’t overly confrontational. Your piece discusses something that I’ve been grappling with myself. I don’t flatter myself that I have the answers.

    I used to write passionately, but now I have a hard time giving myself permission to write anything. I think, “no one will care what I have to say about this.” I didn’t always tell myself that, and I have to wonder why I do it now. I wonder if I’ve internalized the bias in our culture that you describe. I feel like I’ve lost something important.

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  • Billgeorge9

    Earnest, I have read AFTA–many times. We are all critics, including you.

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  • Anonymous

    not sure i agree with failure as a forgone conclusion, but great article otherwise!

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