Does Timber Howligan pass the Bechdel test?

I believe in equal opportunity reading. Having both a boy and a girl, I’ve seen some differences in their preferences for certain kinds of stories…they’re gender differences, but is that a bad thing? When my daughter wants to fill her shelves with Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, I don’t make a big deal out of it. I know she equally enjoys Captain Underpants. My son will read anything, including The Princess in Black and Zita the Spacegirl, but he really enjoys Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an all boy story if there ever was one.

It’s all good…as long as they’re reading. Right?

Then, along came the Bechdel Test. According to Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) is a short test that is used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, and to assert that women are under-represented in films due to sexism. It was introduced in Alison Bechdel‘s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Okay, so it turns out the Bechdel test is not new. It’s been around for thirty years. Named after graphic artist Alison Bechdel, the “test” originally appeared in her graphic comic Dykes to Watch Out For. But I’ve heard of it a lot more lately, probably because the only comic I read when I was twelve-years old was Garfield, when I still thought a “dyke” was a large wall in Holland:


As a woman, and as a writer, I get it. I get why the test is important, why we should pay attention to it. The test sounds so simple, yet only about half of Hollywood’s movies pass it, and half of those because the women talk about marriage or babies (source: Wikipedia quoting writer Charles Stross, unverified). I totally agree that we want to give our daughters better models of what it means to be woman.

Then I went and wrote a story where the first female character of note doesn’t show up until half way through the book. Granted, when she does, she’s awesome. She’s a bit haughty, but that has more to do with being a cat than any inherent character flaw. But I’m sad to say that Timber Howligan absolutely flunks the Bechedel test. There are more than two female characters, and they’re all named. But they don’t talk to each other, unless you count a brief interaction between a dog owner and her slobbery companion. (This conversation, for what it’s worth, is not about a man.)

Of course there’s an opposite imbalance in children’s literature: More middle-grade books tend to be aimed at girls, more girls read than boys, especially as they enter their teenage years. There are whole websites devoted just to getting guys reading. Did this influence my decision to write a humorous middle grade action adventure that boys might like? No, I just like writing about secret agent cats. At the same time, the story wouldn’t have felt right without a few girls to balance things.

So it comes back to this: Is a good story a good story, no matter what? I say a cat who fights to save the day, surrounded by his friends—male or female—is totally someone to rally behind. Let’s not pick him apart because he’s got too many guys in his life, or because he’s not an equal opportunity hero. Especially, let’s not assume that girls only like reading “girl” stories or boys like reading “boy” stories.

I like the Bechdel test and the fact that it raises awareness to gender inequality in movies and books. But it’s not the only way, or even the most important way, to judge a book.

(The other way would be by its cover. Don’t you like this cover?)



Rediscovering A Wonderful Book for Young Readers…and Writers

ENMTitle: Emily of New Moon (first of three in the Emily series)
Author: L.M. Montgomery
First Published: 1923
Opening Line: The house in the hollow was “a mile from anywhere”—so Maywood people said.

Plot Summary:

Emily Byrd Starr is orphaned at the age of 11 when her father dies of tuberculosis (“consumption”). Her mother’s people will take her in, of course—the Murray pride demands it—but none of them want her. Lots are drawn, and Emily ends up at New Moon farm with strict Aunt Elizabeth, loving Aunt Laura, and kind Cousin Jimmy.

Emily is miserable at first. Though school is difficult for her—she accidentally writes poetry when ought to be doing sums, and the teacher, like many adults in her life, finds her maturity frustratingly willful—Emily soon makes friends. Her best is the wild and free Ilse Burnsley, whose father barely notices her (Ilse’s mother disappeared mysteriously under no small amount of scandal, and Dr. Burnsely holds all women responsible).

Emily’s hopes, dreams, and disappointments are all keenly and vividly described as she pours her heart out to the page—in long letters to her father, on scraps of paper, on her chalk board at school. At first, writing is her refuge. As she grows to love New Moon—and it becomes clear her heart is generous and full of love, no matter how she may clash with Aunt Elizabeth—she writes not out of need but out of passion. Because she simply must. Even though, as expected, Aunt Elizabeth forbids it.

Despite Aunt Elizabeth’s rule, Emily thrives. She finds allies and friends, even among her Murray relatives. She develops close friendships with not one but three potential love interests, who all are captivated by her slow smile and long lashes. By the end of the book—which takes us not only on a delightful literary journey of adolescent growth, but solves a suspenseful mystery along the way—we are eagerly looking forward to the sequel in order to see who this captivating young girl will become. (And who will she marry?)

Why I STILL Love This Book

This book has so much to offer young readers—especially the young girls who will most be drawn to it. It is marketed as a “YA novel for ages 11 and up.”

By today’s standards, it is quaint. Probably old-fashioned—at New Moon they refuse to use lamps, and still use the giant cauldron from the old country to boil the pigs’ potatoes. But I found it absolutely magical, even thirty years later. So much fades with time–this grew brighter.

It is a book that celebrates the imagination and the written word. The innocence and joy and power of youth—for much of the book, four children entertain themselves by writing, sketching, orating, or putting on a Shakespeare play in Lofty John’s bush. And there is no doubt about it, Emily is destined to be a woman of power. She is surrounded by strong female role models: her mother who defied her family to marry Douglas Starr, Aunt Elizabeth who works so hard to ensure Emily grows up to never do such a thing, and Aunt Laura who co-exists, in her own way with her own peaceful rebellions, side by side with Elizabeth.

And for writers? Revel in this book. Fall in love with the written word the way Emily does. Share in her amazement each time she has “the flash” of inexpressible delight—whether it be from:

the dark boughs against that far-off sky…with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of ‘Holy, holy, holy’ in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a ‘description’ of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.

And above all, write. Fill notebooks until your hands cramp. Hide them from prying eyes. Burn them rather than let them fall into the wrong hands. If you run out of paper, write on the backs of envelopes and magazines. Fight for it the way Emily does:

“Oh, I must write, Aunt Elizabeth…You see, it is this way. It is in me. I can’t help it.” …If Aunt Elizabeth had asked her to give up crocheting lace or making molasses taffy or eating Aunt Laura’s delicious drop cookies, Emily would have done so wholly and cheerfully, though she loved these things. But to give up writing stories—why Aunt Elizabeth might as well have asked her to give up breathing.

I didn’t realize until I re-read this book: Emily of New Moon was the first book on writing I ever owned.

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