Get to Know: Bechdel-Wallace

I recently read something with the insult, “A girl would do better.” And before that, this same week, I read a scene with a bunch of kids competing, and it was specified, “There is only one girl.” The girl did not have a name, nor was she given any discernible characteristics.

Please, come close. Take my hand. Lean closer. IT IS TWENTY FREAKING FIFTEEN. We are five minutes away from 2016, and we still have writers using girl as an insult and begrudgingly including them in crowd scenes.

Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home and a million other things you should read, first included the test (which she attributes to her friend Liz Wallace) in her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. The test is simple: A movie must have 1. at least two women in it who 2. talk to each other about 3. something other than a man.

The same should go for books, and I shouldn’t even have to say that. I’m shaking my fist in the air right now! Most of you do a great job including all kinds of different humans in your manuscripts. But I do read plenty of “boy YA” (and for the record, I love YA that features boys as MC. Often, I prefer it.) which is about a boy who loves a really flat girl (character-wise…usually she has other non-flat attributes) for no better reason than she smiled at him and is hot. Or the girl is there to be the nag. Or the motherly type. Or the tomboy. It doesn’t really matter how boy-centric your story is, it’s really, really not too much to ask that it has two girls in it who talk to each other about something other than a boy. If you have to force yourself to include two girls, GOOD. DO IT.

If I catch any of your work not passing the Bechdel-Wallace test, you can count on an automatic delete. I just don’t accept any of your excuses. (Obviously there are exceptions based on concept, like Maze Runner, but concept shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not have girls. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.*)


*Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

The Problem with Girls Who Don’t Like Pink

I see a lot of picture books submissions that challenge gender stereotypes by presenting the stereotype and then knocking it down. I am all about knocking down gender (and all other) stereotypes, but there is a problem inherent in this method, which is that in order to knock something down, it has to be set up first. For instance, a typical line might be, “Who says pink is just for girls?”

This is not the only example. It could be about a stay-at-home dad, or a boy who likes dance.  But I will use pink and girls for this case. Within that question, clearly set up to knock down later, lies the statement “pink is just for girls”. And now that idea is planted in the mind of a kid who may never have thought that colors only belong to one gender or another. The only reason to ask that question is to challenge an idea already in place. It gives a reader the chance to say “lots of people” or “I do”, and when they do, we haven’t moved very far.

But, maybe more problematically, it also sets up the reader as though they are breaking from the norm, which can be uncomfortable. The reader is forced to acknowledge that some people think pink is just for girls before considering which side of the equation he or she is on. And there is always the chance that they will side with convention. And that is the opposite intent of a writer who is challenging gender stereotypes. Once these characters are presented as unique or unusual or breaking from the pack, or even brave or bold or daring, the notion that pink isn’t just for girls can be scary. It takes guts to speak against that, and not everyone is willing to pipe up.

The best way to deny stereotypes is to speak as though we have already moved on beyond the stereotype altogether. This way, newer ideas—like all colors being for everyone without it even being a question—sound comfortable and “normal” and not something it takes guts to get away from.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we re-write history.  Old books give a great window into old ways of thinking. When And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding came out, ideas about gay marriage were not where they are today. And so those books made a splash. They paved the way for us today. Now, seeing two dads or moms at school with their kids isn’t unusual, and since it’s a normal thing we see, presenting two dads in a picture book without comment is a modern reflection of our time and a better approach to good storytelling.

So why do we keep publishing picture books about princesses who like to get dirty as though this is a new and novel idea? Girls who like soccer and boys who like to bake are not revolutionary ideas. Free to Be You and Me included “Billy Wants a Doll” in 1972, 43 years ago. It’s much more progressive to assume everyone already knows pink isn’t just for girls, and show some boys in pink doing other kid things, like fishing or competing in a quilt-off. We’ve moved on, and so should our stories.