The Bechdel Test is a simple way to evaluate whether a story excludes women:
1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
I first learned about the Bechdel Test at feministfrequency.com. It’s based on Mo’s Movie Rule (from Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For - I used to read this a lot as an undergrad, so I’m surprised I hadn’t heard it earlier, but this particular strip was a little before my time, I s’pose). It’s meant for movies, but it’s just as useful for other storytelling forms.
Traditional fantasy has a hard time with this… off the top of my head, I’m fairly certain that Lord of the Rings fails in both book and movie forms, and I don’t even think Ursula LeGuin managed to get past the second criterion for the first book of Earthsea.
Try for a moment to think of a story in sci fi/fantasy that would fail the inverse of the Bechdel Test. Oh sure, there may be a few one-man shows, but they probably don’t have more than one woman, either. In LOTR we got nine in the main party, and though we don’t hear much about it, we can be fairly sure they all had penises.
Which brings me to one of my newest favorite writers, Patrick Rothfuss. I love the wordcraft, the attitude, the rich universe and perfect pacing of the The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. I expect I will be re-reading these a couple times before the conclusion to The Kingkiller Chronicle debuts. But…
But many of the female characters (Denna, Devi, Auri) seem to be variations on a theme. And they almost never talk to one another. When they do, it’s about Kvothe. Admittedly, the majority of the book is from his first-person point-of-view, so why would Kvothe be aware of situations where there are two women talking about something other than him? Plus, a lot of it is set in a school with a skewed sex ratio. Once he gets to Ademre, things improve gender-balance-wise, though I think most of the conversations the women of Ademre have are about Kvothe. But still, we’re at least 1,400 pages in by then.
Don’t get me wrong. You should read these books. Do it now. They’re wonderful. You won’t regret it. But remember you’ll be in Y-chromosome territory for a long part of the journey.