It is rare in this world that a work of art reaches out of the ether to touch our shared reality; to change it in a real and meaningful way.
It is almost unbelievable for most of us to imagine that piece of art could be a comic book.
But that is what, amongst many other things, Alison Bechdel has achieved in her lifetime. And, infuriatingly, she doesn’t even like to take credit for it!
Here I speak of the Bechdel Test, or the Bechdel-Wallace Test as the artist prefers it to be known. The test comprises of three simple criteria that identify gender bias within a film. It does not identify a feminist film, or the quality of the film; but goes a long way towards evaluating the target audience of a picture.
It goes something like this, (1) Are there two or more named female characters with dialogue; (2) Do two of those characters speak to each other, and (3) Do they speak about something other than a man.
Unfortunately many films still fail to pass these very basic principles, with little over half of 2016’s most successful movies meeting the mark. However, we’re seeing an annual rise in the number of films that pass, and with unaffiliated groups like the folk at the Bechdel Test Fest taking up the mantle, we hope the test will no longer be on our minds as we watch future summer blockbusters.
This is amazing, I hear you say; or interesting, at the very least. And it is. Not only because this framework came from a single strip of a self-syndicated comic, from a queer artist, working at a time when the mainstream comic industry was oversaturated with spandex-clad muscle-tanks (or the male superheroes of the 80s) and their female counterparts; boobs, legs and potentially some minor concealment.
The comic strip was Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983 to 2008, and attempted to bring the lives of various queer characters (predominantly lesbians) living in an unnamed American town, out of the shadows.
It was an unexpected success, and Bechdel’s strips went on to be syndicated in prestigious publications such as The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Granta.
This triumph was followed by two autobiographical volumes, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) and Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama (2012), which charted Bechdel’s troubled relationship with her closeted father and long-suffering mother, through her sexual awakening and coming out at the age of nineteen.
It is hard to do these volumes justice in such a piece; however they met with outstanding critical success. Fun Home was featured as one of the best books of 2006 by New York Times Magazine, a space usually reserved for non-graphic literature. It picked up an Eisner Award, the comic-book world’s Oscars, a year later, and went a long way towards Bechdel winning a MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant in 2014 for ‘changing our notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form’.
Sean Wilsey describes the novel as ‘A comic book for lovers of words! Bechdel’s rich language and precise images combine to create a lush piece of work — a memoir where concision and detail are melded for maximum, obsessive density.’ And he’s right; the fragile density of the narrative is untangled and re-trussed, over and over, as Bechdel analyses the rich mystery of her life and those closest to her. The two volumes are a pleasure to read, and a heartache to understand.
And maybe the Bechdel Test is the one moment where Alison Bechdel’s achingly beautiful art pushed through the skin of the page and changed the way we collectively look at the world. But her comics will forever contain that potential to reach out and change the way each of us looks at our selves; at our identities and our memories; and those who surround us.