Do videogames need their own version of the Bechdel test?

Virginia Woolf wrote that the most striking sentence she read in literature was "Chloe liked Olivia". In games, what would the equivalent be?

The Bechdel Test, proposed by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, is a pretty simple way of looking at female representation in films and television. In the strip, a character says she has three criteria to judge whether she will watch a film:

1. It has to have at least two women in it,

2. who talk to each other,

3. about something besides a man.

Earlier on Twitter, I saw a suggestion for an updating of the test to videogames:

Bartley has previously explored the idea in a blogpost, where she considers other possibilities for a videogames test. Should we look at the point of view - how many games allow you to play as a female character? Or should we look at what roles there are for women in games (Bartley says that she included the second two criteria because female characters are often a "helpless princess" or "object of desire")?

Games writer Laura Kate Dale also proposed an update:

Both of these are interesting starting points, although neither quite captures the spirit of the original - that "click" when you realise that in TV and films, the main character is usually male, and usually at the centre of a web of relationships with him. Women don't get to be at the centre of the web very often, and so end up being mothers, daughters, sisters, love interests. The idea that women might have an independent existence is still utterly alien.

Nonetheless, I wondered idly which of last year's bestselling games would past the two tests proposed above.

1. Hahahahahahaha. Although I suppose that Franklin's aunt and her friend talk about their exercise regime a fair bit. And there was a woman in the ads - in a bikini, sucking a lollipop. Empowerment.

2. This is Call Of Duty: Ghosts, in case the deeply generic palette and scenario confused you. It is, unsurprisingly, something of a man's world.

3. I haven't played Fifa, but I'm guessing there probably aren't that many female characters in it. Just guessing.

In fairness, things aren't so manly all the way down the rest of the top ten list (Pokemon X&Y; Assassin's Creed Black Flag; The Last of Us; Animal Crossing New Leaf; Tomb Raider; Monster Hunter IV; Bioshock Infinite) although I'm racking my brains for a conversation between Elizabeth and Daisy Fitzroy in Bioshock Infinite, or indeed Elizabeth and any other woman. Unsurprisingly, Tomb Raider does well on whatever measure you use: the new Lara Croft is a dab hand with a bow, and there are other female characters on the expedition with her. 

One of the problems with applying the test to games is that they are so diverse: the medium takes in Solitaire (a hotbed of misogyny, obviously - why is the King worth more than the Queen, eh?) and Candy Crush (riven with stereotypes about sweets, not to mention fat-shaming)*. Some games don't have characters at all; others have non-humans (although, from the voice actors used, I think all the dragons in Skyrim are male; no wonder they died out).

For me, the perfect games Bechdel test would go some way towards capturing the spirit of the original by being about relationships between women. It won't be relevant for lots of games, both indie and commercial, and that's fine. But there are enough games now with well developed characters, storylines and dialogues for the right test to say something meaningful. 

Bechdel has recently written that she believes the idea originally came from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, where the author registers surprise at reading the sentence "Chloe liked Olivia". 

“Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so! As it is, I thought, letting my mind, I am afraid, wander a little from Life’s Adventure, the whole thing is simplified, conventionalised, if one dared say it, absurdly. Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more.

But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in Diana of the Crossways. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men…

Also, I continued, looking down at the page again, it is becoming evident that women, like men, have other interests besides the perennial interests of domesticity. “Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a laboratory together…” I read on and discovered that these two young women were engaged in mincing liver, which is, it seems, a cure for pernicious anaemia: although one of them was married and had—I think I am right in stating—two small children. Now all that, of course, has had to be left out, and thus the splendid portrait of the fictitious woman is much too simple and much too monotonous. Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them: how literature would suffer!”

This focus on relationships between women is vital, because a rising number of female roles doesn't necessarily equate to better female roles. (I wrote about this in relation to Star Trek here: give me an impulsive female spaceship captain and her coldly analytical female first officer!) Recently, I've been watching Elementary, the CBS version of the Sherlock Holmes story, where Holmes is played by Johnny Lee Miller and Dr Joan Watson by Lucy Liu. 

Liu's Dr Watson is a former surgeon, who lost a patient, and then her medical licence. She now works as a "sober companion", and is assigned to look after the recovering heroin addict Holmes. At the end of the first series, she has a properly crackling interaction with a female villain, who is trying to do the whole Black Widow vamp thing (complete with updo and killer stilettos) and allude darkly to how she could kiiiiill her in a crowded restaurant. And Watson just looks at her, unimpressed. Yeah, whatever. Course you could. Is that the dessert menu?

It's an interaction that wouldn't have the same fizz if the two characters weren't both female. More than that, Watson's deep loyalty to Holmes feels fresh because she's his friend . . . not her prospective boyfriend, or her unrequited love. Just her friend. (Seriously, there is less sexual tension between them than between Cumberbatch and Freeman in the BBC's version. After the Bones Hook-Up That Shall Not Be Mentioned, that's bizarrely refreshing.)

So, anyway, that's what I want from a Videogames Bechdel Test. A sense of women with independent lives, talking to other women. Maybe then shooting them in the face, or running away from zombie hordes hand in hand. Or just even keeping a really, really well maintained vegetable plot together.

How many games out now would pass that kind of test? 

 

 

* I am really looking forward to angry comments from people who don't get that this is a joke.

Fan art imagining Team Fortress, with women.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Getty
Show Hide image

Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.