Jane Austen and the Reverse Bechdel Test

Jane-Austen-portrait-victorian-engravingHey everyone. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I have to start my Women’s History Month post with a fact that is technically about men. In all of Jane Austen’s books, there is never a scene of men alone, talking to each other. There are men, of course, in her books, and they do talk to each other on occasion, but always in mixed company, with men and women present. It’s not a perfect reverse Bechdel test fail, where two men don’t talk to each other about something other than a woman, but it’s close. Austen, of course, being a proper Regency-era lady would never have been able to witness men talking to each other without any women around, and being the brilliant author that she was, she wouldn’t settle for secondary resources illuminating the matter.

No, she made her books about women and their lives. The men could be there but they couldn’t expect any solo time on screen. This is a gross over-generalization, but the men were mostly there for the women to coyly flirt with and consider marrying. This, I think, is why Austen could be a very important educational tool for dudes  during Women’s History Month.

If you have a Y chromosome, here’s a fun little sympathetic exercise you could do next time you’re wondering why women  complain so much about Women’s Rights when they’re obviously totally fine today. I bet some of you dudes might already have experienced reading Austen in high school or for some literature class. Unless you’re an unusually intense English-lit nerd, it was probably an unpleasant experience. Sure, lit classes specialize in ruining old books for readers by forcing the classic down the student’s throat, but with Austen, there’s usually a different complaint. “Ew. It’s all about a bunch of chicks, just talking about what dudes they’re gonna marry. Boring!” Yeah, Regency-era  marriage politics were never my favorite part of Austen books either, but this illustrates an interesting point. It’s a point that you could illustrate with just about any type of chick-lit, but I want to show here with something that has more substance and staying power than that.

See, guys, how boring it is when the only men that are around are introduced for the sake of a love interest with the main protagonists? Really boring, isn’t it? Really, even an Austen book has a more male presence in it than the average movie has a female presence, so you’re not even experiencing the worst possible time here in this bizarro flipped universe that is Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or Persuasion. People can go on and on about the brilliant themes and character arcs Austen has in her books, but it just doesn’t feel like written for you dudes at all, so it’s really all so boring. How do women, (and people of color for that matter too,) deal with this stuff everyday? Well, women have managed, for quite a while now, with the help of society telling us our stories or less important and less interesting. So yeah, we’re doing great guys, no worries, (she says, before breathing in and out of a paper bag with Gloria Steinem’s face printed on it for a couple minutes.)

Women  find it notably easier to identify with male characters because that’s mostly all they’ve been given in any sort of story; books, movies, television, etc. Sure, books have a way better rate of female representation on average because, according to statistics, women read slightly more than men, but I’m bringing up the Austen of it all to illustrate a point. Literature, not just books but fine literature and books considered good enough to one day end up in that classy Western literary canon, is a field dominated by male authors and male characters. Sure, we’ve been given tastes of well written female characters in literary classics, and a smattering of female authors strong enough to be included in the literary canon, but with a vast and imbalanced history, women still have a seemingly impossible amount of catching up with the men folk if something like an equilibrium is to be reached.

Okay, so we’ve got a long road to go, still, when it comes to women being represented in literature, as characters and as writers. In the mean time, let’s try to actually celebrate Women’s History Month, not just by posting encouraging hashtags and reblogging posts about inspiring Women’s Rights activists, but by reminding people why we need this stuff. We may no longer live in a world where I need to plot out husbands and marriages in lieu of careers, but we do live in a world where not enough people realize that representing women isn’t as easy as putting a pink bow on one character or making kids read one incredibly talented Regency-era romance novelist in school. We can change that, one Reverse Bechdel test experience at a time.


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