by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
Did you know that Bilbo Baggins was a girl?
Neither did I, but it appears that Michelle Nijhuis’ daughter insists on it. In Michelle’s great post, she at first resists her daughter’s remonstrations before finally capitulating…and the result surprises her:
What the hell, it’s just a pronoun. My daughter wants Bilbo to be a girl, so a girl she will be.
And you know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.
The post goes on to explain that female characters are still under-represented in children’s literature, a situation reflected in other story media such as cinema, in which studies have shown a gender imbalance of 2.5 males to 1 female in speaking parts across 500 of the top grossing fictional films of the last decade.
Some might argue that the gender imbalance isn’t as important if the story presents the female character as lead and protagonist. But isn’t there an issue if a female exists isolated in a story, surrounded by males and demonstrating her agency only within a male-dominated world?
This issue is somewhat considered in the Bechdel Test, which gives a movie a pass or fail depending on whether it contains at least two female characters AND those female characters have a conversation amongst themselves AND the conversation is on a subject other than men.
The Bechdel Test aims to identify stories where female characters are simply token gestures or, worse, simple props for the development of their male counterparts. If the Bechdel Test can go some way into identifying the problem, then I think the simplified Bilbo Baggins gender reversal (replacing the male pronoun with the female) is part of the solution. I love this technique, because it enables me to uncover and consider gender assumptions and bias in both reading AND writing. I also like that it effectively deals with the issue of the “strong female” character.
Sophia McDougall caused quite a stir with her insightful article on why she hates strong female characters – it appears she is not alone. There is some great thinking and great responses out there on the internet that a simple google search will uncover (my favourite is from the Librarian who doesn’t say shhh!) and most of them agree with a simple premise – A character who is only strong is still a one-dimensional character.
Female characters and, more particularly, female protagonists, are capable of character traits beyond “strength” (Laura Bogart does a great job of identifying and discussing this in her article on Stephen King’s Carrie). They can be vulnerable, arrogant, undecided, quick-tempered, loyal, exasperating and ambitious. They can be tough, resourceful, humble, funny and wise – just like our female Bilbo Baggins.
WIth all of this in mind, I am setting three tests for the development of my Elementals novel:
1. Is there a realistic gender balance?
2. Does it pass the Bechdel Test?
3. Are ALL of my main characters multi-dimensional and free from gender assumptions and bias?