Monday, October 10, 2011

But do they talk about something other than the man?

Hallie Ephron: The other night I watched back-to-back the original Thin Man movies. Oh, baby, we've come a long way... Poor Myrna Loy got to stand around and looking gorgeous. Occasionally she'd jump up and down and tell Nick that he was "driving me crazy! Who did it?"

It reminded me of the a film rating test that cartoonist Allison Bechdel defined in one of her 1985-era strips "Dykes to Watch Out For."

In it, one of the characters says that she refuses to watch a movie unless it passes this test:
1. It has least two women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something other than a man.

A sub-rule got added:
4. The two women must additionally be named characters.

Recent movies that fail this test include the last Harry Potter movie. The Lincoln Lawyer. The Tree of Life. Water for Elephants. And Mr. Popper's Penguins.

Recent movies that pass? The Help. Bridesmaids. Jane Eyre. And Mean Girls 2.

As I was thinking about this, plenty of famous female duos (that talked to each other and have names) came to mind, and I thought about the stereotypes they echo... nice/mean, chaste/sexy, smart/dumb:

Betty and Veronica
Ginger and Mary Ann
Louise and Thelma
Maude and Vivian
Liz Lemon and Jenna Maroney
Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway

So here's the question. Is it more fun to write a Betty or a Veronica, and do the women in your books talk to each other about something other than a man?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Fun question! Yes, my gals talk. In the Dirty Business series Paula and Babe are yakking all the time. In the WIP, I can't get my female characters to shut up and it's turning into a very different kind of book for me.

Of course they do - maybe in mysteries written by men they don't? (BTW Who are Maude and Vivian?)

HALLIE: You can't be THAT young, Ro. M&V: Bea Arthur (Maude Findlay) and Rue McClanahan (Vivian Harmon) in (drum roll) the TV show Maude. Later together in The Golden Girls.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: SO interesting, huh? Yes, my women definitely talk about something other than men. Even though The Other Woman (!) sounds like it's about men and sex and women-talking-about-men, the women main characters who talk to each other are mostly discussing work, in fact. And dead people. And jockeying for headlines and power. But they are NOT friends. (In this book, at least.) Hmm.

(And just for the record, I'm a Veronica girl. I know. Horrible.)

HALLIE: Hmmm (that growly sound that Marge Simpson makes.) Hank, you only think you're a Veronica girl. Inside you've got some lurking Betty-ness.

RHYS BOWEN: Womens' friendships are important to me and to my stories. My heroine Molly Murphy has best friends who live across the street. They are a rich upper class lesbian couple in Greenwich Village (interestingly I have received hate mail because of this) but they live the kind of life I'd enjoy--full of art, theater, fascinating friends,always trying new things,and deeply into womens' issues. Molly has come to rely on them as a second family.

In my Royal Spyness series Georgie's best friend is naughty girl Belinda and I have to confess that their conversation usually revolves around men and sex--Belinda's not Georgie's--because that's what's important to her.

JAN BROGAN: Well, I think that's not the best litmus test. Especially if Mean Girls II beats Water for Elephants. I don't care so much that there is more than one female character, I care that the female character is a real female and not some sort of male fantasy or view of a woman (John Updike). But I agree, talking all the time about men would be obnoxious.

I'm going to guess that that issue doesn't come up a lot in mysteries. Our protagonists are trying to solve murders first and foremost. My protagonist, Hallie Ahern talks to her friend Carolyn and her female editor mostly about the investigation and work issues. In fact, when she talks about her emotional issues, it's usually with her male friend, Walter.

LUCY BURDETTE: All three of my protagonists have best friends with whom they madly hash things out. Cassie had Laura, who was also her golf caddy, Rebecca had two great friends, Annabelle and Angie--who ate as much as they talked, and the new Hayley Snow has Connie and Eric. Jan is right--they need these friends to process the mystery. But there's always a little man talk too--generally on the subject of why things are going so poorly!

Hank, I think I tended to like Veronica too--maybe it was a brunette thing!

HALLIE: Lucy, a brunette??

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hallie, now I'm going to be thinking about this with every scene I write between two female characters--not a bad thing. Gemma and Melody talk about the cases they're working on, sometimes family, and I can only remember one conversation where Melody told Gemma she should bloody well marry Duncan.

Okay, and maybe there have been a couple of comments about dishy male characters . . . but I'm beginning to wonder if my women don't talk about men ENOUGH.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I have to confess, my books mostly fail the Bechdel test, in part because, for plot and character circumstances, the women in them tend to be emotionally isolated. I agree with Jan that the role of women and their actions in the book or film can mitigate failing the Bechdel test. VI Warshawski or Maisie Dobbs or Lydia Chin aren't just there for window dressing, even if they don't spend time chatting with girlfriends.

Really, I think crime fiction does a great job with this. Just think about the three iconic tough guys we were discussing last week. If anybody could get away with helpless women in distress, it would be Lee Child, Barry Eisler and Steve Berry. Instead, they write strong, smart women who act under their own agency

Contrast that with what you see in movies: the Girl Who Needs Rescuing, The Girl Who is the Love Interest, The Girl Who is There for T&A and what may be the worst of all, The Girl Who is There to Prove the Two Male Leads Aren't Gay for Each Other (even though they are obviously at the emotional center of each others' lives.)

HALLIE: And let's not forget The Girl Who's Makes the Guys Look Strong and Smart.

So readers, Betty or Veronica, and how about some women who talk about something other than the man? It's scary once you start listening for it.


  1. Not being a "normal" child, I didn't care I wasn't allowed to read comic books. But I had to hide the True Detective magazines under my mattress. LOVED today's Jungle Red discussion. And I still love Nora Charles. She was the one with the money. She didn't have to work.

  2. She WAS the one with the money. I'd forgotten that, PJ. Her aunt keeps calling him "Nicholas"reminding him of his Greek background (he changed his unpronounceable last name to Charles when he retired from his job as a PI to manage his wife’s money.)

  3. My mystery (still working on getting it published) has several women of the RAF as characters. They talk about the war, codes, and solving the murders. Men come up in the conversations, but with all the RAF pilots running around, can you blame them?

  4. Love the "The Girl Who Makes the Guys Look Strong and Smart." I picture her cooing (and how the heck do you do that?), "Oh, what big muscles you have! And how did you ever figure out who killed him? I could never do that!" Blush, simper.

    Ick. Give me an emotionally-isolated women over that any day, as long as she doesn't think all her problems can be fixed by finding The Right Man.

    My only memory of The Thin Man (books and movies?) is that everyone drank a lot, all the time. How did anyone have enough brain cells left to solve anything?

  5. Melissa, that sounds fascinating!

    Sheila - love those stage directions: Blush, simper.

    I do think it's all about having a female viewpoint character, easier if you're a woman writer. Some guys can pull it off. With others, it's downright embarrassing to read their female viewpoint character thoughts how handsome/studly great the guy is. Especially in the sack.

  6. Thanks, Hallie.

    On the movies regarding "the Girl Who Needs Rescuing, etc." I thought Twilight would apply to all those, especially "The Girl Who is There to Prove the Two Male Leads Aren't Gay for Each Other." That thought made me giggle.

  7. I love the Thin Man--I think Nora is fantastic--droll and witty.

    Anyone watching Homeland? That certainly passes that test...well, wait. Maybe not. The main character ,a woman, has NO women in her life. At least not in episode one..

    Oh, my captcha word is "coping"

  8. Nora: It says here you were shot six times in the tabloids.

    Nick: Nonsense! He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids!

    No matter how many times I see THE THIN MAN, that line always makes me laugh...:)

  9. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were the screenwriters. They also wrote Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; Father of the Bride; and Easter Parade. And adapted The Diary of Anne Frank for stage and screen. BIG talents.

    The owes far more to witty Noel Coward than Dashiell Hammett (who wrote the novel it's based on).

  10. I have been enjoying The Closer on TV for quite a while. Brenda Lee Johnson talks about many things other than men. Tough as nails and always feminine. My husband is in love with her! Sasscer Hill

  11. I'm a big fan of Closer, too - didn't I read this is her last season? Hearing good things about Prime Suspect (love the hat - reminds me of Kelli Stanley) but haven't seen it yet.

    Then of course there's Kalinda on The Good Wife. TV's always been way ahead of the movies.

  12. OH, I JUST saw that "tabloid" exchange this weekend! What's the rest of it..he was shot in the headlines? Something like that?

    I also love when Nora says she's going to "order a whole flock of sandwiches" from room service.

  13. Here's a little witty repartee -- and with it a preview of tomorrow's blog:

    Nick Charles: Now my friends, if I may propose a little toast. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
    Nora Charles: You give such charming parties, Mr. Charles.
    Nick Charles: Thank you, Mrs. Charles.

    Check in tomorrow and see!

  14. Enjoyed this conversation. Just finished Michael Connelly's Fifth Witness and am happy to say he has five strong women in the story. Two ex-wives, a prosecutor, a fourteen-year-old daughter,and the defendant. The latter is a real piece of work.

    The story is told in first person so we only see women talking to each other when there are at least two of them in the room with protagonist Mickey Haller. But it does happen.

    Great book, I really enjoyed.

    And now back to my WIP!
    Sasscer Hill