Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
In 1985, comic artist Alison Bechdel did a strip called “The Rule” in which she laid down the criteria for an informal examination of gender equity in movies. Does a movie have two named female characters? Do they talk to each other? Is their conversation about anything other than a man?
This isn’t to say that what has come to be known as the Bechdel test measures the quality or entertainment value of a movie, but it does make you look differently at the roles of women in films. A surprising number of movies fail the test. I watched Man of Steel recently and it failed pretty well. There are at least two named female characters—Lois Lane, Martha Kent, and maybe a couple of space villains—but they don’t talk to each other, as far as I remember. And if they did, it was almost certainly about Superman. But who can blame them? What else would people talk about if there were a person like Superman in the world?
But let’s get away from movies. If there were a similar test for literature, what would the criteria be? The number of named female characters would certainly be among them. Perhaps one would have to ask whether any of those characters receive a point-of-view treatment? Even with the POV, we might have to remove Jane Austen from the equation if we require that the women talk about things other than men. I’m exaggerating, of course. Emma, ever the matchmaker, loves to discuss other women and the men they might be suited for. I’m joking, of course. I don’t mean to be flippant on the subject. Let’s just look at a few books with POVs dedicated to women.
Lauren Buekes is the author of three excellent but disparate novels, all featuring well-drawn female protagonists. Her first novel, Moxyland, is set in a future vision of Cape Town, South Africa that recalls the decaying urban vistas of cyberpunk, infusing it with a hard-to-define quality that might be called “zef,” a word popularized by the rap-rave group Die Antwoord that encompasses an underdog South African style—an in-your-face patchwork of the apocalyptic debris scattered globally in the wake of the digital media explosion.
The story revolves around four characters, each of whom narrates their own POV chapters. Kendra is a young, up-and-coming photographer who has accepted corporate sponsorship to be a brand ambassador for Ghost, a sort of sport drink that interacts with the nanotechnology injected into her by the same company to enhance Kendra’s physical and cognitive abilities. Not too bad, right? Well, she is “branded” with a tattoo to identify her as a Ghost girl and she’s also addicted to the drink. The lengths artists will go for their art is perhaps more extreme when one considers Van Goghs ear, but it seems very prescient if the Coachella sponsorships are indeed a thing.
Another female POV in the narrative is Lerato, a young upwardly mobile corporate employee, living comfortably in beach-side corporate housing. Lerato’s situation stands in sharp contrast to much of the impoverished population of Moxyland. But she is smart, skilled, and self-made.
Zoo City, Buekes’s second novel, veers into the realm of urban fantasy, but it retains much of the riotous style that makes Moxyland so much fun. Zinzi December, the main character of the book, is “animalled” with Sloth, a ginned-up animal familiar that is a manifestation of her past culpabilities. As Zinzi says of the animalled early in the book, “we’re all criminals. Murderers, rapists, junkies. Scum of the earth. . . . nothing says guilty like a spirit critter at your side.”
The plot of the book revolves around a missing persons case that Zinzi, with her supernatural ability to find lost things, is forced into accepting. She’s really a great character with a lot of depth and complexity. Zinzi is exactly what you want from an urban fantasy heroine.
The Shining Girls is Ms. Beukes latest, and perhaps best-known novel and it goes in yet another direction, that of the time-travel thriller. Enter Kirby Mazrachi, a girl shining with potential for a great and meaningful life, and Harper Curtis, a time-traveling serial killer dedicated to killing all such young women.
After Kirby survives an attempt on her life by the thoroughly vile Curtis, she sets about stopping him. Jumping back and forth trough time, the narrative is a dizzying journey through history. With that journey, Ms. Beukes is able to illustrate an interesting picture of the women who occupy those times, but with Kirby she has hit on a “chosen one” who is refreshingly different from the boy-destined-for-greatness heroes to whom we are so accustomed.
These are three entirely different books from one author, but they all depict engaging female protagonists with unique approaches to the worlds they occupy. And because each novel has a style all it’s own, each offers a different and unique reading experience, especially with respect to other novels that nominally share the subgenre. Cyberpunk, urban fantasy, time travel, Beukes is a writer with several different looks. And if anyone ever sets up an acid test for gender equity in literature (we’ll reserve the Bechdel test for movies), I’m sure Lauren Beukes will pass it with flying colors.
Maybe you have some ideas on what such a test might look like? Maybe you think the idea is ridiculous. I’d love to read about it in the comments.