Does Mormonism need its own version of the Bechdel Test?

I had the following thought recently: does Mormonism need its own version of the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel test (to quote from the BoingBoing post linked to above)…

asks three questions: 1. Are there two or more women in it that have names? 2. Do they talk to each other? 3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

I bring this up because, to be frank, I’m tired of the same stuff coming up again and again in both cultural products and news commentary that involve Mormonism, especially when it ignores the realities and complexities of modern Mormonism. Almost of it flattens us a people and elides vast parts of our beliefs, socio-cultural practices and history. Actually, let’s ignore the news commentary — that’s probably a separate list of tropes that should be put together (and that list starts with magic underwear and the Mountain Meadows Massacre). The same is true of some of the cultural references; however, where there are actual Mormon characters in narrative art, there needs to be some sort of way to evaluate how they are being deployed (or not-so-much deployed).

I don’t think we can formulate this quite like the Bechdel test. Almost every work of narrative art has women in it; most don’t have Mormons. So perhaps it’s something more like: Do the Mormons have names? Do they get to talk at all? When they talk or are talked about is it about something other than Mormonism? If it is about Mormonism, does it go beyond the tired tropes? Are the Mormons being used as stand ins for generic cultural conservatism? This all lacks the snap of the Bechdel test which is devestatingly awesome in its simplicity so help me out here. What would you suggest?

I also want to be clear that this not a call for Mormon apologetics in culture. Not every use of Mormonism needs to be positive or thorough or even super-nuanced. Certainly it’s valid for writers to use Mormons as a type of cultural shorthand in some cases. But by the same token, creators of Mormon narrative art should be attuned to how they’re doing it. The Bechdel test is an effective piece of criticism. Perhaps Mormons need their own version.

Oh, and I propose we call it the Pratt Test in honor of Orson Parley P. Pratt who vigorously defended Mormonism by emphasizing its unique doctrines (and yes, there’s a bit of a mean pun there, which is fully intentional [as in those who fail the test are…]. Hmmm. So maybe that’s not the best idea. Maybe call it instead the Orson test in reference to Orson Pratt, Orson F. Whitney and Orson Scott Card).

12/4/2011: edited to reflect the fact that it was Parley — not Orson that I was thinking of. Although Orson also did write several defenses of Mormon doctrine.

15 thoughts on “Does Mormonism need its own version of the Bechdel Test?”

  1. Wm, I’m 3/4s of the way through Givens & Grow’s new biography of Parley P. Pratt — and, FWIW, they credit Parley for first emphasizing Mormonism’s unique doctrines.

    But I kind of like the Pratt test.

  2. How about this:

    If the work has a Mormon character, does the character avoid falling into stereotypes X, Y, or Z? (I’m not sure what the most egregious Mormon stereotypes are, off the top of my head.)

    We’d probably need another test for works that have multiple Mormon characters, yet are still problematic. (E.g., Miss Misery.)

    Also, I’m reminded of something Brandon Sanderson said about avoiding stereotypes in portraying fantasy races and cultures. He said that if you have only one member of a race in your story (e.g., Gimli in LoTR), it’s too easy to turn them into a stereotype of everything that is supposed to be native to that culture. Consequently, if he has to put only one member of a race in a book, he deliberately tried to make that person break stereotypes and be something of an outsider in their own culture. (E.g., Galladon in Elantris.) Since his other characters can then comment on how different this person is from their expectations,
    I suppose this effectively gives him two members of that race to work with: the character in his story and the mental stereotype of a member of that race that all of the other characters have.

    Bringing this back around to Mormons, it would seem that writing Mormon characters who deliberately break one or more stereotypes (e.g., the black Mormon doctor in House) would be a quick and dirty way of avoiding at least some of the major pitfalls. (Of course, writing a Mormon who breaks every Mormon stereotype is probably its own stereotype. And maybe writers have a more of responsibility to not take shortcuts when they’re writing about a real group of people.)

  3. 1. Are there two or more Mormons in the story that have names that aren’t Smith, Young, Heber, Orson, bibilical, or faux-Amish?

    2. Is the floor of their automobile/batmobile/space ship covered in half-gummed Cheerios and old church bulletins and tithing slips?

    3. Do they disappear from the story on the last day of the month to do their home/visiting teaching?

  4. Seriously, though. A legimate Bechdel Test question might run along the lines of:

    1. If depicted as a practicing (active member) Mormon, does the Mormon character act/speak/think in such a manner as to reflect an active belief in a Divine Power who operates in the here-and-now?

    2. Does the character do so in a manner/phraseology consistant with real-life Mormons (taking into consideration era and culture)?

    3. Does the Mormon character display any degree of assimiliation with the larger outside culture, and if so, does it square with #1 and #2?

  5. Did it. See: The Proviso and Magdalene. Of course, one would only know that if one were willing to read them, which the vast majority of Mormons (even the ones who read AMV) would not be.

  6. 1. Is there a Mormon woman in it? Is she single or widowed?

    2. If there are two Mormon women, are they “sister wives” or “sisters in the gospel” or actually siblings?

    3. Do the women convert someone to Mormonism?

  7. 1. Are there two or more Mormons in it that have names? 2. Do they talk to each other? 3. Do those who aren’t Mormon talk to them about things other than Mormonism? 4. Do they talk to each other about something other than Mormonism? 5. If Mormon beliefs and practices are mentioned, are they stereotypical or nuanced and/or within Mormon cultural context? 6. Do the Mormons and how they talk or act seem weird to Mormons?

    These are my own Bechdel Test questions when I read. As an example, I think that The Devils Colony is yes with one and two, no three and four, slightly yes with five and no with six.

  8. Lol, I messed up answering my own last two questions in evaluating The Devils Colony. Number five is not really a yes or no question and I would answer leans toward nuance and context. Number six I would say the answer is Yes, they Mormon characters do seem a bit weird to me, but they are better than most.

  9. I like Jettboy’s questions and I like Lee Allred’s questions for evaluating Mormon lit.

    This is perhaps only tangentially related, but I heard an interview with Dustin Lance Black yesterday on Fresh Air and near the end he talks about his own complicated relationship with Mormonism, and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says it’s not actually the content that struck me. It was more the way he said what he said and his willingness to accept complexity and nuance and paradox within his feelings. If we could just get Mormon characters to embody that kind of complexity, I think we’d be in great shape.

    Here’s the link to the interview. He starts talking about his relationship to Mormonism right around the 25 minute mark. This interview probably deserves it’s own post, such very interesting and important questions in it.

    http://www.npr.org/2011/12/06/143004880/dustin-lance-black-crafting-the-story-of-j-edgar

  10. I want to reiterate that this interview contains some things that are difficult to hear and some things that are most likely offensive (Black has left the Church), but, again, it’s not necessarily the content of what Black is saying (although there IS a lot of value in understanding his point of view, even if you don’t agree with it). For me it is the *way* he says it–that he can talk clearly and eloquently about things are very close to him personally without falling back on cliches (although the part about Baptists and cults is a little cliche) that makes him a good example of balancing the liminal characteristics with the stereotypical characteristics. Does that makes sense?

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