- Introduction:Who’s Afraid of the Inhuman Woolf?
“‘More than anything, artists are men [sic] who want to become inhuman.’”—Apollinaire1
It runs like this: first, a film has to contain two female characters; second, they have to talk to one other; third: they have to talk about something besides a man.
Who today hasn’t heard of the Bechdel test? Having gone viral, it increasingly serves as a litmus test in class discussion for marking outsized gender bias in texts. The test provides a handy algorithm, generating a consistent output: a fundamental feminist insight that far too many texts do not contain women who talk about anything besides a man. A lot might be said about the particular 1985 comic strip that provided its inspiration, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For.2 Consider, for instance, whether the original strip, “The Rule,” passes the test. Two female characters are talking—not about an absent male character per se—but about absent male character as an intrinsic issue of form, the ubiquity of movies defined by hyperbolically oversized male barbarians, vigilantes, mercenaries, and so forth. “The last movie I was able to see,” says one character, “was Alien [in which] the two women … talk to each other about the monster.” [End Page 491]
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The idea that Alien is suitable substitute matter for female intersubjective entanglement is inevitably ironic, right?3 Concerning Alien, it’s the navigator (Veronica Cartwright), talking to the warrant officer (Sigourney Weaver) and anyone else who’ll listen, who offers the best advice of all: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”4
The test is a kind of xenofeminist failsafe, in other words, about representational realism:
Representational realism malfunctions (it isn’t reality);Reality malfunctions (characters aren’t really humans);∴ Let’s get the hell out of here.
Obeying the Rule means going away (from the movies). Ironically, as the film Alien shows well, space travel means much the same (going away from everything else). Humans are wrong-sized for space travel, after all, both in terms of their need to talk to one another (in space, no one can hear you talk) and their undersized lifespans. For these reasons, hyperspace is the favorite deus ex machina for representing interstellar life. Going away from things is, in a sense, a realistic creaturely and material standard for Earth and everywhere else. As Nina Power observes in One-Dimensional Woman, the Bechdel test suggests further questions about the presumed correlation between realism and reality:
Does cinema/literature have a duty to representation such that it is duty bound to include such scenes, as opposed to pursuing its own set of agendas? Why should literature/cinema be “realistic” when it could be whatever it wants to be?
Does reality itself pass the test? How much of the time? Can we “blame” films/TV for that?5
[End Page 492]
Perhaps we ought to defer to the navigator: Let’s get the hell out of here. This request isn’t about escaping gender as a failed hermeneutic code but instead about intersectional repositioning for inhuman scales—gauging, for instance, the monstrous operations of representational sexism and other systematic defects of so-called realistic realism beyond the individual (the individual response to the individual scene in the individual movie).
A variety of this pathos of scale may be found in another critical zone wrong-sized for observing humans (characters, authors, readers) from the start, that is, modernism. It turns out, Bechdel revealed in a recent interview, the idea for the Rule came from a prized modernist source.6 It originates in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in the scene in which Woolf describes an imaginary book and a statement that interests her about two of its characters: “Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a laboratory together.”7 In addition to the necessary call for more representation—and more “realistic” representations—of women as subjects, Woolf seems to point in these lines at something besides (or, outside) representative subjectivity—to possible modes of...