Representation matters. This is not a controversial statement, or at least should not be. The famous Bechdel test, which has been applied to all manners of creative work, beginning with movies, stipulates that
- The movie has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something other than a man.
I propose there should be a variant of this test (I am not the first to think of this, of course, though my take is simpler) which adds the word “older” to #1 and “or young people, incl. children” to #3. Why? Think back to when was the last time you have seen an older female protagonist in a book or movie. (I am leaving a lot of leeway here for the term “older” too. Currently, older for me is 40+ but I am sure 50-year-old me would scoff and change that number, as would 70-year-old me, etc.) Now, imagine it is a movie or book with not just one old lonely soul who is perhaps the comforting grandma, the nosey neighbor, the eccentric teacher, the funny unmarried aunt, but instead there are two of them. With names. And they talk to each other. Not about children or how young people don’t blah blah blah [insert finger-wagging old-people cliches here]. Can you think of films or books that do that? If I really sit and think, I can – but they are few and far between, and they are notable because of it.
Some book examples of this that I have lately been purposefully seeking out: Leona Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Elizabeth Moon’s Remnant Population, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, and N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy. Lists of similarly-minded books can be found if searched for, but here are some from four websites: BookRiot 1a, 1b, the Guardian 2, Nature 3, and Tor.com 4. Many of the books don’t completely fulfill the new rules I am proposing above (and they often only feature white cis-gendered women, as well) but they come closer to it, which in our deprived days, is not nothing.
Why this dearth? My take today is that it is largely due to the single-purpose roles we are all variously assigned and Must Not Deviate From. There is an interesting short Diane Keaton interview where, in explaining why she decided to adopt a child at age 50, she says that she “wasn’t propelled to do [it] earlier because, quite frankly, [she] liked being a daughter.” After her father died, she realized she had no choice but to take on a new role. We are told there are these roles for us, ‘to everything… there is a season’, and yes, surely there is to some extent and it is not a bad thing. But there is more to all of us, a multiplicity which too often is ignored. I don’t blame Keaton or anyone for holding tight to a particular role – I also loved being my father’s daughter and, once he died, I felt this un-grounding of who I was and how I viewed myself because of how much that role meant to me. This is also not to say we can’t embrace the changing of our lives and ourselves. I am not who I was and, largely, I am glad for it. But I also don’t want to be boxed in and assigned a role I did not choose or things taken from me that are still very much me.
I have long loved a Lloyd Alexander quote, so much that I used to write it at the beginning of my yearly journal: “Child, child, do you not see? For each of us comes a time when we must be more than what we are.” Recently, I have felt this push to accept, or at least acknowledge the inevitability, the forthcoming of this new role of…what? That is part of the problem. The crone? No – and yet, my reproductive days are over. The mother? Somewhat, though see above, and also, my eldest is sure to be taller than me in the not-so-distant future. The maiden? I am certainly no longer the maiden. So then what am I? This triple goddess imagery is all too familiar, but like so many things, the basic idea of it – that women have all three aspects in them, and are all the more powerful because of it – has been lost in the general culture. I don’t have to be just the mother. Or just the crone. There is power in each role, and the great power of the crone, really, comes from combining them, from insisting on inhabiting all of them in one form, if so wished.
Those are the women I want to see, who I continue to look for, and thrill when I find them. To see the ways I can maybe one day be like them, cohabiting my skin and heart with all the former selves of me wrapped together. So, fellow writers, let us all be “more than we are” and let us write those selves in our stories.