Impassive Voice

From a previous post:

I’m not a fan of the Bechdel test, so here’s my test: could you randomize the genders of the cast without losing any important story aspects? If so, why didn’t you?

A friend commented on this, saying surely “if the gender of the cast doesn’t matter, why bother doing that?” Taken at face value, the question of “why” versus “why not” yields a simple impasse. This is my attempt at unraveling that question.

A brief elaboration on my test. I’m not saying most works of fiction should use randomly-gendered casts. That wouldn’t work, for the most part. Instead it’s intended to make you think about which characters need to be the gender they’re written as, and which ones have just been thoughtlessly taken as a given, like those riddles about surgeons and patients.

So it’s not really a question of bothering to randomize the cast, because that’s not the aim. It’s about getting people to articulate why their work of fiction is the way it is, rather than one of the vast array of other ways it could be. The actual complaint that begins the conversation is essentially “I would have liked to have seen more X in Y.” I mean, the following is obvious:

Equitus: I didn’t like how there weren’t any Aggies in that show.
Frierik: Does it matter whether someone’s Aggish or Bikkin?
Equitus: Yes, but I agree that it shouldn’t.
Frierik: Then why change the show?
Equitus: Because I’d like it more? I mean, I literally just said that.

At this point it may be tempting for Frierik to take the line:

Frierik: Why should they care what you like? It’s their show.

This would be foolish. It’s part of the conceit of our hypothetical that randomizing the AB-orientation of the cast doesn’t affect the show in any serious way. Therefore Equitus can have a preference for an evenly-split cast and that’s fine. If the producers want to have Equitus like their show, they should indeed randomly or otherwise non-lazily choose which characters are Aggish vs Bikkin. Therefore my recommended line for Frierik is actually something like this, bizarre as it may initially seem:

Frierik: But I prefer shows with a mostly-Bikkip or mostly-Aggish cast. Having both makes me consider additional AxB dynamics that complicate things unnecessarily for me.
Equitus: That’s understandable. We’ll just have to put up with a certain amount of automatic dislike for each others’ preferred content.
Frierik: That doesn’t sound too awful.

In short, my test is designed to identify the special case where a work genunely has no reason to have a cast of the genders that it has. Either a work has a reason, or it has none. It it has none, then there actually is no reason not to randomize the cast’s genders, and there may or may not be good reasons to do so. In the absence of any resistance from reasons not to, even the slight force of “I want it to” is enough to make a criticism out of it.

But on the other hand, if it has a reason, then it’s a somewhat more interesting matter. The question becomes considerably more complicated in more realistic circumstances where changing characters’ arbitrary characteristics would actually change the work in a significant fashion, and this is the reigning paradigm; i.e. all interesting cases are ones where the answers to the test are “not really” and “because…”.

Interesting cases should generally be taken on their own merits as circumstances demand. I don’t think anyone has to defend their preferences; people like what people like. There’s not actually any such thing as Liking Things Wrong. So even if there’s a really good reason for having a certain cast structure, you’re still welcome to dislike it. And even if there’s no good reason, you’re still welcome to like it. Liking things is good.

Impassive Voice

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