Alison Bechdel introduced her readers to 'The Rule' in 1985. Read on for more; click here to see the whole strip and hear the All Things Considered story. Alison Bechdel/Courtesy Firebrand Books
Americans watch an average of five hours of TV a day — but how much of it is actually good? Twenty-three years ago, cartoonist Alison Bechdel had one of her female characters cite a simple rule: She'd only go to see a movie if it had:
1. At least two female characters, who ...
2. talk to each other about...
3. something besides a man.
It became known as The Bechdel Rule. It seemed like such a simple idea -- and it still resonates, because it articulates something often missing in popular culture.
More Bechdel, more rules — yours included — after the jump...
Not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories and the range of their concerns.
Eric Deggans, who covers television for the St. Petersburg Times, says it comes down to who's writing the scripts: There's not a lot of diversity among successful TV writers. As a result, Deggans says, there aren't a lot of fully realized African American characters, and not many conversations between women on a convincing range of topics.
"You're constantly watching TV shows that don't reflect that reality back to you," Deggans says. "You feel a dissonance, you feel you're not connected to the culture."
He points out that a lot of shows with strong female characters don't follow the Bechdel Rule: Sex and the City is about four women, and the whole show is them talking — but they're mostly talking about men. On Grey's Anatomy, the female doctors talk to each other mostly about romantic relationships.
And Deggans points to all the police dramas where the few female characters rarely talk to each other — and when they do, it's about dating. Even The Closer, anchored by the powerhouse performance of Kyra Sedgwick, doesn't follow the Bechdel Rule.
One show that does a great job: The Middleman, on ABC Family. It's a sci-fi show about a heroic crimefighter's temporary assistant. But Wendy Watson, played by Natalie Morales, is also an artist — who talks with her best friend and roommate about art and their careers as well as guys.
"What I liked about it so much is that it was actually real," Morales says. "It was a lot like me and my friends. Teasing my best friend about a band that she likes is something I've done before."
Echoing Morales, Deggans argues that the rules are about finding characters who are in some ways like you, who talk like you talk, who have similar concerns, who remind you of your friends.
He also points out that TV gives us a chance to peer into other people's spaces, other people's lives.
"One of the things I loved about The Sopranos is, I don't think I would be able to hang out with an Italian-American family and get that sense of how they're relating to each other," he says. "It's that weird theory where the act of observing changes it, being a black person in that room. But The Sopranos takes me into that room in a way that doesn't disrupt, up close."
With that said, we asked Deggans and Morales to come up with rules of their own:
The Deggans Rule
(from Eric Deggans, The St. Petersburg Times)
1. At least two nonwhite characters in the main cast ...
2. in a show that's not about race.
The Morales Rule (from Natalie Morales, ABC Family's The Middleman)
1. Nobody calls anybody Papi.
2. No dancing to salsa music.
3. No gratuitous Spanish.
So what are your yardsticks? And what shows do you think measure up? (Thoughts from us to get you started, below.)
-- Neda Ulaby
The Middleman: Follows the Bechdel Rule so well that it was the reason we began talking about the rule here at NPR. Mind-boggling: It's science fiction — that traditional fortress of geek-maledom — but the character we identify with is a young woman. (And an artist.) She talks to her roommate about art events, vegan protests and their mothers; they're concerned with politics and creativity as well as boyfriends. "I know that the hot show on ABC Family right now is The Secret Life of the American Teenager," says NPR editor Sara Sarasohn, "but if my daughter were a teenager, I'd be making her watch The Middleman every week." Bonus: By default it follows the Morales Rule, because Natalie Morales plays the lead. NBC
Two for One: ER survives the Bechdel Rule and the Deggans Rule. The NBC warhorse has had a parade of non-white actors playing doctors and other professionals. And at least two strong female friendships — between physician's assistant Jeannie Boulet and Dr. Kerry Weaver, and between med students Neela Rasgotra and Abby Lockhart — anchored ongoing story lines. Bonuses: Interesting interracial romances, plus one same-sex couple. NBC
Laughing with the Morales Rule: Comedian George Lopez effectively uses barrio-speak for comedic effect in his stand-up routines, but NPR's Felix Contreras says he deftly adhered to the Morales Rule on his now-defunct ABC sitcom. Sure, the George character would slip in the odd word or expression in Spanish, but "the characters expressed themselves just as millions of second- and third-generation Latinos do," Contreras says — "more Leave It To Beaver than Ricky Ricardo." ABC