Friday, January 6, 2023

Fighting Against the Single Story: The Bechdel-Wallace Test for Child Sexual Abuse Prevention

By Joan Tabachnick*

I first heard of the Bechdel-Wallace Test in 1985 in a comic strip called “Dykes to Watch Out For” by the artist who eventually wrote the book for a successful Broadway play called “Fun Home”.  In the strip called “The Rule”, one of the female characters explains to another woman character that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies these three very simple requirements: 

        The movie has to have at least two women in it,

        who talk to each other,

        about something other than a man.

I recently watched a film titled Rafiki (which means friend in Swahili) about two women growing up in Kenya.  In a TED talk, the film’s director, Wanuri Kahiu spoke about the Afro-bubblegum movement which has its own test to change the narrative about the way Africa is portrayed in the movies.  The movement was started to push against the danger of a single narrative about Africa - one that tends to focus on the extreme poverty, the spread of diseases such as HIV and the political strife throughout the continent.  According to Kahiu, the intention of the movement is to promote a “fun, fierce, and fantastical representation” of Africa and change the way that Africa is perceived around the world.  To qualify as “Afrobubblegumist Art” art about Africa must:


        show at least two healthy Africans

        who are financially stable (and not in need of saving) and

        who are “having fun and enjoying life.”

Because of Kahiu’s inspiring talk, the danger of a single story was very much on my mind when I was asked to give a 25-minute recorded talk about how to talk about child sexual abuse.  The narrative about child sexual abuse is that all victims are forever damaged, and that the sex offender is a predatory monster who we are almost helpless to stop. This single narrative does not recognize the wide diversity of circumstances that lead to abuse, it does not offer insights into how to see these behaviors in people we love, nor does it offer any insights how to prevent sexual abuse before a child is harmed.

Beyond naming the problems with the existing narrative, I also knew it was essential that we modeled talking about a topic no one wants to talk about.  In my 30 years of doing this work, I am constantly reminded that adults need to know how to talk about sexual abuse – if we expect a child to be able to tell what happened to them, adults need to feel comfortable using these words, can say the proper names for body parts, and know what questions to ask.  They also need a sense of hope that they can make a difference in the lives of people they care about.  Modeling the conversation is the best way to demonstrate how to talk and how to be “askable” to our friends, families, and other professionals. 

Luckily Pamela Mejia, Head of Research and principal investigator at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, had the same idea, and joined me for the discussion.  We then asked Karen Baker, the executive director of PCAR (and former ATSA board member, prevention committee co-chair, and founder of the Gail Burnes Smith Award) to join us to bring in the perspective of survivors as well.  We were then lucky to have Rebecca Fix from Johns Hopkins as our moderator who kept the conversation going

Our goal was to model how to have conversations about CSA and focus on the real stories rather than the typical trope of the “monster lurking at the edge of our playgrounds” or the updated version of the “monster stalking your child online…”  Pamela offered some research about how the media portrays the people who cause the sexual harm and reinforces the dominant narrative by focusing on strangers outside of the family, typically someone with dozens if not hundreds of harmed children in their wake.  Karen shared some real-life examples of how families can talk about these behaviors and the boundary crossing, especially before anyone is harmed.  And together we spoke about how the current portrayal of people who engage in sexually problematic behaviors means that we don’t see boundary crossing and other early signs of abuse in the people we love. 

So what does this have to do with the Bechdel Test?!? 

My favorite part of the panel discussion was the challenge to each other and the audience: What would the Bechdel Test for child sexual abuse look like?  If we could control the narrative of Hollywood, what would we want to see, even in our minimum standards?  While we did not narrow this down to just three criteria, we think as a starting point that fictional stories about child sexual abuse should feature:

·         Talking:  Two characters are able to talk about CSA, have a conversation (not yell or scream about it).  And then when faced with the knowledge that a child has been harmed, the character is able to ask for help and is portrayed with an ally – they don’t have to do it alone.

·         Positive movement:  the person harmed might be portrayed as feeling the harm but also feeling that life is not over and they are able to move forward) or the person who caused the harm is seeking help and changing their behaviors.

·         Health:  There is some mention of body autonomy and respect for children (including teenagers).  Or even better, there is a conversation about healthy sexual behavior or sex education. 

·         Ending:  The movie could portray a different ending, other than the criminal justice system.  In fact, that the final scene of the movie is not punishment and hurt and abuse in the system but there is a possibility of hope or healing (end like a children’s book).

·         Bonus:  Person who caused the harm is someone the film led the audience to care about, and when their abusive behavior is found out they are held accountable AND people in the narrative continue to care about them.

To us these are just a few of the ways that we would want to start to change the narrative.  So we want to ask, what would be your Bechdel Test for this issue?  Let us know!


* Special thanks to Karen Baker, Pamela Mejia and Rebecca Fix for their important contributions to this evolving conversation.  

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