The rise of fourth-wave feminism movements such as #metoo and the Women’s March has meant people are finally starting to realise the value of listening to girls and women; hearing their voices, hearing their experiences. And fiction writers are finding this out too.

Ben Parker thinks we need to recognise the value in diverse figures

Ben Parker thinks we need to recognise the value in diverse figures

With very few exceptions, everything in fiction used to be based around men leading the story. Books were about men leading the story, films were about men leading the story. And by men, I mean white middle-class heterosexuals, of course. You may have met some of these people, even in your daily life. They’re everywhere.

But the man-led narrative left no space where other stories could be heard. It left no room for stories about women. About LGBTQIA+ people. About people of colour.

But there’s one simple idea that’s really starting to shake things up.

Having been a fan of Alison Bechdel’s comic strips for many years, I’ve been hyped to hear the ‘Bechdel Test’ recently becoming a mainstream phrase. If you don’t know, for a film to pass the test, it has to have two female characters having at least one conversation which isn’t about a man. It is surprisingly rare for fims to pass this seemingly simple test.

In my opinion (and I am a man, so take this with a pinch of salt), films passing the test are those which see the value in what women have to say. As Alison Bechdel herself wrote, ‘The secret subversive goal of my work is to show that women, not just lesbians, are regular human beings.’

Bechdel simply wanted to show women as people, people who were strong enough could lead a story. And there is a great strength in women being vocal in our male-dominated society, because fiction can often be a surprising reflection of who we are; where stories about men are seen as the norm, the voices of girls and women can often bring a more truthful view of life. And in the time of Trump and Brexit, I think that’s something we need more than anything.

So once the Bechdel Test is mainstream, how can we build on it?

In the last couple of years several people have suggested versions of the test for other groups in society: for LGBTQIA+ people, for working-class people, for people of colour, for transgender people, for people of non-binary genders. Perhaps it could extend further: representation for differently abled people, for immigrants?

And could a version of test apply to books? I hope it could. Because when people start to look for stories about girls and women, we can start to see more books which reflect the wonderfully-wide diversity of our world.

These are some of the ideas which inspired my debut novel.

It’s called Beetlebrow the Thief. The title character is named Emma – it’s the name her mother gave her. And Emma is not a thief. But ‘Beetlebrow the Thief’ is the name and the title she is given by her brothers.

She is a gay girl of colour, daughter of a sex worker – and later an illegal immigrant and a traitor to the crown – and she lives in a world where her name and her role in society is often decided by others. Her brothers want her to be begging in the street for them, but she knows she can do more. At this point in her journey – in the first book in The Beetlebrow Trilogy – she still thinks of herself as Beetlebrow, as men decided her to be. But as she moves further away from heterosexual male ideas, she begins to see the value of female ideas, queer ideas.

She knows there’s something else out there for her, and she and her girlfriend are going to find it.

In a world where men control everything, Beetlebrow is on the path to finding out how powerful a queer woman’s voice can be.

Ben Parker's debut novel Beetlebrow the Thief (The Conrad Press) is out now.

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