The People Test

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818.

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The next time you’re watching a movie, consider: are there at least two named female characters … who talk to one another … about something besides a man? That’s the Bechdel test, and a lot of your favourite movies fail it. The Bechdel test has been around for a while, but it became better known in 2013 when some Swedish cinemas began using it to rate films for gender bias.

I was reminded of the test over the past couple of days when, as a member of the editorial board of Environmental History, I read through the journal’s four 2013 issues in preparation for voting for the year’s best article. It’s going to be a tough decision: there are a lot of impressive essays, covering a wide range of topics and methodologies, across the globe and across time. But as I read I was struck by the infrequent appearance of named historical agents in the articles. It may be a simple matter of essay naming convention that only one of the year’s 23 essays has a person’s name in the title.[1] But only five titles directly reference human actors at all: besides Alfred E. Smith, there are “Squatters,” “Fishermen,” “Anglers,” and “Fisheries Biologists.”[2] The titular nouns instead tend to be nature- and resource-related words such as snow, sea, oil, mountain, forestry, production, and degradation, and places such as Spain, China, the Persian/Arabian Gulf, and the Florida Keys.

More surprising, the relative absence of named humans continues within the essays themselves. The most quoted upper-case people would seem to be historians, not historical figures. In an utterly unscientific sampling, I searched the October issue for instances of one named historical actor communicating with another in the body of the text. After finding one fellow talking to God, and another to Congress, I finally came across “Wilkes ordered Ringgold” – apparently, the only such case in the entire issue.[3]

I may be accused of making a rearguard defense of an outdated kind of history that privileges individuals, rather than communities or processes, as historical agents. Perhaps environmental history (or history writ large) has simply moved on.[4] But the fact that environmental history stretches our conception of what constitutes historical agency and of what possesses it is no reason to ignore the agency of individual humans. Specific things make history, and some of those things are people. What’s more, environmental history prides itself as a field that has a place for stories, and we should consider that many of the readers we are trying to reach like their stories to be peopled by … people.

What if, in the process of writing environmental history, we were to ask ourselves: does my work include even one named historical actor… communicating to another … in the body of the text … about anything? The answer need not always be yes, of course. The Bechdel test is not a judgment of individual films – Bridesmaids isn’t intrinsically better than Citizen Kane – so much as an inducement to consider how the film industry skews toward men and their interests. In similar fashion, asking ourselves the question would help us reflect on how, when writing about the relationships between people and nature, we actually write about people.



[1] This includes the research essays that make up the Forum, but excludes the Galleries.

[2] I may be accused of omitting “Human Impact,” “Man-Made,” “Stewards,” and “Peronist.”

[3] If I missed any, please blame the boringness of the task, rather than any intent to deceive.

[4] Or perhaps I just picked an anomalous issue of the journal.

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I am a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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