Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Women in Film: The Bechdel Test

The origins of the test in Alison Bechdel's comic strip

I’m getting bored. I’m getting bored of going to the cinema and watching film after film about male identity. The solitude, the honour, the silent strength of the male psyche.
I don’t much care about the male identity anymore. In the world of film, men seem to have collectively morphed into that really annoying person at parties who can’t shut up about themselves, their work, their problems, their opinions on everything. It makes me want to reach my hand through the screen and pinch their lips closed; “Shut up, sweetheart. Just shut up. Even for five minutes. Please? For all of us? Nobody gives a fuck about your mid-life crisis, your sex life, or your thoughts on the Middle East. Just pipe the fuck down.”

Edward Norton in classic male bonding flick Fight Club

Movies about women, or ‘women’s issues’ are called ‘chick flicks’. If a woman dares to presume to become an active participant in the narrative, rather than just passively submitting to the penetrative male gaze, then she, and the film she is in, must be denigrated with a cute little term; pigeon-holed back into place so that the men, who make up most of the movie-going audience, don’t feel threatened. Then they can watch the movie, safe in the knowledge that none of this horseshit matters anyway, because it’s only a chick flick.
That’s right. Films made by, for or about women are considered a niche area. A pocket, if you will. A side-track for us all to flounce down when the boys are in the next screen over watching Transformers, or whatever Michael Bay has boiled up in some fevered region of his frontal lobe this month (of course, that’s not to say that women can’t enjoy action movies. I love action movies. What I don’t love are abominable reels of liquid shit, like Transformers).

Transformers - an abominable reel of liquid shit

Women in film are just fine – as long as we’re there just to be gawked at like an exhibit. We’re not allowed to speak too much, take too much charge of a situation, or even interact with other women – unless of course, we’re getting off with each other (apparently that’s totally dandy).  
We may have clawed back some semblance of equality in our daily lives, but in film? In film, we are still the Other; a great squalling writhing mass of terrifying maniacal female energy which ideally needs to be herded into the attic with a broomstick and left to cackle and scratch its fingernails down the walls forevermore.
I kinda want one of these badges...

Anyone ever heard of the Bechdel Test? Yeah, me neither. I’m a feminist with a Film degree, so really I should have heard of the Bechdel Test long ago. In fact, I didn’t hear of it until one of my friends mentioned it in conversation last year; I thought it was very interesting, but then promptly forgot about it.
The Bechdel Test is simply this. Think of a film, or a book, or a play, or some other narrative-based thingamabob, and answer these three questions.
1.       Are there two or more female characters with names?
2.       Do they talk to each other?
3.       If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?
This, my friends, is the Bechdel Test. If you can answer yes to all three of the above questions, then the thingamabob in question has passed the test. If not, it’s a big fat fail (although of course, there are varying degrees of failing).

Franka Potente saves her boyfriend's ass in Run Lola Run

Obviously, the Bechdel Test has massive flaws and can’t really be used as an accurate measurement of how ‘feminist’ a film is – for example, Run Lola Run would fail the Bechdel Test, even though Lola is a strong independent female character who spends the whole film trying to save her feckless boyfriend – she’s pretty much the only woman in it, and she never talks to another woman, so technically, it fails.
Other fails include Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Fight Club, Reservoir Dogs, Blade Runner, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Muppets, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Godfather, and many more.
More than you’d believe, actually, considering the bar is so low. Surprisingly, Transformers just about manages to pass. But even Sigourney-centric Alien only scrapes a pass due to Ripley and Lambert taking a few seconds out of their busy day to discuss the fact that they are about to be ripped to shit by a slavering monster (something that would certainly take precedence over girlish gossip about Captain Dallas).

"Whaddaya reckon Ripley, hot or not?"

The test is not really meant as an accurate indication of anything, nor is it intending to condemn any film that fails it – if the story isn’t about women, then it isn’t about women, and that’s that.
What it does is make you think a little bit about just how skewed towards the male our culture is. Essentially, there is nothing wrong with a few films failing the Bechdel Test (Reservoir Dogs would make no sense if Tarantino had stuck a random woman in for no reason, likewise Fight Club). There IS something wrong when almost every film is failing it. When the majority of films are disregarding women, the fact that women talk to each other, and that women have personalities which do not exclusively revolve around men, it is clear that we have a problem.
Can you imagine if the situation were suddenly reversed? If almost every film contained only women interacting with each other about, oh, I don’t know, politics? Or war? Or drugs? Do you think men would let this go by unchecked? There’d be blood running river-like in the streets.

"MS Pink?! Oh HELL no..."

Minorities have always been marginalised within mainstream film; that’s nothing new. The token character is a trope we are all very well acquainted with; the token black character, the token gay character, the token woman. But now I am going to tell you something which may well blow your mind, so hold onto your hats, kids.
In the paragraph above (the one you just finished reading), I referred to women as a MINORITY. Did you even bat an eyelid? Did you hell.
I’m sure that gay people and anybody who isn’t white are also sick to the back teeth of being referred to as minorities, but no matter what race or orientation they are, there’s still no getting away from the fact that women currently make up about 50% of the planet’s population. That’s approximately three and a half billion vaginas. That’s a pretty big minority, my friend.
And yet, it is somehow still deemed acceptable to throw us up onscreen as comic relief or disposable eye-candy, and damn any films we might create ourselves with the faintest of praise. Film is an artistic industry first and foremost; it is not the responsibility of art to remake the world into some kind of equal opportunities utopia. I’m not saying that this is what film should be trying to do. What I am saying is that not only is the film industry (like most other industries) still denying career opportunities to women, it is also still perpetrating the idea that women are not equal to men on screens all over the world.
It’s 2012 now, people. I’m getting bored.

1 comment:

  1. Christ, this will stand the test of time.