Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bechdel Bites Back

A friend recently linked to a great article on why Pepper Potts rocks on this incredible website, The Hathor Legacy. It’s a fantastic site that explores the role of female characters in a variety of media. There’s even an article on why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test. Needless to say, the blog was quickly added to my Google reader. It also made me want to do an update on my Girls Watch Movies (And They're...Ambivalent?) post.

But first, I have to address some nagging criticism generated by my own mind. See, I never considered myself particularly feminist. I mean, aside from my work for furthering animal rights and FGM awareness, I’ve never really thrown myself into much activism, really. I figure we all have our purposes in life. Mine has yet to reveal itself, but I know that I should leave the real political rallying to those who are just better at that stuff than I’ll ever be. But then I started keeping this blog and started forcing myself to think critically about the current state of pop culture, which turned out to be kind of a downer, thanks to the distinct lack of go-go-girl-power in these parts nowadays. And the thing is, I realize that there are a lot of underrepresented groups in Hollywood – basically anyone non-white, non-straight, non-male. God help the black lesbians who hit that trifecta of the shat upon. But one of the basic ways to categorize humans is male versus female. Nearly everyone on this planet (excepting those who identify as third-gendered or those born with both sets of genitalia who choose to remain third-gendered) falls into or self-identifies into the category of male or female. If we can't break the tradition of underrepresenting even this simple binary, how can we hope to break down the walls preventing the other forms of diversity from manifesting in mainstream media?

So! For those too lazy to click this link and see my explanation in the first Bechdel post, here it is again:

For a movie to pass the Bechdel test, it needs to
1. Have to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.

I’m only counting movies released in 2008, though this time I’m expanding it from movies I saw into the theatres to also include movies watched on DVD/OnDemand, as long as they were released in America in 2008. My criteria for judging disincludes minor/background characters (a female character has to appear in at least two scenes to count), and doesn’t count conversations shorter than roughly ten lines (five per actress).

1) Hellboy II: The Golden Army – 1/3 – There was Liz and Princess Nuala. They didn’t chat much.

2) The Ruins – 2/3 – I feel like I’m being generous here. I do remember Bland Girl Character #1 and Bland Girl Character #2 sharing a scene alone while they were spelunking in the ruins, and they talked about how creepy the ruins were. Not exactly scintillating stuff, but then, most of the characters were pretty bland in the movie, so at least the girls are equal to the guys there.

3) Shutter – 3/3 – This almost didn’t pass until I remembered that Jane and Seiko do share a couple of scenes where they discuss spirit photos, proving once again that horror movies, for all their other crimes against women, tend to do fairly well on the Bechdel test.

4) The Dark Knight – 1/3 – Three major/supporting female characters (Rachel Dawes, Det. Ramirez, Barbara Gordon), none of whom talked to each other and all of whom seemed to lack agency through most of the movie. Yikes.

5) Diary of the Dead – 1/3 – Two female characters who kick a fair amount of ass. I honestly don’t recall them having a real conversation though. But the candid camera style of filming does make that difficult since everything is filtered through the (literal) lens of the male narrator.

6) Jumper – 1/3 – The only thing preventing it from being 0 for 3 is my generosity in counting the mother, since she did have two (very brief) scenes.

So, still looking pretty bleak. But! I plan on seeing Mamma Mia! sometime this week, and my Netflixed 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days is sitting on top of my television now waiting to be watched. I suspect both will be Bechdel friendly. So hopefully the next update will be a little more heartening.

Also, I have to admit, the Bechdel test is very rudimentary and doesn’t allow for more subtle readings. Iron Man and 27 Dresses both scored 2/3, and while 27 Dresses probably springs more readily to mind as the female-friendlier of the two movies, the fact is that Pepper Potts kicks all sorts of ass, saves the day, and takes no guff from her crazy-assed boss and his crazier-assed nemesis. (Rare qualities in a comic book female.) Whereas Katherine Heigle’s character in 27 Dresses…mopes a lot and worries more about people-pleasing than being her own woman. The Bechdel test definitely doesn’t reflect that kind of variation. And the most female-empowering movie I think I’ve ever seen, a short underground arthouse film called Grace Has Mace, would only score 1 of 3 since there’s only one woman in it. So take all of this with a grain of salt. Because the quality of female characters is as important a factor to consider as the number of females and specifics of their conversations. To that end, of this batch, I’d say the girls of Shutter and Diary of the Dead kick the most ass and show more agency than most women in horror movies. More agency than most women in a lot of current movies from all genres, for that matter. I’d say that while horror was not exactly great to women in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s, it’s the one genre that seems to be actively trying to get some more women on the screen in ass-kicking capacities. When they’re not getting splattered across the screen, of course.


Laura V said...

Detective Ramirez did call Barbara Gordon on the phone, but maybe that conversation wasn't long enough to count? It was pretty short, but I'd have to rewatch in order to count the actual lines.

Plus it was at least partially about a man. Hm.

smd said...

Ah, good point, I had forgotten about that conversation. Actually, I'd almost forgotten Ramirez completely by the end of the movie - the whole storyline was really glossed over in favor of a thousand explosions. It wasn't until I sat down to write this entry that I even remembered there being another woman, which doesn't bode well for memorable female characters in TDK. All will be (almost, maybe, begrudgingly) forgiven if they work a kickass Catwoman into the next installment, though.

thene said...

Ramirez and Barbara talked about Jim and Barbara's family, so I'm not sure that's a 3/3. A 2, at least.