Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? The concept was originally introduced by Alison Bechdel in her comic Dykes To Watch Out For and it’s become a popular tool to measure female representation in the media. To pass the test a movie must (1) have at least two named female characters (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man.
The criteria might seem laughably loose (and are clearly not enough to indicate or prove a movie has well-developed female characters) but the number of mainstroom movies that fail to meet them might make you throw up.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar, The Avengers, Up in the Air, 500 days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-man, Napoleon Dynamite, Big Fish, 10 out of 14 Pixar movies, every single Christopher Nolan movie …this list is getting silly and random, but you should google it if you aren’t familiar with the test. Tons of movies are released with critical acclaim every year that fail it. It’s shocking initially and ultimately sad.
The reason the test is an important indicator for feminism, or at the very least a solid jumping-off point, is because it highlights the astonishing number of female roles in movies that lack depth and exist solely as accessories for the more developed male ones.
My frustration with the lack of nuanced, complicated women in movies is of course, on a base level, because I am a complicated and nuanced woman myself as are all the women I know. But although personal relatability (or lack thereof) plants the seed of frustration, representation is about more than seeing your own self and your own world in the media you consume, especially when the You in question comes from a place of privilege.
I remember getting in a fight with an old boyfriend in the parking garage of a mall because he said he couldn’t enjoy books with female protagonists. He couldn’t relate to them, he said. I remember this pissing me off but not having the right words to articulate why. A common curse of being young and human (and one that I still often suffer from). It was all very dramatic on the mall-fight spectrum.
In hindsight I see my anger was due to his unwillingness to explore the female perspective – one that I not only held but desperately wished was more deeply understood and respected by the men in my life. It should have been his duty, I felt, as a white, straight male to attempt to understand those who stood in the shadow of a system he benefited from every day. You managed to find a book that wasn’t about a white male and you won’t read it because you can’t see yourself in the main character? Cry almost everyone else a river.
If females or black people or gay people are able to enjoy the millions of books featuring male or Caucasian or heterosexual protagonists, why can’t a straight white dude read a book about a woman for fuck’s sake?
We all have so much to learn and understand about each other and those at the top of the privilege chain bear this responsibility more than anyone in my opinion. Myself very much included in that group. Apart from my gender, I’m about as privileged as one gets.
The stories humans choose to tell in mainstream media are informing the way its consumers view the world, at least marginally for adults and most certainly for the younger set. And that’s no small impact considering today almost everyone counts themselves as one of these consumers. Opting out of it requires some serious intentionality and a lot of running away to farms upstate or something. Most of us have our shows. Our stories.
So what impact are we choosing to make when, with the largest opening audience in cinematic history, we create a female character who chooses to run from a deadly dinosaur for two hours in four-inch heels? Are we supposed to laugh?
Haha! Women and their heels! *eyeroll*
I’m talking of course about Jurassic World. I’ve been thinking a lot about it since I saw it in theaters last Sunday. There are many ways I think the movie failed in representing almost all groups except (you guessed it) white males. The movie might as well have been written and cast in the 90’s along with the originals.
Of course this isn’t a far cry from the landscape of most action movies, barring Mad Max whose creators actually took the time to hire Eve Ensler as a feminist consultant. Name an action movie and look up whether it passed the Bechdel. It’s embarrassing. Why aren’t representation consultants hired for every movie and show? It sure would save all of us a lot of time and feelings.
My frustration with the characters in Jurassic World was how irrelevent their predictability was to the story line. That is: a dinosaur on the loose in a theme park. A undeniably thrilling and entertaining premise on its own. Why not turn some of the tired clichés on their heads when you have such an incredibly huge audience? Why not upset the paradigm? Your story and its history stand on their own regardless of the sex and race of your cast. Why, for goodness sake, can’t you make the characters more interesting and special for the sake of progress if for nothing else?
But instead we get:
- two rich white boys
- a physically, emotionally, and intellectually developed white, straight male hero
- and a cold high-heeled, white business woman* who can’t make a sound decision for her life until the male hero comes into the picture and sweeps her off her feet
*because don’t forget that “business women” can’t be of color, wear flats, or be warm people
And I’m not the only one thinking this way either. Some quick google searches when I got home had me feeling less alone.
In Atlantic article The Perma-Pump: Jurassic World’s Silliest Character, Megan Garber writes:
And, while we’re at it, let’s also go ahead and acknowledge that Jurassic World’s smashing of its way through the box office to enjoy the biggest opening weekend of all time means, among so much else, that a significant swath of humanity has now watched a woman who is supposed to be smart doing something supremely stupid: fleeing an impossible animal in impractical shoes.
But I have my fair share of blind spots. It’s easy for me to notice the injustice when the finger is pointed at women, but this a much larger issue than misogyny. Oppression is scarily easy to miss if you’re not personally feeling the brunt of it – which I suppose is the very definition of privilege today and exactly why it’s dangerous for the majority to vote on the rights of the minority. The tides are too easy to miss when you got to start the game with your head above water.
Which brings me to Call Your Girlfiend.
Call Your Girlfriend is a podcast hosted by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman (whose work I’ve written about on here!) that covers a whole host of topics with the overarching theme being their funny, educated, and feminist lens.
The other day, hot on the heels of seeing Jurassic World, I was listening to one particular episode where Amina shared her experience of seeing Girlhood at Sundance, a coming-of-age film about a group of young black girls directed by Céline Sciamma.
Amina, who is black, explains the revelation she experienced watching a movie where people actually look and talk like her:
There are just no French movies with black women at the center. It was really shocking to watch, because I’m 30 and I’ve been watching French cinema my entire life and it’s the first time that I’ve identified with a movie, ever. I don’t know what that feels like! I was like ‘Oooh this is what white people must feel like all the time when they watch TV!’
Can you imagine the Bechdel equivalent for black people in media? If you know of something like this, please share, even though I shudder to even think of those results.
Based on my experience as a women I can only imagine that black people, black women in particular, must have an ingrained expectation to not feel represented in nearly every context of life. What could that possibly feel like? How would that affect my perception of the world and opportunity?
I’ll never forget hearing comedian Kamau Bell on an episode of This American Life The Birds and Bees share his experience of learning about racism as a kid.
My mom waited until I was 8 to tell me I was black…and I was like HOLD ON A SECOND. That explains everything. I thought every day I was just kind of having a shitty day. It’s good to know why now. It’s good to know there is a historical context for that.
Bell goes on to share a heartbreaking story that I won’t explain here (go listen if you haven’t!), but through the process introduces Elijah Anderson, a Yale professor, who developed an interesting point of view about the obligation black people have to navigate the white world called The White Space. The idea touches on a lot more than something as comparatively meaningless as a woman’s footwear in a blockbuster about dinosaurs, and it probably should be required reading for all white people.
Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, large numbers of black people have made their way into settings previously occupied only by whites, though their reception has been mixed. Overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, restaurants, and other public spaces remain. Blacks perceive such settings as “the white space,” which they often consider to be informally “off limits” for people like them. Meanwhile, despite the growth of an enormous black middle class, many whites assume that the natural black space is that destitute and fearsome locality so commonly featured in the public media, including popular books, music and videos, and the TV news—the iconic ghetto. White people typically avoid black space, but black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence.
It’s jarring to look at the world in such binary terms isn’t it? But there’s something satisfying, too, about simplifying the emotional weight of something as vague as “not belonging” into such clear terms. Terms that help bring something so big and overwhelming into context for those who can’t possible understand the struggle. In this case: white people.
I’m attracted to the Bechdel test for the same reason. It quantifies, at least vaguely, the emotional experience of watching movies as a woman.
Movies don’t need to bear the burden of solving systematic oppression, nor should or could they, but they are a huge part of our cultural fabric and to dismiss them as entertainment would do them a disservice. Humans are more likely to learn through stories than anything else; the learning opportunity is undeniably huge.
A truth that brings the lack of representation into almost too sharp of focus.
In NY Times article Your Brain on Fiction, Annie Murphy Paul explains the immense value of storytelling:
Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.
See? IT’S SCIENCE. Stories are important.
Movies have the power to show us layers of humanity we couldn’t otherwise grasp through less gripping avenues (like, say, a blog post…) and that exposure can and will influence our world views.
This is why I’m sad to see top-grossing film after top-grossing film fail to hit more than one note when it comes to representation. It makes me feel like an angsty misunderstood teen. But overriding that angst is elation that I’m only one of many many people discussing this. Because education is key to spreading awareness and we are the ones who will ultimately drive this narrative. Maybe I’m even okay about the 4-inch heels if only for the controversy they so desperately needed to spark.