Beyond the Bechdel Test: seeing ourselves on screen

Women in Hollywood.  Women wearing black to the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, wearing Time’s Up badges, white flowers at the Grammys, standing up at the Oscars, women saying #MeToo.

tdy_radford_180127.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopMuch has been said about the way in which the voices of women, silenced for a long time by fear of retaliation or of lawsuits, of humiliation and denigration, of career suicide, are now being raised, and amplified, and the way in which this has given courage to women in other professions and environments, to speak up not only for themselves but for women who have even more to lose.

I’m not going to be directly addressing these events.  But I am talking about the culture of Hollywood – a culture in which women are marginalised and isolated on screen as they are off-screen.  And it’s all connected.

I’m going to look at ways in which we can assess the movies we watch, and analyse their portrayal of women,  and think about what change might look like on the screen.  I will touch on other aspects of diversity but I can’t do justice to it all!

The Bechdel Test has been around since 1985.  But the essential idea actually goes back a lot further than that:

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. … And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …  (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929)

There are actually only three requirements for passing the test:

.Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

(Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For)

It’s been developed slightly since then, and the usual formulation now is that the film must:

  • feature at least two named women
  • who talk to each other
  • about something other than a man.

The first thing to say about these criteria is that they set the bar pretty damn low.   (Just think for a moment about how many films would fail if you reversed the genders here.  Er, no, me neither).  Indeed, Alison Bechdel never intended the test to do anything other than to draw attention ‘to the severity of the problem by showing how low you could set the bar and still watch Hollywood executives trip over it’.  Because an awful lot of films still fail, and a surprising number only scrape through with a bit of special pleading.

Does this matter?  Well, yes it really does.  When we – girls and women – go to the cinema, do we see ourselves on screen?  Do we see the kind of women we are, and that we work and live with, that we encounter in all aspects of our lives – women who make decisions and have opinions, women who act and change things in their lives and in the world around them?  If we don’t, that doesn’t stop us being that kind of woman, but it makes it harder, given that it’s already hard, to keep on keeping on in the face of everyday sexism.

Given the howls of horror from some men when a rare film does feature lots of women doing stuff, or when the Ghostbusters or Doctor Who are reimagined as women, it’s clear that the status quo is comforting to those men who would much rather we didn’t make decisions and have opinions, that we didn’t act and change things in our lives and the world around us.  And it is very relevant to note that when we get one – ONE – superhero movie with an overwhelmingly black cast, there are trolls on Twitter ready to call it racist.   Dear lord, one could so easily despair.  But one won’t.

If I ever doubted that it’s powerful to see ourselves on screen, I had two reminders last year.  Firstly, I went to see Wonder Woman.

themoscira

It passes the test.  It’s a while before we see a bloke at all, and when we do, he needs rescuing.  By a woman.  I’d underestimated how intensely exhilarating and moving it would be to see those scenes of the Amazonian women on Themyscira, and to see Diana Prince sorting out all the blokes who tried to tell her to ‘just wait there’.  I wanted to weep and punch the air.

And then, not long after, we heard that the Doctor would be a woman, and at Christmas I watched as he regenerated into she, and she said, oh, brilliant.  And it was.

DR7PEBzX4AEpuLw

But back to the test.  It’s important to recognise that passing the test doesn’t make a film a good film, or a feminist film.  Elle passes the test, as does Fifty Shades of Grey, apparently, but both are intensely problematic in their sexual politics.  And Dunkirk unequivocally fails but is a brilliant film that would not have been enhanced in any way by shoehorning in some Bechdel-conforming female characters to supplement the unnamed WRENs and nurses.

It’s also important to remember that – once you’ve achieved the ‘two named women’ criterion – it’s not primarily about how many women there are on screen.  If there are only one or two significant female characters, then the female characters may have to carry the burden of representing their whole gender, something male characters are rarely required to do. But the most important thing is not the number of women but, as Neda Ulaby put it,  ‘the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns’,  women as characters rather than as cliches.  If there are loads of women on screen but they say very little (an analysis of Oscar winning films shows that men have the vast majority of words, even in films that pass the Bechdel test) then we cannot really see and hear them as rounded characters.  And if the women that are there on screen, however  well-written they are individually, are disconnected from one another, connected only to the men, we’re still not getting what we need.

I had a look at the films that I’ve seen over the last year or so, to see how they measure up.

FAIL – Baby Driver, Thor: Ragnarok, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk

Maybe just about scrape a pass if you’re very indulgent – Spiderman: Homecoming, Logan, Rogue One, It.  (NB my inclusion of Rogue One in this category is disputed…)

PASS – Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, Twentieth-Century Women, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Elle, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Black Panther, Lady Bird, Annihilation

Now, obviously my movie list is a personal one and reflects my particular preferences.  Nonetheless, the balance isn’t so far out of kilter with wider ranging surveys.  A recent analysis showed that one-third of 50 movies from 2016 failed.  Between a quarter and a half of my list fail.

However, of those that pass, several pass gloriously.

I’ve already spoken about Wonder Woman.  And The Last Jedi features

a scene … that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, … handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While Star Wars has always featured strong women … Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story.

jedi

Twentieth Century Women lives up to its title, with women front and centre in the movie and on the poster.  Hidden Figures similarly features three women at the forefront – and those women are black.

224076-L-LOhidden figures

Hidden Figures is a reminder that the Bechdel test addresses only one aspect of diversity.  Which is one of the reasons that a variety of alternative or supplementary tests have been proposed.

Some of these look behind the camera to the involvement of women (currently around 18%) and/or people of colour in the writing, direction, production of the film. Clearly this is crucial.  When the vast, overwhelming majority of films are written and directed by white men, this will skew the presentation of women.  Not necessarily through conscious sexism, but because a male writer will inevitably identify more with the characters on screen who are most like him (the I-guys, as Stephen King calls them), and will then think of the other characters in relation to the I guy.  They may well not even notice that the women are under-represented, under-developed, under-used.

There’s another reason too why these things are important.  The endemic sexual harassment of women in the movie industry is aided and abetted when a woman on a film set is very much in a minority, and when few of the women who are there have the clout to challenge undermining, belittling and humiliating behaviour – let alone predatory abuse.

There are tests that directly address ethnicity AND gender.  If white women find it difficult to see themselves on screen, it’s so much more the case for women of colour.  One test asks that a film features a black women who’s in a position of power and is in a healthy relationship. Another that there is a non-white, female-identifying person in the film who speaks in five or more scenes and speaks English.  Against the first of these, most films fail.  The second does better.  We could apply the same kind of methodology to the portrayal of gay characters, transgender characters, disabled characters.  But I suspect we know what the outcome would be (and we’d have to address the issue of straight actors playing gay, cis actors playing trans, actors without disabilities playing disabled).

A more qualitative approach is to focus on how women are portrayed on screen. Do films show

women as characters who have needs and desires and who take actions stemming from those desires over the course of the film. (You know, they act like real people.) A surprising number of films fail to do even that much basic character development work with women. Often, women are reduced to stereotypes or tropes as soon as they’re introduced and then don’t get developed any further. And female characters frequently serve little purpose beyond causing plot problems for male protagonists, or having a baby with a male protagonist, or dying to raise the stakes for a male protagonist.

Some of these tests are quite subjective.  Whether we can identify and empathise with a character on screen may vary according to our own experiences, our age, ethnicity, sexuality, etc etc.  But whilst these more complex tests may not be as easy to apply, they reflect what we’re actually responding to. That niggling dissatisfaction we feel may well be because the women we are watching don’t have needs and desires that they pursue through dramatic action, because we see them as stereotypes, because what they do matters only in relation to the male protagonists.

Another way of looking at it is the proportion of women in supporting roles or even in crowd scenes.  What if half of all one-scene roles go to women, if the first crowd scene features at least 50 per cent women (currently it averages 17%), and/or the supporting cast is 50 per cent women?

You’ll note that none of the tests involve counting the number of ‘strong women’ on screen.  Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time.  As Helen Lewis put it, ‘nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses’. You can’t solve the problems of the representation of women just by inserting a strong woman into the plot and thinking, there, job done.  We want women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems.   Some of these women may indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to. We want a variety of women characters – not all beautiful, not all clever, not all strong, but, well, like real people.  Just imagine!

Actually we don’t have to just imagine because if you watch TV these days things are very different.  It’s fairly unusual to see a crime drama without a woman in a lead role (e.g. Spiral, Scott & Bailey, The Bridge, No Offence, Unforgotten, Marcella, Line of Duty, Broadchurch, Witnesses, Fargo, Vera).  And in the realm of fantasy, just think of Orphan Black, Agents of Shield, Star Trek: Discovery, The Walking Dead and, of course, Doctor Who.  These shows smash the Bechdel test, and many of the alternative tests noted above, without apparent effort.

TV’s not perfect, obviously, but writers for that medium don’t seem to have been getting the message that aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood were not very long ago.

had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. …“The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.” … According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.

https://thehathorlegacy.com/why-film-schools-teach-screenwriters-not-to-pass-the-bechdel-test/

This may have been the belief, but even if it was true then,  it no longer is.  Some recent stats from IMDB show that:
  • Oscar-nominated films with a woman in the starring role are more profitable than their male-led counterparts.
  • Female-led films (defined as films where the female actor had the first starring name on Internet Movie Database) earn higher box office returns – despite usually lower production budgets, according to BBC analysis.
  • On average, every dollar invested in a female-led film earns back $2.12 (£1.53). For male-led films this figure is $1.59 (£1.15).
  • Just 28% of films nominated for an Oscar since 2013 have had an actress taking top billing.
In 2017, for the first time since the 1950s, the top three highest-grossing US films all had female leads: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, and Wonder Woman.   Meanwhile, Hidden Figures made back at the box office over 6.5 times what it cost to make.  We can also consider the success of Black Panther, the response of audiences worldwide to a film whose protagonists are almost all black, and many are black women – to quote a review in The Daily Telegraph, of all places:

The film walks into the multiplex like it’s insane that it hasn’t been allowed in there all along. And it is.  For one thing, an entire subset of younger cinema-goers are only just about to experience the dizzy uplift of watching a title character in a superhero movie who looks like them under the costume.

I should say, not all films have to be about women, or even to include women.  It would be entirely unreasonable to demand that every film carry the burden of representing the diversity of the human race.  For example,  there is no reason on earth why a film should not be set in an environment where, for given reasons of historical accuracy or realism there are no, or almost no women present (I refer you again to Dunkirk).  It’s just that when no such reasons apply, we should expect to see ourselves on screen, in the crowd scenes, in supporting roles, AND in key speaking roles that play a part in the action and that relate to each other as well as to men.

It is particularly disappointing when realism is ditched in favour of a science fiction/fantasy universe, but things don’t change as much as they could have done.  Why be constrained by gender and racial stereotypes when you could tear the whole thing up and start again?   I suspect that one reason is that this genre is traditionally assumed to be the white boys’ province.  You create whole new universes, and want to run them all?  Well, I don’t think much to that.

Things are changing.  We’ve got Wonder Woman and Black Widow and Scarlet Witch and Captain Marvel and Valkyrie and Gamora and Nebula and the Doctor.  And in Black Panther alone we’ve got Shuri and Okoye and Nakia and, as The Daily Telegraph (yes, really, again), says:

Black Panther seems to overcome the genre’s long-standing neuroses around creating rounded, exciting roles for women by just getting on with it.

And Frances McDormand (my hero!) had two words for us at the Oscars.  Inclusion rider

This refers to a proposal by Stacy Smith, director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative:

“What if A-list actors amended every contract with an equity rider? The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it’s sensible for the plot,” Smith wrote. “If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 percent women and girls. In other words, reality.”

I may be being naive, but it seems to me this could be huge.     Already,  Brie Larson, Michael B Jordan and John Boyega, among others,  have said they’ll use this as a way to bring about change, on and off screen.  Let’s hope.

We’re half the human race.  We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and we have nothing at all.  We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers.  We are beautiful and we are ordinary.  We are gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, and every variant or combination of the above.   We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists.  We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men.  We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.

That should provide the screenwriters of Hollywood plenty of scope.

And just to make the point, that I don’t, I really don’t, want to see nothing but white middle-aged middle-class short bespectacled women when I go to the movies, I had the same emotional response to Black Panther as I did to Wonder Woman.  I wanted to weep, and to punch the air.

636499246365485042-Black-Panther

Because ultimately, it’s not Me me I want to see there.  It’s all of us. The human race in all its wild and ridiculous and glorious diversity.  And if some straight white guys have to hutch up a bit to make room, well, Time’s Up, dudes.

times up

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