"Last summer there seemed to be a lot of discussion about feminism and men's rights in regards to blockbuster genre movies like The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road.
What's your take on all this?
And finally, how do you feel about the Bechdel Test?"
Thank you for the questions, Anon.
I noticed the gender war last summer too.
The opening salvo may have occurred before Joss Whedon fell on his sword with Ultron, when he noted that Jurassic World is "70s sexist." That statement seemed to set the tenor for the summer.
Why do I think this is happening now?
There are two reasons.
First, many women feel (rightly) that they are underrepresented by Hollywood films. And when women are represented in major films it is often in traditional, stereotypical terms: as a princess, a prize-to-be-won, as a wife or girlfriend. As you may note, all those roles derive their agency from a man.
The second reason is that some very sensitive men apparently feel that by making women more equally represented in films (especially genre films), something precious is being taken away from them.
Those are the two root causes of the controversy.
One reason -- the first -- is valid. The facts and statistics back up the women's argument.
The second reason is ridiculous. It embarrasses me that so many folks of my sex are so petty about this subject. One strong female character shows up in a summer blockbuster and men are suddenly victims, and being discriminated against?
I highly recommend all readers check out Dr. Martha Lauzen's "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2013" for a wake-up call about just how biased major Hollywood films remain.
The men who felt rage over the presence of Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road are acting -- either consciously or unconsciously -- as territorial gatekeepers...and that's just not good. Once upon a time, male fans gladly embraced strong female characters like Furiosa; characters with names like Ripley, Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Dana Scully, or even Buffy Summers.
I'm not writing a polemic here, but facts are facts. One side is right, using arguments based on facts and statistics. The other side is just being really petty, or emotional.
I absolutely recognize the importance, the necessity even of the Bechdel Test, and yet at the same time don't like it very much. I don't question its motives, but I do question its effectiveness as an instrument.
In particular, I don't feel it is the right tool with which to tackle the problem of gender representation in film.
First a definition might be in order: The Bechdel Test is a checklist, essentially, to determine gender bias.
So cataloging who "talks" in a film isn't necessarily an indication of gender equality.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) fails the Bechdel Test and yet it is a great film that thrives on its setting: an isolated outpost in Antarctica during the 1980s populated exclusively by men.
A horror movie critic I admire, B.J. Colangelo, even describes The Thing as an unexpectedly "feminist" movie, and makes a case for why she believes this is the case.
Still, the Carpenter flick fails the Bechdel Test.
What does this fact point out?
Well, a couple of things.
Primarily, that even the greatest films in cinema history are not immune to the problem of gender equality, because the problem is systemic.
In this case, one can see why Bechdel is necessary, right?
Exhibit A is a film I name-checked above. The Blair Witch Project, features a remarkable female protagonist, Heather Donohue and yet it also fails the Bechdel Test. Heather is a leader in the film, the same age as her male counterparts, and her personal status (unmarried) is not discussed.
So the film handles all of Bechdel's stated concerns brilliantly, but because there are not two women in leading roles talking about women, it still fails to achieve a passing grade.
Again, this example suggests to me that the Bechdel Test is not a very sharp instrument for determining gender equality.
Again, the test reveals a systemic, historic and continuing problem, but singling out decades-old films for a problem we have only become highly conscious of recently is not a good idea, generally-speaking, for the fruitful study of an historical art form.
Honestly, old films fail on any number of contemporary moral bases including racism, homophobia and even fat shaming. Gender representation isn't even the worst or most pronounced problem you'll find in film history if you dig deep. Just go watch Song of the South.
Isn't that the ultimate implication of Bechdel? To disqualify a movie from holding a spot in your Netflix queue?
The film's context -- its very placement in history -- is what truly matters in this case, and that is why it should be seen, even today, by film students or film lovers...even as they hold their noses regarding the content/point-of-view. You get a clearer, fuller picture of film history if you watch the movie.
But that's not how everybody uses it.
The point, I suppose, is that a lot of movies -- the vast majority, actually -- fail the test, because women are poorly and inadequately represented on screen. To repeat the facts: women directed only 5% of major releases between 2009 and 2014. They were leading characters in less than a third of the films.
That is a stunning disparity.
I don't think I can say the test is bad, and unworthy if I don't provide some alternative, or find some other way to redress the problems it (courageously) attempts to take on.
Perhaps there could be a test that states -- flat-out -- you don’t grade films of the 20th century based on a 21st century historical context, for example.
That gives us fifteen years to go back and pore over modern disparities but also lets a lot of older films -- products of their now-gone historical context -- off the hook.
Because, really, what's the point of re-litigating the sexual politics underlining This is Spinal Tap or Citizen Kane in 2015?
We might even need to drill down to real specifics.
Like: who is actually on screen, and for how long? That data could help us get around the "talking" issue and approve films like Lucy (2014), Under the Skin (2014), Walkabout (1971) or The Blair Witch Project. This will catch some films, but not all. The Thing, for example, would still fail under this rubric.
Martha Lauzen’s approach is a good one.
Perhaps a prospective test determining gender equality could ask the following questions:
1.) Is the primary female character depicted in the film as a leader?
2.) Is she noticeably younger than the male characters in the film that she is associated with (and if so, what’s the gap?).
3,) Finally, is the character defined in terms of marital status (and if so, what about her male peers?)
These standards seem a lot more meaningful than simply cataloging who talks. The big question, however is: do we use Bechdel to discourage the viewing of old films of historical value and import?
Or simply, going forward, do we consider its data to bring awareness to a perpetually unequal industry?
I'd prefer the latter approach.