Monday, 13 February 2012

The BAFTAs, the Oscars, and the Bechdel Test: Part 1

This week, I'll mainly be talking about the Bechdel Test, which is a method of determining how present female characters are in a film. It's something that I've wanted to discuss for a while, as I think the lack of women characters in films is a real problem in cinema. There's a lot of ground to cover, so we're going to do a two-parter, to be followed up in a fortnight. 

For a film to pass the so-called Bechdel Test it must have two named female characters, they must talk to each other, and they need to talk to each other about something other than a man. The test originates from a comic strip published by Alison Bechdel in 1985, from a comic called Dykes to Look Out For. Here's the strip for your viewing pleasure:
The original Bechdel Test

Sounds simple, right? Surely many films pass a test in which the only criteria is that women talk to each other? Nope. Ah, I hear you say, most of those that don't pass must be dumb action movies aimed at adolescent men, what do you expect? Surely more sophisticated films, or even films that are supposedly aimed at and about women (more on this next time), would naturally pass the Bechdel Test? Sadly not, dear reader. I consider myself a reasonably enlightened man, with a relatively diverse taste in films. I like Westerns, film noir, animation, spy thrillers, dramas, indie, and even I'm partial to a good romantic comedy. But out of the first 200 films in my collection how many do you think pass the test? 100? 50? Not even close. It's 8. A paltry 8 of the first 200 films I own have two women characters that talk to each other about something other than a man. And it's not as if those two hundred films are all 80s Arnie-fests, either. Amongst others, the genres this sample covers include gangster flicks, documentaries, monster movies,  science fiction, political thrillers, comedy, romance, and children's films, all ranging from the early 1930s all the way up to 2010. With the exception of silent films and blaxploitation, I don't think there could be much more diversity in terms of genre, style and period, and yet ninety six per cent (ninety six per cent!) of those films do not involve conversations between women that don't involve men. Think about that for a second. I don't think my DVD collection is particularly unusual, either: go and check your own film collection and see how many of your films pass the test. How many was it? Did any of them pass at all? This is a problem endemic within the film industry and it seems to pervade through almost every genre,  from small indies to massive summer blockbusters, from the earliest films to the latest Oscar nominees. The fact is, women just aren't present in films, either in front of or behind the camera. Out of the four hundred and fifty or so films I have on DVD, only two (TWO!) have been directed by women, namely Kathryn Bigelow's 2009 The Hurt Locker, and Sofia Coppola's 2003 Lost in Translation, and guess what: neither of those even pass the Bechdel Test.

Awards Season
Speaking of the Oscars, in the eighty two years the Academy awards have been running, only one woman has ever won best director, which was Bigelow for her superlative The Hurt Locker in 2009. At this year's Oscars, there are no female nominees for best director, and of the twenty one producers nominated for best film, only four are women. Last night's BAFTA ceremony painted a similar picture: best film and best director were given to The Artist, directed by Michael Hazanavicius and produced by Thomas Langmann, and the outstanding debut award went to Paddy Considine for Tyrannosaur. Incidentally, neither of these pass the Bechdel Test, either. Similarly, Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have ever won a BAFTA for best director, and one of only two women to have ever been nominated for one, the other being Copolla for Lost in Translation. I think these figures speak for themselves: the British and American film industries have always and continue to be run by men, for the entertainment for men. Even the few women film makers that achieve success in the industry tend to make films about men and for a largely male audience. 

Witness the apocalypse
More to the point, it shows that the Bechdel Test isn't about quality. The Artist, Tyrannosaur and The Hurt Locker are all terrific films, as are many of the other BAFTA and Oscar-nominated films that don't pass the Test. What the Bechdel Test shows, however, is that even great films, made by talented, enlightened, modern film-makers, some of whom are even women, still struggle to represent half of the human race. And I don't even mean represent them well, I just mean represent them at all. Thankfully I haven't seen the Sex and the City films, but if we applied the Bechdel Test to the TV show, even though it's a vacuous wasteland of revolting characters, obnoxious writing, and cynical world views, it would still pass because the horrible characters talk occasionally about other things than men, like the virtuous pursuits of shopping and being over-privileged whiny little shits. The Bechdel Test is not an indicator of quality but it is an indicator of a gross and bizarre misrepresentation in cinema. Surely we can't leave the Sex and the Cities of this world to fill the gap of representation left by otherwise quality films? Why does the film industry continue to be dominated so overwhelmingly by men? I'm not entirely sure, but it's a problem that can be dated well before the advent of Hollywood. 

The Madwoman in the Attic
Historically, literature has been dominated by male writers writing about male characters, with female characters defined strictly in relation to their male counterparts. Even major novels by women, whose main characters are female, tended to focus on who their heroine would marry, and both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, written by Charlotte and Emily Bronte respectively, were originally published under the names of male pseudonyms. Ironically, when the novel as a form was developed it the eighteenth century, it was perceived as a somewhat crude and intellectually vapid degeneration of literature, and was therefore associated with femininity. There are two aspects here that modern films share with literature that I want to pick up on. The first is the way women are typically portrayed in film, and the second is the difference between 'guy' films and 'chick flicks', which I'll be discussing next time. In 1979 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published a seminal essay on the portrayal of women in nineteenth-century fiction, entitled The Madwoman in the Attic. Their essay argued that women in Victorian literature are typically represented eihter as either pure, virginal and innocent, or dangerous, monstrous and exotic. It's a dichotomy that is best exemplified by Jane Eyre's own madwoman Bertha, who is directly contrasted with the innocent Jane, and whose husband Rochester has hidden in his attic. 

Beautiful and deadly: Veronica Lake as the
archetype we've all seen a thousand times
Any of this sound familiar? Well, it should do, because it's a model for femininity that Hollywood continues to frequently use to represent women. You can often see this dichotomy in film noirs such as Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep, where the only two women, who invariably never interact with each other, are the erotic, dangerous femme fatale, and the bookish assistant / victim character. The James Bond franchise continues to trade on this very formula, with 2008's Quantum of Solace's female characters still filling the roles of either 'early love interest-cum-victim', and 'dangerous female lead-cum-love interest', that typify the Bond girls of every decade since the 1960s. For other recent examples, see Christopher Nolan's 2010 Inception, whose Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, is the archetypal femme fatale. Mal is particularly interesting because all we ever see of her is the version in Cobb's imagination. She is a meta-character, quite literally a concept and not a real person. In the publicity for the film, she is labelled as 'The Shade', alluding both to her non-reality, and to her conceptual femme fatale forbears. Mal is essentially a self-conscious reflection on female characters in film. Nolan alludes to the femme fatale trope, but he doesn't really deconstruct it either, and instead reverts to the demon / angel female dichotomy by contrasting Mal with the only other named female character, Ariadne, played by Ellen Page, who is herself defined only in relation to Cobb's struggle banish Mal from his subconscious and return home. I think this is a real problem for a lot of films, because while men are typically cast in a variety of interesting roles, women too frequently end up playing the same tired, cliched and boring parts that are rooted in anachronistic conceptions of gender. Literature in the twentieth century underwent a wake-up call, and there have been many works that have attempted not only to present better, more developed female characters and female-centric stories, but also to co-opt classic literature into modern gender discourse, as in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, which acts as a parallel to Jane Eyre, telling the story of the 'mad' Bertha Mason. I think it's about time that something similar happened in cinema, as too often women continue to be marginalised and written as boring archetypes instead of real people. It's bad for cinema, it's lazy on the part of screenwriters and directors, it's cowardly on the part of studios not to distribute films that aren't squarely aimed at young men, and it's fucking boring for the rest of us to have sit through another bloody sub-plot about a 'hooker with a heart of gold'.

Films with Julia Roberts are always boring and stupid
Next time, I'll be wrapping up our little discussion with a look at the so-called chick flicks, and arguing that they're even worse than 'men's films' at representing women, and I'll also be taking a few pot shots at recent poisonous pseudo-feminist horseshit like Sucker Punch. Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion!  


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