Monday, 27 February 2012

The Bechdel Test Part 2: Romantic Comedies

Okay, so it was Oscar night on Sunday, so you may wondering what I thought of the outcome. The Artist pretty much deserved to win Best Picture, Score, Actor (though Gary Oldman was equally deserving for his turn in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), and Director, but I remain irked that Nicholas Winding Refn's fantastic Drive didn't get even a nod in any major categories. Scorsese's Hugo earned its five wins, especially cinematography and set design. Sacha Baron Cohen's stunt was predictable but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think it was funny. I couldn't give two fucks about The Help, I haven't seen Midnight in Paris, and Meryl Streep's win was as inevitable as it was pointless. So that's that for another year. Incidentally, you should check out this video from Anita Sarkeesian  for some really interesting points about women filmmakers and the Oscars.

Also, beware, as this post's a long one, so you might want to put on a pot of coffee.

Anyway, in my last post, we had a look at the Bechdel Test and how women are grossly under-represented in films. This time, I want to focus the discussion by examining a few films that are aimed specifically at, and are about, women. As I mentioned before, 'women's films' are often referred to as 'chick flicks', which is a deceptively problematic term. If we take 'chick flick' simply to mean a film that appeals in particular to women, then we have an incredibly broad raft of different types of films. Romantic comedies tend to be the dominant chick flicks, but often melodramas such as John Avnet's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe are seen as chick flicks, as are musicals, and films about 'women's issues', such as the recent The Help, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Chick flicks tend to focus on characterisation, relationships and emotional conflict and resolution, as opposed to action, violence, or the other preserves of 'male cinema'. But even this definition incorporates films as diverse as Gone With The Wind, Now Voyager, and Maid in Manhattan. The core concept of the chick flick is that it appeals exclusively to women. It's very interesting, then, that 'chick flick' is broadly a pejorative term, used to denote frothy, inferior films that lack the artistic gravitas of a 'male' film. On this second point, I think the damage to women's films is twofold: 'chick flick' diminishes the value of women's cinema by framing it as an inferior 'other' to male films. Furthermore, it makes it too easy to criticise unsatisfactory tosh aimed at women by giving it a label rather than actively engaging with it and asking what in particular is so unsatisfying and toshy. 

To paraphrase Chris Rock, I hate chick flicks, but I love women's films.  We need to start making and watching good women's films, and relegate chick flicks to the past, both by being more demanding of women's cinema, and not using the term 'chick flick' as a vague, insubstantive pejorative. For the next section of this post I'll be briefly discussing three romantic comedies. Originally, I wanted to discuss a broader range of films, but  for now I'll leave it at the rom coms and return to the rest in a future post.

It's no surprise that romantic comedies are as successful, or ubiquitous, as they are. They're cheap and quick to make, and a guaranteed formula means even critically panned dross like Bride Wars tends to make a respectable return for their studios. It's partially through the slavish adherence to the familiar romcom plot formula, as well as the identikit marketing of almost every example of the genre (evidence of which is herehere and here) that mean that rom coms are generally regarded as inferior, which is a shame because there are good examples of romantic comedy, some of which are, admittedly, responsible for the model on which so much other crap is based. What follows is a summary of a few notable examples of romantic comedies that, for better or worse, exemplify the genre in some way, and whether they pass the Bechdel Test.

1) Pillow Talk
Frothy but fun: Pillow Talk
Michael Gordon's Pillow Talk comes from the tail-end of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age in 1959, and while not the first romantic comedy, is certainly partially responsible for the modern rom com formula. The plot begins with Jan Morrow, played by Doris Day, being tormented by Brad Allen, her womanising neighbour who keeps tying up their shared phone line with his string of girlfriends. Initially they hate each other (can we see where this is going?), before Brad sees Jan and realises she looks and dances like Doris Day. He therefore instantly decides he wants to sleep with her, but knowing she'll reject him once she finds out who he is, he adopts a fake Texan persona called 'Rex Stetson' and gets her to fall in love with him. However his jealous friend, also in love with Jan, brings the whole deck of cards crashing down, which of course, results in the brief end-of second act conflict, before Jan gets over the fact that was duped and decides she really is in love with Brad and marries him. Despite the formulaic plot, Day and Rock Hudson, who plays Brad, inject their roles with wit and humour, and while the film is undoubtedly unenlightened about women (and in one unintentionally ironic scene, homosexuality), it feels very modern. For example, Jan is a single, independent woman with a job and an apartment, and although she does end up with Brad in the end, the film doesn't portray her as the kind of unlucky-in-love loser that more recent, supposedly more progressive films have done.

Bechdel Test: Fail. Jan talks to her housekeeper, who also serves as her 'wise friend' character, but they only ever really talk about Brad Allen's annoying phone habits.

2) Down With Love
Pillow Talk has become so archetypal of the genre that it was semi-remade the 2003 film Down With Love, directed by Peyton Reed. It borrows the basic plot and character beats of Pillow Talk to tell its story of Barbara Novak who, while promoting her new pseudo-feminist book, falls for the womanising Catcher Block. Down With Love tries to gets away with repeating the catalogue of rom com cliches by setting itself in the golden era of romantic comedies, and by overtly mirroring the style and structure of of films like Pillow Talk. It's a self-aware rom com, one that refers to and pokes fun at formula while itself adhering to it. Even the post-modern twist at the end doesn't really change the direction of the movie, and so the two leads end up together against all sense of odds or social ethics, proving once again that even crazy feminist go-getters just want to be loved.

Red text on a white background strikes again
What is frustrating about this film, apart from the overdone production design and score, which insist on incessantly reminding you that YOU'RE IN A 60s COMEDY!, is that its setting provided a great opportunity to satirise and deconstruct the cliches of rom coms. In parts it clearly wants to: in one scene, for example, the 'friend' character, played by Frasier's David Hyde Pierce, refers to Catcher's apartment switcheroo caper as being straight from a film, and to Catcher and Barbara as 'the leads'. The final twist reveals that it was Barbara who was fooling Catcher all along, which consciously and directly subverts the dynamic it borrows from Pillow Talk. But alas, all this clever meta-commentary ultimately signifies nothing, as 'the leads' end up together just as surely as supporting characters always pair off with each other, just so everyone gets at least one shag. Barbara fools Catcher because she fell in love with him as his former secretary, before reinventing herself a glamorous writer. She even wrote her feminist book just to attract Catcher's attention, 'cos that's like, you know, all chicks really want. Apparently, the only arc that Barbara goes through is to do dye her hair red at the end, as some sort of contrived compromise between being a sexy blonde and a frumpy, secretarial brunette.

Bechdel Test: Pass. Barbara and her friend character talk about promoting her book. Which is about love, and indirectly, men, because apparently even when women aren't talking about men, they are really.

3) When Harry Met Sally

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal: Perfect casting
If Pillow Talk exemplifies the genre in the 1950s and 60s, then Rob Reiner's 1989 When Harry Met Sally is undoubtedly the archetypal modern romantic comedy; the yardstick by which all other boy-meets-girl stories are judged. I think When Harry Met Sally is the best example of a rom com that adheres almost completely to formula, yet manages to transcend those limitations and become a good film in its own right. What makes Reiner's film so successful is the combination of snappy, funny writing, well-written, properly developed and likable characters, and a romantic sincerity sorely lacking in many more recent rom coms. The leads are perfectly cast - Sally is initially fussy and slightly annoying (ironically Meg Ryan has never been less so), whereas Billy Crystal plays Harry at first as cocksure, faux-wise beyond his years and even a little chauvinist, propositioning Sally just hours after he's left his girlfriend to go to New York. What is great about these characters is that they don't sacrifice their unlikable traits for the sake of the audience. Rather, we gradually get to know and understand their idiosyncrasies, watching them develop over the course of years. In a lesser film, Harry's climactic dash to tell Sally he loves her would be trite and cynical, but it works here because we're genuinely invested in the characters: they're right for each other because they're written well, not because the movie has to end with them getting together. What I like in particular about When Harry Met Sally is both leads are given equal screen time, and both are developed equally well. Despite the plot being a fairly formulaic romantic comedy, it would be especially unfair to call When Harry Met Sally a chick flick because it's about two people falling in love: it's categorically not about a woman's search for a man, which despite all its cleverness, is basically what Down With Love, and many other inferior romantic comedies, are about.

Bechdel Test: Fail. I think in this instance you can forgive the failure as all any of the four named characters do, male and female, is talk about the opposite sex. If you're selective, can reverse-apply the Bechdel Test to men in films, and find that many male characters only talk about women. However, as Anita Sarkeesian has already pointed out, there is not a problem with male representation in films, but there is with female representation. Many great films fail the bechdel test and many bad ones pass it, but the point is that it is still extremely useful as a gauge for the culture of gender bias in cinema.

I'm aware that I've missed an entire raft of films that would have been useful in this discussion; Bridesmaids is a particular interesting example of a typical 'guy film' - in this case the gross-out sex comedy - being reappropriated by a majority female cast and for a female audience. I'll save my thoughts on Bridesmaids for another post, but I'll say here that although I welcome films like Bridesmaids, and I applaud its attempt to represent women as just as funny and oafish as men, I do think that it largely fails at doing so, and fails at avoiding the cliches of the conventional rom com. Similarly, romantic comedies have experienced a similar reappropriation for male audiences, with examples including the fantastic High Fidelity, the iconic Annie Hall, the silly but amusing Knocked Up, and the overrated (500) Days of Summer. Also, and I'm saving these films for later as well, I think there are some great films with strong female leads and casts that don't fit into the rom com genre, including Alien, Thelma and Louise (both directed by Ridley Scott and both of which pass the Bechdel Test), and Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown.

Good effort but can we try it without the pink and the puppies next time?
I've suggested that women are under-representend both in films and as film-makers, and I think part of the problem is that women are cast in the same roles over and over again - as the wife, the girlfriend, or as the single woman who wants to become a wife or girlfriend. What can we do to change this? Supporting films that cast women in less conventional and more prominent roles would be a good, such as in Clint Eastwood's teriffic Changeling, or indeed Bridesmaids, even though I personally think it's overrated. Still though, babysteps. Secondly, in order to combat the lack of prominence of female filmmakers, I suggest two new categories for the Oscars (and other major film awards): Best Male Director and Best Female Director. We have male and female categories for the Best Actor awards, so why not for directors? It would force the major awards ceremonies to at least acknowledge the existence of female directors, which apparently at the moment they don't do at all, and it would bring greater prominence not only to specific female directors such as Kathryn Bigelow (the only woman to have ever won a Best Director Oscar or BAFTA), but also to women filmmakers in general. Women are clearly marginalised in front of and behind the camera, and it is incredibly detrimental to cinema. When any group is given excessive prominence over another, we all lose out because we miss the potential for new ideas, images and stories. The absence of women in films is gross and bizarre, and on a purely financial level it's stupid. The fact is women's films make money: Bridesmaids grossed almost $288 million worldwide, on a relatively small budget of $32.5 million, and Steven Soderbergh's 2000 Erin Brockovich made $256 million on a budget of $52 million. Making quality films for and about women isn't just about feminism or art - it makes financial sense too, and it's about time the film industry woke up to this and cleaned up its act.


  1. Re: Changeling: I'm not entirely sure that "mother" qualifies as a less conventional role for women.

  2. I see your point, and that did occur to me: I certainly wouldn't argue that Christine Collins is a feminist character. However, I do think that she is a good example of a strong female lead who does not allow herself to be victimised. I think overall her character is a positive one, even though, as you point out, she is in a fairly conventional role.