Bechdel’s Oscar

(Liya Rechtman)– I was in Keefe talking about sexual respect on campus for most of the Oscars. (I missed the superbowl because I got caught up in a conversation about the lesbian-gay dynamic. I see a pattern…) So there you go, clearly I’m not that plugged in. However, I feel like with all the discussion by Mystery Door 2 about the Oscars, I felt like I had something to add. No, I’m not totally immersed in the blogosphere and I haven’t been hypothesizing about who would win best costume designer since September.

I have, though, been around the feminist blogs, and I do know something about the Bechdel test and the 25% of the Oscar nominees that were women. It’s not new that Hollywood is an incredibly sexist scene, and that women rarely gets the accolades they deserve, if they somehow even manage to make it that far. And that’s before we even start talking about the Bechdel Test, which brings us to at least a preliminary tool for measuring how minimally women are represented in movies. Bechdel first said this in the late 90s through one of her characters in the (incredibly boss) comic Dykes To Watch Out For. There are men in her comic, and some of them do fill romantic roles, but the strip, in its 10-year run, is about a bunch of women thinking… whatever women think about. And its really fucking funny.

The Bechdel Test stipulates that in order to pass a movie must:

1. Have two (named) female characters
2. Who speak to each other
3. About something other than a man

That doesn’t sound so complicated, does it? Except that The Social Network, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II, Avatar, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all fail. You would think that in a three-hour movie there would be two lines of dialogue between women that aren’t about a man. You would be wrong.

Out of the 9 movies selected for Best Movie nomination this year, only 2 of them passed the test: The Descendants and The Help. Um, what?

We all know that Hollywood is a male-centered environment, it has been made clear to us that very few women get into the industry at all in any meaningful (more than sexual) capacity. The general explanation for this is that men are the screenwriters and they write what they can identify with. However, some feminists in the industry point blame, not towards screenwriters, but to their teachers and producers. They argue that the real reason why so few films pass the Bechdel Test is that screenwriters are taught that the only way to make it in film is to write white, male protagonists and appeal to that audience. In other words, “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”

Take a second and think about your three favorite movies. Well, as for myself, Fight Club fails right there on the first mark. Marla Singer talks to herself sometimes, but even then it’s about Tyler Durdon. (I’ll come back to Fight Club in a moment). I’m pretty feminist, so you would thinking that I would have some favorite movies which pass the test, but if I look through my own (in no particular order), I don’t turn out much better than Oscar critics:

Waltz with Bashir –Fails. It does have some female characters, but as far as I can recall, and certainly at least the ex-girlfriend and mother are named, but they don’t speak to each other, or at all.

Chloe –Passes! Although, sadly, not by much. There are only a few moments when the two women talk about anything other than the husband and son of the older woman. In fact, their whole romance is through the guise of both sleeping with the husband…

Saved! – Passes! Because, um, they talk about pregnancy, which doesn’t directly involve the guy.

History Boys – fails

Jesus Christ Superstar – fails. Although there are a couple of women with solos, they’re all always talking about Jesus or Judas.

So even out of my favorite movies, I was only able to pass 2 out of 5. And those two movies, interestingly, prove the limits of the Bechdel Test. The test doesn’t actually help us discern which movies are feminist or high quality. Fight Club is a pretty feminist movie, in that it explores the complexities of masculinity and insecurity, but it certainly doesn’t pass the test. Whereas Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle does pass, even though the women are hyper-sexualized and objectified as the main plot point. In my picks, too, the movies that pass aren’t exactly feminist. While Chloe is female-centered, the sexuality of the characters, especially of the protagonist, is tied up inexorably with the man and her age is seen most through her interactions with the son. This movie does raise some interesting questions about female sexuality, though, so I feel that it deserves to pass the Bechdel test.

Bechdel is meant to be a greater comment on the movie industry at large, and for the purposes of this post the Oscar nominations in particular, than about any specific movie. Obviously, the rule is not hard and fast, but a useful tool nonetheless for noting empirically how few of the possible female characters are actually portrayed in Hollywood with any frequency.

Worth thinking about the next time you sit down to a movie, next time you consider an awards season…

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