Nov. 9th, 2013

sesquipedality: (Queen of Swords)
It's possible you've already seen my comments on the Bechdel Test, but if not, first, a quick recap.

The Bechdel Test (not in fact devised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, but by a friend of hers, Liz Wallace) as originally expressed was a criterion for which films to go and watch. Wallace would only watch movies if they contained

1) at least two female characters
2) who have a conversation with each other
3) about something other than a man.

The test has become increasingly popular in modern years, and there's even a website which now indicates how much of the test films manage to pass. The problem is that of course it doesn't test a great deal. The point of the test is as a conceptual tool to demonstrate the narrow confines into which women are placed (particularly within film and television), as appendages to the really important male characters. But increasingly people are using it as a metric for a film's feminist credentials, which it was never really intended to be. Indeed, in Sweden, one chain of cinemas is now giving films a Bechdel rating. Consider that all the St Trinian's films pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Now I quite like the St. Trinian's films, but they are about as feminist as Bernard Manning.

After last night's trip to the cinema, I have an excellent example of a film I regard as feminist which utterly fails the Bechdel test. That film is Gravity. There are only two female characters (from a cast of five, only three of which are seen alive on screen), who never speak. But the lead character is an excellent female character. While she is out of her depth in a way that the male character is not, there are sound plot reasons for this (he is a retiring veteran astronaut, she a rookie on her first mission) and she is demonstrably an extremely capable scientist in her own right. The second and third acts of the film focus almost exclusively on her solving her own problems by her own agency, and the story is really about her rising to the challenging circumstances which she encounters. She is demonstrably capable, without in any way being "a woman with something to prove" (another lazy stereotype that plays into patriarchal story telling rather than subverting it). She has family related backstory that's possibly slightly playing to stereotypes, but actually it would work just as well for a father as for a mother.

Now it's not a perfect film from a feminist perspective. The unnecessary male forename ("my father wanted a boy", ugh - I do wonder if in early drafts the character was male), and a few very male gazey long body shots when she's outside of her spacesuit spring to mind, but it is a film that gives a female character her own arc, motivations, and reality.

I suppose my point is that "this film is misogynist because it fails the Bechdel Test" really isn't something we should be saying. The point of the Bechdel test was to demonstrate that Hollywood marginalises and dehumanises women, and it's doing that that makes a film misogynist. The Bechdel Test was a valuable tool in that it drew attention to this behaviour, but isn't it time we looked beyond the manifestation of that behaviour as expressed in the test to the underlying behaviour that causes so few films to pass it?

(Final paragraph edited to make the point a little clearer.)

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