How the Bechdel Test could save the Oscars
For the uninitiated, The Bechdel Rule, or the Bechdel Test, is a way of judging movies based on the following criteria:
1) there are at least two named female characters, who
2) talk to each other about
3) something other than a man.
The rule was first introduced to the world by cartoonist Allison Bechdel in 1985 in a comic from her popular strip, Dykes To Watch Out For. According to Bechdel, it should actually be called The Liz Wallace Test, as her friend actually came up with it, but I’m sticking with tradition, so nevermind that. The test, or rather the difficulty in finding movies that pass it, is a testament to the shocking (not really) lack of diversity in Hollywood production, even in 2010. And the problem doesn’t end with gender, obviously. Take Deggan’s Rule, an offshoot of The Bechdel Test, coined by Eric Deggans of The St. Petersburg Times:
1) At least two non-white human characters in the main cast…
2) that’s not about race.
Now it would seem, as a white man, I’m not personally injured by the failure of most movies to pass either of these tests. Our stories are being told, our concerns are being addressed, our grievances are being aired; all is well in White Boy Town. But that is not so. First off, any group that only hears it own stories is not getting the full story. Surrounded by only look-and-think-alikes, it becomes impossible not to become parochial and stagnant. After all, one of the main social benefits of fiction is the encouragement of empathy, and these narrow narratives deny us its full expression.
But as much social harm as excluding half the population from being fully realized fictional characters does, I’d say it does even greater damage to movies as an art form. Think about it. Any screenwriter/director/producer that can’t think of anything more for a woman to do than be a girlfriend, wife, mother, or kidnapped daughter is probably going to lack imagination in other areas as well. A filmmaker who only sees minorities as Issues or wacky sidekicks is, more likely than not, a hack. After all, what are stereotypes if not clichés in the real world? But why talk in generalities? Let’s look at this year’s Oscar nominees.
The most egregious current Oscar offenders on the Bechdel scale are Up in the Air and Crazy Heart. They violate the letter and the spirit of the rule. The two lead actresses, Vera Farmiga and Maggie Gyllenhaal, give solid performances playing what seem like strong female characters on paper especially since [SPOILER ALERT] neither one of them choose to stay with these dysfunctional men. But that’s pretty sad consolation, given that they still both function only as satellites in orbit around the world of the male leads. The little inner life that they possess is only there to contrast against the guy’s wants and needs. They are machines to initiate the protagonist’s redemption, never coming close to being flesh and blood people themselves. And that’s a large part of why, the Academy’s opinion aside, both of these films are infuriatingly predictable Hollywood hackery. Their surprises are telegraphed a mile away, their insight are focus-grouped within an inch of their life, and their honesty has had every bit of rough edge sanded off to make it palatable to a wide audience. Much of that has to do with the incredibly limited role women are allowed to play in these stories. Once you know the gender, you know the role they play.
Let Me Help You Help Your People
But it’s in the racial sphere where this year’s Oscar nominees really muck it up. Take box-office juggernaut, Avatar, James Cameron’s attempt to “reinvent” cinema through the use of giant 3-D Smurf warriors and sledgehammer-subtle liberal soapboxing. Far be it for me to say David Brooks got something right, but, well, David Brooks got something right in his column blasting Avatar for continuing the long tradition of “The White Messiah Complex”, and calls it a “racial fantasy par excellence”:
It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.
Speaking of white saviors and supporting minority actors who exist only for the main character’s rdemption, let’s talk about Dangerous Minds Freedom Writers Gran Torino Radio Glory Road The Soloist Music of the Heart The Blind Side, a movie that people are forever going to be looking back at and saying, “That was up for Best Picture?” Using the cover of a true story, as usual, the movie tells the inspiring tale of one large, and largely mute, black teenage male and the saintly white lady who saves him from the life of homelessness and despair so common to ‘those people’. And, of course, learns a little bit about herself in the process. Ugh. While this has been a great vehicle for Bullocks’ redemption as an actress in the press, it’s been less effective for telling the true story of Michael Oher, who remains superfluous in his own movie, an oversized prop for Bullock’s character to lift up and lean on depending on her needs at the moment.
There are some bright spots in Oscar Land, though. Inglorious Basterds, despite the title, is more about Shoshanna Dreyfuss’s struggles than the boys, and its her scheming rather than theirs that saves the day. And while An Education doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test by the letter, it does in spirit. Still, it’s sort of the exception that proves the rule: even in a movie about a young woman learning to have an identity separate from men, she doesn’t have a real conversation with a woman apart from talking about her man. And while District 9 and Precious both have racially problematic elements, they’re nowhere near as bad as Avatar and The Blind Side in that regard. The Hurt Locker, while unavoidably a guy’s story, could bring the first directing trophy for a woman in Oscar history. So, I guess like any progress, we have to keep repeating the mantra: baby steps. Even Hollywood can learn something if you give it enough time. Maybe.