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Feb. 9 2010 - 1:11 pm | 14,901 views | 3 recommendations | 16 comments

How the Bechdel Test could save the Oscars

upintheair1

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.

Boy Toys

CRAZY HEART

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

avatar

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.

bullock point

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    I had never heard of either of these codes of conduct, but they’re interesting. In my opinion multi-cultural/gender equality has nothing to do with a movie’s task, so they’re totally irrelevant to me. Movies are supposed to tell good stories, and in order to do that, they have to make money. That’s the long and short of their agenda, in my opinion.

    But like you, I’m a white dude, so I may just be being a jerk.

  2. collapse expand

    “Movies are supposed to tell good stories.”

    That was the point of the post! IMO, they’re NOT telling good stories most of the time, and at least part of the reason why is that they’re using the same lame and lazy tropes of race and gender that we’ve seen a million times before. If I can tell what role someone is going to play in a plot by their race or gender, you f**d up as a filmmaker.

    I don’t consider them ‘codes of conduct’ because it’s not like I want to call in the Multicultural Police to enforce some diversity quota. It’s more like a game to show how narrow Hollywood’s conception of reality is, their ‘liberal’ credentials notwithstanding.

    And as far as ‘making money’, yes, Hollywood will blame their casting and limited choice of stories on appealing to the masses and the profit motive. I find their rationale similar to well-meaning Democrats who strongly advised against nominating Barack because America would never vote for a black president (or a woman, in the case of Hillary). *They* weren’t racist/sexist, mind you, but they had to get the votes of those that were.

    Eventually, Hollywood will have to stop pawning off bad beliefs onto the unwashed masses and own up to the effects of its decisions. Plenty of movies have made money with a minority cast or a female lead and plenty of movies with mostly white dudes have lost money. That’s not an excuse anymore.

    • collapse expand

      Sure, understood. My point was not to say that movies featuring minorities of race or gender were being avoided for financial reasons, that they’re more of a risk or something, just that I think creators have bigger fish to fry than balancing the scales of equality in their movie. Or rather, different fish to fry. They’re trying to tell a good story. They’re also trying to make money. If they think adding or subtracting a woman or an african american or a giraffe will help them meet those goals, they will do that. If they don’t, they won’t. Other than that, I honestly think they don’t care.

      Perhaps it would be good for writers/directors/producers to be more conscious of such things. But I don’t think a lack of consciousness suggests a lack of empathy. Just different priorities.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        You’re absolutely correct that Hollywood’s primary goal is money, and to a much lesser degree, story. But I *do* think they are avoiding female leads and more than one representative from each minority for ‘financial reasons’ (aka thinking the audience won’t tolerate more). There are countless accounts from writers and directors of film studio execs saying just that to their face. Here’s an account of a female writer being explicitly told she puts too many women in her scripts.

        But my point isn’t that we should simply drop more women and minorities in movies. I’d rather have a movie that didn’t have any women in it at all than one that uses them as lazily as they’re being used now. I don’t want movies to be more diverse to improve society. I want filmmakers to use minorities and women in a way besides props because that will make better movies. My beef is an aesthetic one. I don’t care so much about balanced scales as I do about seeing the same damn dumb movie about a guy and a girl where the girl is barely fleshed out enough to even be called a character. That’s it.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          I don’t want movies to be more diverse to improve society. I want filmmakers to use minorities and women in a way besides props because that will make better movies.

          And of course this point can be extended: Writing minority and female characters as real humans makes for better movies…and treating minorities and women as real humans in real life makes for a better society.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I’d suggest studying the concept of privilege, Mr. Donovan.

        The reality isn’t that filmmakers are concerned with telling a good story and that doing such just magically means that nearly every story is about white men. The reality is that white men are seen as the standard, all else deviation. Therefore, they either don’t even consider making movies about anything else, or they think such movies won’t do well, because EVERYONE wants to see the same stories over and over again about white dudes, amirite? ;)

        The point is that, in being so privileged (that is, in thinking that everyone relates to, cares about and is interested in the same stale old stories about white men over. and. over. and. over. again), they are churning out films that are getting worse and worse.

        Try putting the shoe on the other foot.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          I agree that all parts should be written better. I think men are given more chances to be writers and to sell their work, so the stories they create inevitably focus more on characters like themselves. They write secondary characters poorly because they don’t know them as well, and because of probably some combo of laziness/lack of skill/lack of interest.

          I guess I’m just reluctant to prescribe them malevolent intent. It’s really really hard to write a good movie, especially one that will sell like a good movie. Those tasks are so massive that I think some of disrespect paid to minorities in film is a result of that enormity and not any intended slight.

          As David notes below, you make a sensitive and intelligent movie about a variety of cultures and people and you get “The Visitor.” An outstanding film, but one that Hollywood on the whole is not at all receptive to. It’s a battle to get those movies produced, so it’s understandable that writers instead often create something more simplistic.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            I think part of the problem is that a lot of these movie executives don’t know or don’t care what a good movie is and the only effort they put into it are in areas directly related to financial success. Terminator Salvation had a budget of $200 million and I know freshman film students that could write a better script.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      With your point about Obama and Clinton, you reminded me of this post I read at the Hathor Legacy that was written by a former film student. When she was in film school, her instructors were always telling her to change female or non-white characters to white male characters because white male characters are more “relatable.” And it wasn’t that they, the instructors, were narrow-minded, it was the people out there, the viewing public. That’s how it was always explained.
      I couldn’t agree more that this way of doing things makes movies boring and predictable. Of the nominees, the only thing that’s seemed deserving so far has been ‘Precious’ and ‘The Hurt Locker.’

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Mr. Childers,

    You are completely correct that there are many successful (and even profitable) movies that do not fall into safe, predictable formulas of any type, including gender and race. However those movies take a lot of work to pull off and are rightly seen as risky (“The Visitor”, “Lars and the Real Girl” or “Eve’s Bayou”). Formulaic movies of any type can make just as much money, and probably more, but with a lot less effort and risk. Guess which will get made more often.

  4. collapse expand

    You’ve hit upon something very key that a lot of people don’t seem to realize. It’s boring to have a story with only a few “fully human” characters surrounded by a bunch of caricatures, proxies, and tools. This is also why tokenism doesn’t work. Just adding female characters or minority characters doesn’t make the story any better if they aren’t going to have any substance to them. In fact, it makes the problem even worse, because now you’ll have people thinking that this is how women or people of color really are.

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