Screenwriter John August recently blogged about the Bechdel test, a (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek way to determine a film’s level of feminism. It consists of three questions you can ask about any film:
- Are there two or more female characters with names?
- Do they talk to each other?
- If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?
Obviously, the test itself isn’t the point. It’s intended to start a conversation about our media, our culture and, ultimately, why certain POVs (namely, that of straight white males) are so dominant compared to everyone else’s.
Nonetheless, as this video illustrates, you’d be surprised how many hit films fail the test.
As one of August’s commenters noted, it’s not just films that fail the Bechdel test, but novels and plays as well:
The same oversight exists in our nation’s public and independent high school English classes. Last year the most taught books in America were: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Huckleberry Finn, Julius Caeser, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, and The Odyssey… All of these texts fail the Bechdel test, too. Except for The Odyssey. Go figure.
So, it seems male-focused media has dominated our culture for centuries, and film is just the latest example of a classical bias reasserting itself.
What’s interesting to me is that film might also be the hardest medium to equalize.
Dudes in Motion
In Robert McKee’s screenwriting guide Story, he explains the differences in our popular media formats:
- Novels are tales of internal conflict, expressed through monologues
- Plays are tales of interpersonal conflict, expressed through dialogue
- Films are tales of external conflict, expressed through action
Again, as with the Bechdel test, there are exclusions, exceptions and overlaps. But generally (and financially) speaking, McKee’s right: history’s most profitable films have been blockbusters built on spectacle.
Film is motion. Film is action. Films must be dynamic in order to justify paying $12 to sit in a dark room filled with strangers, all sharing the same communal experience of being driven to emotion by a series moving images.
Which is why I’m not so sure the Bechdel test, which hinges on two female characters talking, is an appropriate litmus test for film.
For a film to “work,” the action must solve the problem. Thus, a better question might be whether a film’s female characters are able to solve their own problems without relying on the aid of the male characters.
(Of course, that still doesn’t excuse the Bechdelian failures of Shakespeare, but it’s worth mentioning that his plays were written in an era when all female roles would have been played by male actors anyway, so it’s something of a moot point.)
All of which also leads me to think, inevitably about the Internet.
Blog a Mile in My Shoes
If novels are the story of “s/he,” plays are the story of “them,” and film is the story of “it” (aka “the event”), then blogs, podcasts and videoblogs are the story of “I.” And since the world is basically divided down the middle between males and females, that should mean that the web would be the most diverse pool of stories on the planet, right?
So why can I personally name so many more straight white male bloggers than I can any other social media demographic?
Simple: I’m a straight white male. As such, I seek out the stories I can most easily identify with.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t also read blogs written by writers of different genders, ethnicities, ages and sexual orientations. In fact, that’s why I believe the Internet can equalize the arguments created by the Bechdel test.
It’s Easier to Feel You When You’re Cheap
Films are expensive to make, which means they must appeal to the widest possible demographic in order to earn their money back. And because they’re primarily made by white males, they’re primarily made for white males by default. That’s the residual self-identification of the film industry, which was founded by white males and is only now evolving into a truly multicultural talent pool.
And yet, when’s the last time you watched a film about a culture other than your own, or a character you couldn’t immediately identify with? (I know, I know: Slumdog Millionaire, the “Hey, we elected a black guy so we can stop talking about racism now” equivalent of the Academy Awards.)
Meanwhile, when’s the last time you read a blog (or a tweet) by someone who didn’t resemble you in a lineup? Probably five minutes ago.
Now that it’s so easy for individuals to express themselves online, the inner thoughts of “others” are more accessible today than they’ve ever been before. We don’t need bloated Hollywood productions, marketing armadas and bankable stars to convince us that someone else’s POV is worth our time and money to explore; we just need two minutes and YouTube.
Will this proximity to (and seeming acceptance of) “the other” online eventually lead us to be more tolerant of “other” POVs in more traditional media? I think that’s inevitable, though it won’t happen completely until diversity is proven to be reliably profitable.
Until then, we’ll be stuck with more recreations of the same stories we’ve all seen for decades:
The ones that sell.
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