all this and an equality cookie too: what we talk about when we talk about the bechdel test;
Being ever so slightly of the geeky persuasion the other week I, and an anticipated $1 billion worth of cinemagoers globally, went to see Joss Whedon’s big screen outing for The Avengers (NB: if even the BBC is giving it that title, it’s good enough for me). As I’m sure you’ve read, if not already seen, the film is a classic example of the superhero genre – it’s silly, funny and packed with action sequences – real edge-of-your-seat stuff. Although, as I remarked to my companions on leaving the cinema, throughout much of the film I’d been perched on the edge of my seat for another reason: I was becoming increasingly sure that, for probably the first time in a contemporary big screen blockbuster of its type, The Avengers was going to pass the Bechdel Test.
The test, as previously referenced on this blog and many others, dates back almost thirty years to the above strip from comic Dykes To Watch Out For and over time has been misnamed and misunderstood. Taken at face value it measures the active presence of female characters in film and television with reference to the following criteria:
- are there two or more, named, female characters?
- do they have a conversation during the film?
- is that conversation about something other than a man?
Increasingly I see the rule misappropriated as some kind of “feminist test”, however when I apply it I do so as more of an arms-length academic exercise involving a medium which, in the case of gender neutral stories, remains most likely to present the male as the norm and the female as somehow “other”. To view the test as some sort of be-all and end-all feminist criterion which individual movies can either pass or fail leads to some pretty skewed results – my friend @usuallydavid hits the nail on the head in characteristic fashion in a comment to the post on Dorothy Snarker’s excellent blog on feminist and queer culture I linked above:
[S]ome films pass the Bechdel test and yet display totally repulsive attitude towards women. (Ugh, Transformers 2 and its sexy camera-attracting ladybum robots, ugh.) That sort of thing is where per-film the test is pretty useless. But per-medium, it’s bang-on.
It seems to me that this is the only interpretation we, as responsible critics, can apply – while the test has its uses, to adopt it as some kind of shorthand for the ‘wrong sort’ of films is at best lazy and, at worst, a wilful refusal to engage with popular culture at a critical level. Adopting the test as a pass or fail measure is to suggest that shoehorning in some awkward exchange where named female characters discuss the weather, or the missile codes, or Hillary for President, for that discussion’s sake does more of a service to the story than a proper exploration of its characters, regardless of gender. And that can’t be right.
Regular readers will be aware that the man in my life is a feminist, a former film studies student and a soon-to-be-published novelist. This is both excellent, as it means I rarely have to waste my own time researching comics from the 1980s, and a right pain in the tits, as it means that if I want to engage with something critically Stringer will force me to truly engage even when all I want to do is post a sarcastic tweet and go to bed. Considering story structure and creating well-rounded characters is essentially what he does, constantly, so if I want to score cheap points I have to make sure I have reasonable grounds on which to do so.
Here is something he wrote last week for collaborative crime fiction blog Do Some Damage which was inspired by an interview with Liz Meriweather, creator of the hit sitcom New Girl:
I’d argue… that there is a tendency to read a female character as the writer’s definitive statement on feminism and gender politics. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure to place on a character and a story. Presenting well-rounded female characters in our work is vital. But there’s a difference between someone wanting to pick up a book and feel represented in the text, and someone wanted to pick up a book and expecting a character in the text to represent all of their sex/race/gender/species/shoe size.
Although it’s a little more complicated than that – not least because if you’ve watched beyond the much-maligned pilot episode of New Girl and gotten over the screeds of commentary devoted to Zooey Deschanel’s titular character you’ll have already figured out that the show is hardly a depiction of some ‘everywoman’ but rather an ensemble comedy along the same lines as Friends, only a bit less white, and as I posit in the comments the contrived reaction is less to do with the characters than the fact that shock horror it’s a show written by a woman (see also: Lena Dunham) – the point is a valid one. An earlier draft of the post called foul on Bechdel Test for many of the same reasons as above – that the way it is used nowadays is lazy, oversimplified and avoids an originally valid point.
Again – as an overarching way of considering a medium in which the male is seen as the norm and the female as other, yes. As a simple pass or fail, no.
There are three named female characters in The Avengers. I’d argue that Pepper Potts’ role is more of a cameo than anything else, and although Agent Maria Hill’s character is vital I would consider her role and function supporting at best. That Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow as the film’s female lead and, putting the catsuit aside, I’d argue that she’s a worthy successor to Joss Whedon’s already strong female lineage. She’s not there to provide a love interest, or as some prize to be won by the leading man once he’s done saving the day. She has a rounded, complex back story and two of the best fight scenes, and I would happily pay to see her in her own film. What undermines her character is not her lack of interactions with the film’s other women, but rather the fact that of the “Avengers” themselves she is one of only two who does not have her own franchise. The failing here is how unlikely it is that that would be greenlit by Marvel’s studio executives, despite the fact that Whedon’s script lays the groundwork.
So I recently finished reading Cathedral by king of the potboiler thriller Nelson DeMille, in an attempt to disengage my brain from all this critical theory. Only it didn’t work, because I noticed that although the politicking characters are all male, and every time a pair of terrorists of mixed genders end up in a turret together they end up shagging, the book – which does not pass the test, incidentally – plays some interesting games with gender norms. Both the head of the bomb disposal team and the only political character who seems together enough to call any shots are female (although the latter is disappointingly billed as an assistant), and it’s the male hostage negotiator who is preyed on and manipulated via his fears as a parent as if it was some kind of character flaw. All this from a book originally published in 1985!
I would not, however, argue for excluding the test from the weapons in a feminist cultural observer’s critical arsenal. View it instead as as just that – one weapon of many, rather than a tool of last resort. Think of it this way: there’s a film currently on at the cinema called What To Expect When You’re Expecting and I am willing to bet, both from the title and the posters I have seen on the side of buses in town it passes with flying colours. But I don’t want to see that film, not least because pregnant women – real or acting – make me feel a little sick (don’t; it’s a whole other thing). Similarly I do not care whether a film in which three groomsmen lose their soon-to-be-married pal on a stag night passes or fails, and even if I did I suspect the answer would involve strippers in some capacity. However, I’m pretty sure we all have an interest, regardless of gender, in not seeing New York blown to smithereens by lizardlike creatures from another dimension, and until women are not seen as “other” in such circumstances I vote we keep having the debate.