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July 24, 2015:
Taking a Break from Perfume to Contemplate the Bechdel Test
On one of our recent morning discussions before he left for work, my husband told me about the Bechdel Test – a theoretical test that feminists use to gauge how well women are represented in the movies, as the prevailing thought is that too many movies exercise gender bias, either portraying its female characters as the stereotypical weaker sex who are man-dependent (the implication being that the thoughts and motivations of these characters largely revolve around the romantic endeavors of winning a man and keeping him, or of getting over the heartbreak of losing him) or not portraying women at all, except maybe as some background character who is very minor in terms of the story. As such, for those who champion women’s rights, the Bechdel Test has become the measure of whether a film merits watching, and it’s a very simple test (which makes sense considering it originated from a comic strip), stating that for a movie to pass it must have these three things:
1) Two females (preferably named),
2) Who talk to each other,
3) About something other than a man.
Ah, that puts a whole lot of movies on the “fail” side, doesn’t it? The majority of them is the feeling of my husband and another gentleman, his friend and colleague, who were discussing the Bechdel Test at work a day or two before he brought the subject home to me. In their opinion, movies generally portray women as being one-dimensional rather than as complex, capable individuals with rich and varied interests. Upon hearing my husband voice their feeling that women deserve better representation, I suppose my own response should have been a solid “Bravo!”
Except that it wasn’t.
I came away feeling that, inherent with their belief that women in the movies are too often portrayed as needy romantics, any woman who avidly watches such films might just as well place herself in the same category. That would be the logical assumption, yes? And because I do love movies in which romance and relationships figure heavily, my sensitivity button was pushed, albeit not right away. My initial response upon hearing about the Bechdel Test was to paraphrase a quote from my favorite Anne Tyler novel, The Accidental Tourist. It comes from a minor character named Rose (sister to the main character), who has spent her entire adult life taking care of her brothers and now has a chance to break free from her spinsterhood, but who fears she is about to be thwarted by them. In actuality, they aren’t trying to thwart her, but when she breaks down and accuses them of trying to drive off her new beau, her speech strikes me as being every bit as true as it is humorous. “You three wasted your chances and now you want me to waste mine, but I won’t do it,” she tells them defiantly, declaring:
Looking back, I realize it wasn’t the best quote to use for this particular discourse due to its reference to soap operas. Yet that anachronistic reference is why the quote is so memorable to me: it’s both kitschy and real. Love is what makes the world go round, and it is through our relationships that we define ourselves: the kind of people we are, the boundaries we set in a relationship, the limits we transcend (in good or bad ways) to support or hold onto another person. We see our light, our places of deep darkness, our ability or inability to change, to cooperate, to put our foot down (or maybe to lift it for once). In the case of Rose in The Accidental Tourist, what’s fascinating is seeing the ways in which love to a truly good man expands her world but cannot break the slavish devotion and odd living arrangement she has with her brothers. Equally fascinating is seeing how her husband, a far more worldly man than she, is affected by their love – the accommodations he makes such that they can remain married while she tries to wean herself from this codependency. They are minor characters in this novel and the movie based on it. There is even more to glean about what it means to be fully human—to love, lose, hurt, fail and fall in love again (to live again after the profoundest of losses)—through an examination of its main characters, whose romantic story plays out in such a way that it becomes an examination of how family and the social circles we belong to affect our choices.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? As Rhett Butler would say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Which brings me to my next point: Gone with the Wind. Would this epic portrayal of the antebellum South, and the Civil War’s effect on it, have had the impact it did if Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley Wilkes and Melanie were out of the picture? Would it have been a better novel and a better film if Scarlett never cinched up her corset, lusted after Ashley and married unsuspecting men she didn’t love – instead, doing from the outset what she did midway through the story, which was to go out and grub in the fields to try to save Tara? I realize that historical fiction might not apply to the Bechdel Test* because such stories pre-date women winning their rights, not to mention the women’s lib movement, but I do think there is a point to be made here. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These are just a handful of classic novels that have been made and remade into films, and not only is a love affair central to each one, but consider how many of these works were authored by men. The level of passion, the obsessive nature of the romances in these works! They are proof that relationship drama is a subject every bit as compelling to men as it is to women. The greatest writers of our time weren’t writing such books to capitalize on the reading proclivities of women: these are serious and often rigorous works in which other themes – political, cultural, social, psychological – are explored alongside and in connection with the love stories at their core. And yet the love story is the central, beating pulse of these works and not a metaphor in service to a greater theme. Read any one of them and see how true it rings to the nature of romantic love in its various permutations, from naïve infatuation to deepest obsession and every stage in between.
What then of the films we can’t really call films? In other words, the films that aren't classics or “serious” works. (If we’re going to judge things, then we’d better call those entertaining little numbers by their popular name: “movies”.) Thanks to the Internet, I watch a lot of films and I watch a lot of movies, too, and I’m quite sure that many of the latter not only fail the Bechdel Test, but offer up as much intellectual nutrition as a packet of jujubes. And yet, sometimes I can go a long way on a little sugar rush, and that’s the way I feel about movies like The Holiday, Bridget Jones’s Diary, He’s Just Not That Into You, Return to Me and Only You. With their formulas of love lost and found, these movies offer up comfortingly familiar portraits of human nature. They’re a reminder of the sorrows and joys we all share at some point in our lives, and seeing them on the screen allows me to laugh out loud at my foibles (which bear no small resemblance to Bridget Jones’s embarrassing moments); remember what the true rewards of life are (the first kiss, the hour-long phone call, the time I was running with my cross country team and a certain guy doubled back and held my hand to help me up the toughest hill on the course); as well as to realize that there is an ideal in love that’s worth reaching for, even if it doesn’t come with the sexy bells and whistles and happily-ever-after assuredness of movie love.
I will admit that watching romantic movies sometimes makes me wistful, wishing I could go back in time to experience the moonstruck stage of “new love” again, and I'll also admit that such yearning isn’t useful. But it is a reminder to treat my longtime partner well – to flirt and keep some sweet playfulness between the two of us – as well as a reminder of some other important things too: mainly, that while I enjoy a great degree of solitude, life is better when it's shared, either as part of a couple or with friends that cheer or commiserate with you on the sidelines, just as they do in the movies. Which brings up my next point. Romantic movies almost always feature two things that are very true to life and worth remembering: the first is the friend who is always there as a sounding board and source of comfort; the second is the dream person who comes along when you’ve given up on ever finding him or her. Romantic movies are a reminder that life is never over when you think it is: a pool of unexpected surprises ebbs and flows the entire length of our lives. I know this is true and only have to think of my maternal grandfather, in the final years of his life, when, twice widowed, he met a woman he fell head over heels in love with, enjoying her companionship for many years.
These are the reassurances of the frothy romantic movies that, whether they pass or fail the Bechdel Test, probably wouldn’t rate well on the feminist’s watch list. They are often formulaic, but like most clichés, they speak of enduring truths. That said, for those who don’t share my enthusiasm and are wondering, like my husband and his friend, why there aren’t more films portraying women in the full, complex, light they deserve, can I suggest that you put aside the Bechdel Test, poke around the movie streaming sites and take heart? There are many films featuring women of every age and type in roles of impressive ingenuity and strength; I believe it to be so just from doing a quick survey of the movies I’ve watched online over the past six months: The Imitation Game with Keira Knightley playing a code breaker during World War II; Annette Benning very competently handling both the management of a Hilton hotel and Al Pacino, its rock-star guest, in Danny Collins; Sandra Bullock as an astronaut single-handedly piloting a space capsule back to Earth in Gravity; Melissa McCarthy single-parenting her son in St. Vincent; Lake Bell as a vocal coach who wins a voice-over gig for a blockbuster movie in In A World: Carey Mulligan running a large sheep farm, in 1860s England, in the remake of Far from the Madding Crowd; Kate Winslet as a garden designer during Louis XIV’s rule of France, who lands a contract to design a fountain garden and outdoor ballroom at Versailles, in A Little Chaos; and Keira Knightley again, this time making a music album her own way in Begin Again. I could go on and on – this represents only a small sample of the movies I’ve recently watched in which women are portrayed as leading ladies who lead in the feminist sense of the word, with confidence, determination, creativity and, most importantly, with a sense of independence they rarely have to declare because they already own it.
*Apparently historical fiction is applied to the Bechdel Test (you can see the full list of movies at BechdelTest.com). After writing this piece I was astonished to learn that Gone with the Wind passes the Bechdel test based on one conversation in which Scarlett is asked by Melanie (whom Scarlett hates since Melanie is married to Scarlett’s dream man) if she will look after her baby if she dies during childbirth, and Scarlett agrees. This (as the dialogue that gives the movie it's passing mark) strikes me as more than a little ironic; go figure!
Anyway, of the handful of historical films I’ve mentioned here, Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago and Wuthering Heights fail the test, while Gone with the Wind, The Great Gatsby, Far from the Madding Crowd and Lady Chatterley’s Lover all pass.
“I can see what’s what. Just listen to any song on the radio; look at any soap opera. Love is what it’s all about. On soap operas everything revolves around love. A new person comes to town and right away the question is, who’s he going to love? Who’s going to love him back? Who’ll lose her mind with jealousy? Who’s going to ruin her life? And you want to make me miss it?” †
†The Accidental Tourist, copyright © 1985 by Anne Tyler Modarressi (excerpt is from the Ballantine Book paperback edition, published by The Random House Publishing Group, New York, 2002, p. 159).
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