Films / Race / Women and Gender

Look Who’s Talking: Why Feminist Reviews of Best Picture Oscar Nominees and Utilizing the Bechdel Test for Films Matter

The film Super Bowl is here…that’s right, The Oscars! Huzzah! As a raging cinephile, I love the Oscars, I live for the Oscars. And yet, they so often piss me off. Because they are white male bonanza.

Only 4 women have ever been nominated for a Best Director Oscar: Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). In 83 years, Bigelow is the only woman to ever win. Ever. In producing, only 7 women have won the Best Picture title, all as co-producers with men.  And when we look at women of color, no women of color have been nominated as Best Director and none have won producing credit for Best Picture.

After Kathryn Bigelow’s win, people speculated about the “Bigelow Effect,” causing a surge of female directors. Sadly, the opposite has happened with women directors decreasing. Women write only 10% and direct a mere 7% of the top 250 top grossing domestic films. And only 33% of films’ speaking roles belong to women. Women also aren’t being recognized for their work (except in the Best Documentary category or in gendered Best Actress/Best Supporting Actress categories). And the Academy often overlooks female-centered films.

In another of her outstanding videos for Feminist Frequency (see above video), feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian utilizes the Bechdel Test for 2012’s Oscar nominated films to see how women fare. The Bechdel Test states that a film must 1) feature two named female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. As Sarkeesian says:

“It doesn’t determine whether a film is feminist or not. And it doesn’t even determine if a film is woman-centered…The Bechdel Test is best when used as a tool to evaluate Hollywood as an institution…The test helps us identify the lack of relevant and meaningful female roles as a larger pattern in the film industry as a whole.”

Let’s look at this year’s Best Picture nominees. The visually stunning Midnight in Paris suffers from a massive woman problem. Tons of female characters abound yet they barely interact with one another and when they do it’s about men. Tree of Life features the mother as a virginal, Madonna archetype (Jessica Chastain) who barely talks. Yes, I know, there’s not much dialogue to speak of but when she does, it’s either to her sons or to a woman about her son. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Moneyball and War Horse also fail the test.

What about Hollywood darling The Artist? That’s a silent film so that can’t be judged…right? Nope, it can. As wonderful as the film and especially Bernice Bejo and Uggie the Dog are, Bejo never interacts with any other women, either by mouthing words or gesture. Neither do Missy Pyle or Penelope Ann Miller. Hugo, which I absolutely adored, features Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) talking with Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory) for about 10 seconds on acting in silent films. Since this interaction is so brief, Sarkeesian asserts that it’s debatable whether or not it passes. So the only 2 films that easily pass are The Descendants, as sisters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) talk to each other, and the female-centered The Help.

Looking at the gender and race of the writers and directors of the films nominated for Best Picture, it’s not really surprising that most of the films fail the Bechdel Test. All of the 2012 Oscar nominees are written and directed by white men.

Looking at last year’s Oscars, only 3 of the 10 films nominated (Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone) passed the Bechdel Test. True Grit, which featured Hailee Steinfeld as female protagonist Mattie Ross, only had her talking with men. Even The Kids Are All Right which passed, still suffered from a gender problem, insinuating that women, even lesbians, need men in their lives. Black Swan showcased gender, body image and artistry, and Winter’s Bone explored gender and poverty, were two of my favorite 2010 films and featured women front and center. Sadly, none of these films featured women of color.

In her video, Sarkeesian discusses Alaya Dawn Johnson from Angry Black Woman modifying the Bechdel Test for people of color. Even when looking at the women-filled yet racially problematic The Help, with numerous black female characters, while it passes the Bechdel Test within the first 5 minutes of the movie, when it comes to the test for characters of color, it barely makes it. Yes, I’m thrilled that a movie features so many women. But that doesn’t mean it’s not suffering from a massive problem in depicting race. Yes, the black women take courageous risks to tell their stories. But despite its powerful performances by the articulate and indomitable Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the film ultimately revolves around white women, particularly Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) story.

These abysmal stats really shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood points out in her video created by Elisa Kreisinger of Pop Culture Pirate (see video below), “the voting population of the Academy is 94% white, 77% male, and 62 is the average age.” Silverstein’s video showcases all of the phenomenal female directors snubbed by the Academy. In politics, if we see more women in charge, usually more issues affecting women (abortion, healthcare, education) are advocated. In Hollywood, if more women belonged to the Academy, perhaps more women’s films and female filmmakers would be recognized.

This is why feminist film reviews matter. Leading up to both the Oscars and last night’s Independent Spirit Awards, Bitch Flicks has been featuring a series of posts on Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominees. Pop culture and the media impact how we envision society. That’s why we need to critique films and their portrayal of women and gender roles.

More women go to the theatre than men, yet Hollywood creates films for a male audience featuring male protagonists. People envision films with women belonging in the sphere for women only, whereas women will go see “women’s” films as well as those with men. But even when women are in films, they’re often portrayed as “damsels in distress, pining spinsters, fighting fuck toys” sexy seductresses or “manic pixie dream girls.”

All of these objectifying tropes exist for the male gaze, implying that women’s lives must revolve around men. Another reason the Bechdel Test is so crucial. We need to see more women on-screen and behind the scenes. Hopefully then we’ll see more diversity in female characters in age, class, race, sexual orientation as well as personality traits.

Not only do we need more films featuring strong, intelligent complex women living life on their own terms. But if we ever hope to achieve gender equality, we need to recognize films featuring women and created by women in awards shows. Women’s stories need to be seen; women’s voices need to be heard.

Follow my live-tweets of The #Oscars at @OpinionessWorld. And be on the lookout for the 2nd Annual Feminist Oscars!

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3 thoughts on “Look Who’s Talking: Why Feminist Reviews of Best Picture Oscar Nominees and Utilizing the Bechdel Test for Films Matter

  1. “Even The Kids Are All Right which passed, still suffered from a gender problem, insinuating that women, even lesbians, need men in their lives. ”

    That is insultingly far from what that movie says. That movie says that when a couple lacks passion and connection, if a partner is desperate for such connection, infidelity is possible, even typically undesirable infidelity. At the end of the movie they boot the man out and treat him like a pariah because they’re affirming their need only for each other when they’re emotionally honest. There are a lot of dubious arguments you slipped in about specific movies here, but this was the worst. Don’t make up laundry lists of complaints to seem impressive. That women are marginalized in film is bad enough on its own and doesn’t require embellishment.

    • Nope, didn’t “make up” any complaints nor am I trying to “seem impressive.” I reviewed The Kids Are All Right ages ago and should have put a link to it which further explains my thoughts. I was excited to see the film, especially as it featured two phenomenal female actors who portray a lesbian couple. The crux of the film is Nic and Jules’ relationship. The film could have focused on Nic and Jules’ lives which didn’t need to be invaded by a man. But the misogynistic dialogue and the male-centrism (the affair, even watching porn with two men) undercut the movie’s potentially beautiful message. This is one of the few films to show a lesbian marriage. If we had more films with lesbian characters I might not be so hard on it.

      You’re of course entitled to your opinion but there’s nothing “dubious” about any of my statements on the films I mentioned. Both good and bad movies can still suffer from sexism and gender problems.

  2. Thanks so much for this post. I used to love going to movies, but over the years (and I’m only 46!) have grown tired of watching stories about men, or stories about women who are focused on men. I love thrillers, but I’m also tired of seeing women beaten up, raped, terrorized, killed or kidnapped, which limits the thrillers I can stand to watch. I have tons of women friends who have full rich lives about all kinds of things other than or in addition to men, but if I went by the movies I’d think that’s all most women live for.

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