Responding to my post analyzing The Avengers, feminism and failing the Bechdel Test, someone on Bitch Flicks’ Facebook page recently asked why the Bechdel Test should even be applied to The Avengers:
“This film had three female characters…that talked at all. Why would the Bechdel Test be applied to this movie? It’s a movie about popular comic book characters that have already premiered in their own movies. How does passing the test improve the quality of the film?”
I talk about the Bechdel Test. A lot. Am I obsessed with it? Perhaps. Oh, who am I kidding. Definitely. In order to pass the test, two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man.
I talk about a plethora of topics with my female friends and co-workers — career goals, the awesomeness of Parks and Rec, how class dynamics permeate relationships, Real Housewives of Atlanta, vegan cupcakes, did I mention the awesomeness of Parks and Rec, the Arab Spring, cute cats, staying up late reading Hunger Games, abortion, why I’m pissed Bride Wars makes me cry — that have absolutely nothing to do with men. Just as many women do. So that should be reflected on-screen, right? Yeah, no.
If a movie like The Avengers has 3 strong and intelligent female characters (okay, okay…so far so good), you would think those women would talk to each other. Right? Nope. (wait, what??) In 143 minutes of film, they never utter a single word to each other. Not one.
People have argued that this is a comic book movie with lots of superheroes, so there wasn’t time for additional female Avengers. Really? Others have asserted that because the women are empowered and not objectified, it’s a feminist film making the Bechdel Test obsolete in this case. Hmmm…so the women talked to the men and the men talked to each other but the women can’t? That sounds absolutely ridiculous to me. Despite Black Widow’s badassery, Maria Hill’s calm resolve, Pepper Potts’ smarts — the message sent is that no matter how empowered, women’s lives still revolve around men.
The Bechdel Test can be (and should be) applied to any film. Now, passing or failing doesn’t necessarily improve the quality or make a film more or less enjoyable. Some fantastic films fail. Although, I’ll be honest. The ubiquity of sexism and misogyny in cinema usually dilutes my movie enjoyment.
But does this mean failing movies like The Avengers (a really good movie), Shawshank Redemption or Gladiator (two of my fave films) are automatically sexist while passing movie Sucker Punch (puke) is feminist? No, no it doesn’t. (Sidebar rant, I think the 3 failing movies contain interesting commentaries on gender dynamics while Sucker Punch is a flaming pile of misogynistic dogshit.)
This isn’t just about The Avengers failing the Bechdel Test and it’s not just about judging films on an individual basis. And it doesn’t always gauge feminism in film. The Bechdel Test matters because the overwhelming majority of movies fail, indicating the institutional sexism and rampant gender disparity prevalent in Hollywood.
If you modify the test for people of color, it also shows Hollywood’s racism since most films, even those claiming to embrace diversity, still focus on white people.
It’s really hard to ignore the correlation between the lack of female-centric films and how few women write and direct. Only 33% of speaking roles belong to women. Women write only 10% and direct a mere 7% of the top 250 top grossing domestic films.
Due to a lack of female filmmakers, most movies revolve around men. Men, men, men. When a female character exists, usually she’s some guy’s lover, spouse or sidekick. Or she’s the damsel in distress he’s going to rescue, validating his virility and masculinity. Male characters do talk about women but they exist as one topic in the spectrum of dialogue. If women talk to each other in a film, it’s usually about men. Women’s dialogue and plotlines rarely focus on other women or even themselves. Silly ladies, don’t you know women are just satellites orbiting men’s lives??
Even when strong female film characters exist — in both great movies and shitty movies — it’s predominantly a white dudefest. That’s a problem.