Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Bechdel Rule for Movies

First off, enlarge the above image and read the comic strip.

Interesting, no?

This was called to my attention by comic critic Tom Crippen at the blog The Hooded Utilitarian. Alison Bechdel is a feminist comic writer/artist who is perhaps best known for her recent memoir Fun Home, though she also writes and draws a weekly comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, which is, I believe, where the strip in question originated.

The rule she posits in that strip isn't quite a rule, actually — I don't think most people would use it as an unbreakable guideline for what they see, even if Bechdel's friend apparently does — but it does bring up some very interesting questions about the role of gender in (especially) Hollywood movies and the relationship of these movies to their presumed audiences. Thinking about what movies might meet the rule and what movies wouldn't is a useful test for determining what constitutes a movie made "for" women, as opposed to one made "for" men. I don't think the rule necessarily separates anti-feminist movies from pro-feminist ones, or sexist ones from non-sexist ones, but it does help gauge the position of women and their interests in films. As a general rule, films that pass the test give screentime to women independently of their relationships to the men in the films, whereas in films that fail the test, the women (if any) exist primarily only in relationship to the male leads. As Tom points out, there are films that might fail the test that nevertheless have strong central women characters; he cites the Terminator cycle, and he probably has a point there.

To give some idea of what results the test might yield when applied to various types of films, I thought about some recent films I've watched myself. Of the films I posted about here in December, the ones that pass the test are In My Skin; The Women (Naturally, I thought of this one first; though Tom cites it as a debatable case, I'd say the titular women, who are always talking, do talk about something other than men at least part of the time. At the very least, they talk about each other, too.); Le Pont du Nord (perhaps unsurprising from the greatest director of actresses); and The Seventh Victim (some women talk to each other about Satanism!). Considering that I've written about 15 films here so far this month, the fact that only 4 of them meet the qualifications of Bechdel's test goes a long way towards proving her thesis. Of the films that do not meet the test, however, it's worth pointing out that Rohmer's A Summer's Tale does have very complex and well-developed women characters. Interestingly, it would also fail a corresponding test for male characters.

The percentage for November's viewing is arguably even worse. I wrote about 33 films and still only 4 met the test's strict requirements: Bell, Book and Candle (women talking about witchcraft), Naked (women talking about poverty and jobs), A Prairie Home Companion (women talking about music and the past), and Far From Heaven (women talking about race, politics, etc). Equally interesting are the films that are left out. Sink Or Swim would doubtless be an exception for Bechdel and her friend, since the film is a one-woman show, an avant-garde pastiche with a voiceover; it is inarguably feminist. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is another intriguing exclusion: it features two women friends who, as far as I can remember, rarely if ever talk about anything besides men in the course of the film. And yet this is in many ways the point of the film, which is a satiric commentary on the ways in which society requires women to conform to various stereotypes imposed by men. Clearly, Bechdel's rule does not allow for the complexity of themes that can underlie the treatment of gender, even in a seemingly straightforward musical comedy like this.

Anyone else have any thoughts about this comic and what it says about film and gender?


Joel Bocko said...

I think the only answer is more female filmmakers. And, while we're at it, more black filmmakers. And, stepping outside of those notable (but academically overrated) distinctions, more filmmakers from different class backgrounds...and different geographical backgrounds...and different life experiences...and most importantly, different viewpoints and sensibilities.

In other words, something other than the suck-up-to-or-be-born-knowing-someone-already-in-power Hollywood status quo and its enfeebled indie corollary, the Colmes to Hollywood's Hannity. I don't think this is a left-wing idea - I'd like to see more deeply religious, military veteran, and politically and socially conservative filmmakers as well. The point is Hollywood's formal and conceptual ideas are too limited and that won't change until the pool of filmmakers is greatly expanded. Hope it happens.

Well we're on the subject of women, I tackled that 20 Actresses meme, accompanied by clips of the actresses in action.

No, it is not a very enlightened list...sue me, feminists. Or better yet, make a movie about it!

Tom Crippen said...

Ed, I bet you're right about The Women; I was being overclever. How about His Girl Friday and Ninotchka?

The thing about the Terminator movies and other Bechdel-flunk movies that still have strong-female roles -- that was Noah's thing, I just echoed him. But "guy film" and "strong female" are terms that I'm throwing in there, and I hope they aren't overcrude for what he meant.

Movieman0283: indie films as Colmes to Hwd's Hannity real nails it. Most indy films seem like dumb entertainment for art-school students, as opposed to Hollywood's dumb entertainment for everybody else.

weepingsam said...

It's a very instructive exercise - it's surprising how few films hit it. Sometimes, it's surprising which films make it - like Alien, or 30s films - 42nd Street makes it, a lot of films like that where women talk shop.... It's interesting too to look at why they miss it - a fair number, especially older films, fail it because the women in the films are so confined, by society - they are stuck in the house, while men can go anywhere, or they are the one woman working at the office, etc. It can be a critique, if this is reflected intentionally... And it's probably worth noting that a fair number of films, especially romantic comedies and the like, don't really pass for men either - when the men talk, they talk about women....

But in general - I think it's a pretty good indicator of sexism in films, and fits the broader feminist critique pretty well. Men are subjects - characters, speaking, desiring, etc. subjects - women are objects, seen, desired, silent, or their speech subservient. It's hard to deny that's a real tendency....

These days, the issue is often not that filmmakers think less of women, its that they make films about themselves - as films got more personal in the 60s and 70s, I think the number of films about women treating women as full characters, went down a bit - there aren't all that many George Cukor's running around these days... partly because there is pressure on artists to represent themselves, and not represent other groups... I think this really underlines the need for there to be more opportunities for women to make films - people make films about themselves, so thats the best way to get more women on film.

Ed Howard said...

Great comments, everyone. Tom, unless I'm forgetting something I'd say His Girl Friday fails the test: is there even more than one real woman character in it? That's a complicated case in general, though: on the one hand, Rosalind Russell plays a tough, strong woman, but on the other, as in many of Howard Hawks' films, she is not allowed to succeed on her own terms, but instead has to first accept the rules of a male-dominated world, and specifically the rules imposed by Cary Grant. Many of Hawks' films revolve around women being accepted into traditionally male arenas by masculinizing themselves; this is simultaneously refreshingly radical and vaguely sexist.

Movieman, totally agreed about the need for more diverse perspectives in filmmaking.

Sam, if there's a George Cukor around today, in the sense you mean, I nominate Todd Haynes and David Lynch, neither of whom could be accused of making films about themselves, and both of whom actively engage with female concerns and perspectives. Robert Altman once fit the bill as well, one more reason why he is sorely missed.