Should Filmmakers Be Accountable For Failing the Bechdel Test?

June 20, 2012 — 13 Comments

I got into an interesting conversation at a film blogger meet-up last night about Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Specifically, the discussion was about the fact that the film only barely passes the Bechdel Test, and that in general Anderson doesn’t go to great lengths in his depictions of female characters. First, what is the Bechdel Test? Well, it’s name given to a test that comes up in one of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels. It’s basically a test meant to illustrate how few complex portrayals there are of women in Hollywood films. To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must meet the following criteria:

  1. It has to have at least two named women it it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

The test does have problems. There are some great films with great portrayals of women that, by virtue of function, don’t pass the test. But that’s not really the point. A film not passing the test is not also a condemnation. The test simply highlights a larger problem in Hollywood films, where white males are effectively seen as the blank norm and anything else, including a female character is often a purposeful deviation. But that’s not what the conversation was really about. We didn’t just talk about whether the film passes the test, but how much responsibility we should place upon Anderson for these failings.

My feelings about these things are pretty complicated, but the argument I tried to make was that it’s not Wes Anderson’s responsibility, at least not in any big way. The fact is, most writers work under the idea of writing what they know. That doesn’t have to be literal, but it’s a general ethos. You write what you’re comfortable writing about. I’m not comfortable writing about music, so I don’t do it. Maybe Wes Anderson, artist that he is, has a difficult time writing a voice for female characters. In general he writes about boys and men who act like boys. The women in his films often contrast with these boys, either being a detached mother-figure or a pixie-ish depressed girl. These types may indeed be a crutch, and it sucks that Anderson relies on them, but I’m not sure I’d want him to try writing a female-centric film with loads of women if he has trouble writing for women.

In general I think the “write what you know” edict is a big deal here. From an artistic perspective I don’t believe we should be telling writers or directors to consciously equalize the number of men and women in their films. That’s an anti-artistic attitude. Furthermore, though there are plenty of men who can write great female characters, in general I get the impression that men are mostly best at writing men and women are better at writing women. In a way it’s similar to the idea that a black writer would more likely be better at writing black characters than a white person. It’s not a sexist thing, but sort of a fact of experience. Most males simply don’t have the kind of insight into the opposite sex as directors like Pedro Almodovar.

Are these writers and directors responsible? Sure. Wes Anderson always works with collaborators on his screenplays. Maybe if he has trouble writing for women, he should collaborate with a woman or someone who can write for women. He doesn’t do that, and that’s a conscious or unconscious choice, but ultimately it’s an artistic method and I submit to the priority or artistic motivation over artificially created equality.

So if we aren’t going to make directors and writers responsible for fixing things, where should we look? Well, I think the answer is fairly obvious. The industry, particularly Hollywood, needs a shake-up. Hollywood films simply do not represent the diversity of modern America. Most people working at top levels are men, and the vast majority are white. When they think about marketing movies they’re often selling to teenage boys. There’s no serious effort in the industry to hire female writers or directors, and there’s even less effort to make major films targeted at women. That needs to change, and that’s a pure business thing. It doesn’t infringe on art at all.

And lest you think I’m just talking about soulless corporations, I’m not. Take a look at Pixar’s Brave. Since 1995 Pixar has been making wonderful films, and have even included brilliant female characters like Jessie and Dory. Yet, great as they’ve been, it’s taken 13 films and 17 years for them to put out a film with a female lead character and a female-centric story. Of course, it’s no wonder that it also took having their first female director, Brenda Chapman, who despite leaving the production of the film, at the very least got it kicked off, coming up with the idea. Pixar is motivated by business, but they’ve also been very motivated by making quality films. You’d think they would want more great female-centric films, but looking at their top creative pool, almost all of them are men. If there were more women in the animation industry, and more rising to the top, and more getting hired as story artists and directors by companies like Pixar maybe we’d see more and better animated films about women.

And I think that’s the answer to fixing things. It’s not the specific artists that need to change the way they make movies, but that the industry needs to be more self-conscious and start hiring more women and making more movies about women and for women. Oh, but for the love of God, don’t make anymore Sex and the City movies. Anything but that.

But what do you think? Should writers and directors, even male ones, be working harder to include more female characters in their films? Or do these artists have no responsibility at all? let me know in the comments below.

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13 responses to Should Filmmakers Be Accountable For Failing the Bechdel Test?

  1. 

    It feels reductive to say that women make women’s movies and thus if you get more women making movies there will be more women’s movies, but I do think there is a certain truth to it generally speaking due to the “write what you know” habit. There’s always exceptions such as Kathryn Bigelow or Pedro Almadovar. And I’d much prefer to increase the diversity on screen by increasing the diversity behind the camera than by policing the works of white/male directors and demanding every outcome be perfectly diverse. The latter just seems like a recipe for crappy films.

    • 

      Yeah, it’s a bit reductive, but I think the maxim still essential holds true. While it’s not necessary to have women writing women and men writing men, if you want to have more films made about women then hiring more women to make and produce movies seems a surefire way of making that happen.

  2. 

    A similar argument recently arose surrounding the all-white cast of HBO’s Girls. I think my thought is: don’t shoehorn something in just to have it there but I can see both sides here. That’s not to say the artists aren’t responsible for this, but having strong female roles should be something that happens organically, not as a requirement.

    Very interesting talking points, though.

    • 

      Girls is a great example, and one that I actually brought up in the conversation last night. Not only for the race issue, but gender and setting as well. Lena Dunham is a great writer, but she writes female characters better than male ones. Of course, she needed help with the men and that’s where her writing staff came in. In fact, the episodes that deal more heavily with Adam and other male characters often had a male co-writer credited.

      And the there’s the episode where she goes back home. Dunham grew up in New York, so that environment was foreign to her. But Apatow came in and wrote the episode with her and it clearly worked very well.

      Apparently she’s taking a similar path with race in Season 2. I love that she recognizes her limitations and has people to help her along.

      • 

        Yes, it’s a very important trait for writers to have, especially if writing outside their own comfort zone.

        I’m not sure if you watch Saturday Night Live but there’s a cast member on there, Jay Pharoah, who is basically their go-to token black guy. Apparently no writers for SNL know how to write anything for the poor guy except the occasional and out of place Will Smith/Denzel Washington/Chris Rock impersonation. I have literally not seen the guy do anything else in his two seasons on the show and every time he comes on and has to do one of his impressions (which he does well, don’t get me wrong) my wife and I always say “that poor guy”. It’s not like SNL can’t write for black comedians either, Keenan Thompson is in lots of regular skits.

        I think I could come up with several other references to race/gender writing issues for television, but I would honestly struggle to find similar issues in films. I guess the latest victim would be Black Widow in the Avengers, whose primary purpose seems to be to show some T&A but it’s not too far removed from the source material so maybe that doesn’t even count.

        • 

          Black Widow was weird in that movie. Whedon is normally so good with female characters, and there are some glimmers, but I think being the only girl hero and having no actual powers made her seem like the token pair of tits. Didn’t sit right.

  3. 
    sanclementejedi June 22, 2012 at 1:25 am

    Ernest Hemingway didn’t give a rats ass about the Bechdel test and neither do I. 😉

  4. 

    I definitely agree that a film can be feminist without totally passing the Bechdel test. And as for whether men can write good females characters, i think it is totally possible as long as the writer invests the same amount of time in creating them as there male characters. I remember reading a quote by George R.R martin about why he has such well written female characters in his Game of Thrones series, and he replied with “I always thought of women as people.” I think if you follow that thinking then a male can write a female character well.

    • 

      I do agree that following that rule is a good idea, and I wish more men would approach female characters the same way. That said, there’s something about the specificity of the female experience that not all men are necessarily able to speak to. Then again, not all women can speak to it, but I figure women have a better shot.

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