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:
- It has to have at least two named women it it
- Who talk to each other
- 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.