Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Pulp Feminist

Via various links today I came across the Bechdel Test, a set of criteria to determine whether or not a movie is "worth watching". The criteria are as follows:

  1. It has to have at least two named female characters in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man.
and originate in this comic strip.

An interesting idea, and though no better or worse than any other way of determining a film's watchability, the scarcity of good examples does highlight a serious issue in how women are presented in film. I'm not an expert on either women or film, but I'm struggling to come up with well known (or, say, high budget) films that satisfy these conditions.

That is to say, I was struggling, until I remembered Quentin Tarantino. With Death Proof and Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2 under his belt, he's a regular feminist filmmaker. The realisation was inspired by this post (which contains minor Death Proof spoilers).

I can't think of a huge number of other films at this hour (though I'm sure there are at least a few), and am struggling to get far past Thelma and Lousise (which is kind of a cheat, and which I haven't seen) and Tideland (which I didn't care for).

Ooh, also, The Village and Sin City (just) which are at least films I have seen and do like.

Can you think of others? Or can you think of other ludicrously simplistic criteria for determining "watchability"?


James said...

Three possible non-sexist reasons for this:

a) women don't feature in the film because it's a war film / other film which has no need for female characters. e.g. there will be blood / assassination of jesse james / no country for old men; none of those films need two female characters to have a chat.

b) the film is aimed at young men who really wouldn't care if the female characters had names or talked to each other. It's not that they think of women as objects who don't talk, it's that they have little interest in their names or what they talk about.

c) when you think back on a film and have this question in your mind it's easy to assume films are like this when they're not.

Anyway, to add to your list:
Bring it on - which would be the most sexist film (all girls should really aspire to be is cheerleaders) i'd seen recently if it wasn't for wanted

TheTelf said...

The point is not that all films should conform to this rule, but that so few mainstream/high budget films do.

Clearly there are going to be films that don't lend themselves to the presence of authentic female characters (either because of script decisions, or theme/setting), but there doesn't seem to be any reason that there wouldn't be more obvious ones that do.

a) is artistic license, but I see no reason why a war film/biopic should not have interesting female characters whose interaction is integral to the plot. I'm not saying they should be crowbarred in, I'm saying it's interesting that they just don't seem to appear. The vast majority of plot-advancement/character development dialog in any film I can think of is man-man or man-woman.

b) - so why aren't there more films aimed at all the other demographics that are interested in seeing well constructed female characters? Or do young men provide 90% of the film industry's income?

c) True. It's difficult to say for sure without re-watching the film and noting down the points at which female characters interact. Again, however, I think the point is that there should be more memorable moments/films to point to. Swap 'women' and 'men' round in the criteria, and you'll have no trouble naming films.

I'd be interested to see an analysis of (for example) the films released this year, and whether or not they met the criteria.

Hanspan said...

There was an interesting discussion about this on the xkcd blag a while back.

But anyway:

Erm.. I think James might be missing the point a bit when he says those are non-sexist explanations for this phenomenon. The fact that it's so hard to find films that fulfil this criteria just reflects the wider sexism of the film industry itself.

Anyone wanting multiple interesting portrayals of women discussing something other than men is going to be severely disappointed. And as a woman who would appreciate films of this sort I resent this.

I'm trying hard to think of films and not coming up with a great deal. The trouble is that you can apply the definition in different ways. I think "having a conversation about men" is usually assumed to mean "about love lives" that's the association I have with it.

However, if you take it to mean purely "men are the topic of discussion" then Thelma and Louise doesn't count, because they talk about a rapist. A lot. In fact, they talk about men a lot, usually in negative terms. There are a lot of negative male characters in the film, but the portrayal of the female characters is central and interesting.

I saw Prince Caspian recently, and in it, Lucy and Susan talk about Aslan. Does that count? He's a male character, but not strictly a man, and they're not talking about romance. But the conversation is hardly the centrepiece of the film.

I think the test more generally makes the point that you very rarely get a film with more than one female lead and usually she's relegated to the role of eye candy.

The Golden Compass was an exception, if not a great film. One of my favourite films ever is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe which deals with the friendship between two young girls Ruth and Idgie. And watched when older, has considerable lesbian undertones.

Kill BIll is interesting for the profusion of female characters, but at the end of it, she's still doing it because a man wronged her. It would be nice to have some other motivation...

That's it for now, if I can think of any more films, I'll post them.

TheTelf said...

The xkcd post is here, for reference.

And I'm not sure about your criticism of the motivation in Kill Bill. How would you have made it more interesting? She was wronged by more than just Bill, and that's made obvious by her actions. She's also looking for her daughter - so that adds a different dimension to it.

Hanspan said...

Looking for her daughter is she? So she's only allowed to be inexplicably violent in defence of her brood? Yes, she is revenging herself on the rest of the squad as well as Bill, but they were all basically acting on his orders. Elle even leaves off injecting her in the hospital on Bill's say so.

One of my exes even said he hated the fact that she finally kills Bill at the end because it was too twisted that the family unit was re-united and then she killed her child's father.

I don't know how "realistic" it would be to have a female psychopath who was needlessly violent, just because, like so many male characters, but hey it would make a change from this whole wife and mother shtick we see on screen all the time.

Hanspan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheTelf said...

"So she's only allowed to be inexplicably violent in defence of her brood?"

Yeah, that's clearly exactly what I was trying to say... :s

She's allowed to be "inexplicably violent" for any reason she wants. On this occasion it's over betrayal by her lover and collegues, and over the loss of her daughter. You can be annoyed about that if you want, but personally I'm just going to enjoy the films.

Hanspan said...

I'm not annoyed by it as such, I appreciate both Kill Bills, though I think like is not the right word. But they're not especially original in the reasons given for why she goes on this killing spree. I admit, it's unusual for a female character to go on a killing spree, but when you get down to the ultimate motivation, it's still about being wronged by a man and looking after her daughter. Nothing new there. Thanks for nothing QT.

TheTelf said...

"Thanks for nothing QT" - So anything that displays a not-entirely-unique idea in any part of it is as bad as something totally generic and derivative? That's the kind of attitude that'll leave you disappointed with pretty much every film ever made.

The Big LeBamski said...

"Thanks for nothing QT" - apart from some of the boldest and most finely crafted mainstream cinema of the last two decades?

Hanspan said...

Whether you buy into the film-making genius (or otherwise) of QT, I seem to have struck a nerve... and you're both are missing my point.

Not finding a particular aspect of a film pleasing to me does not mean I condemn the rest of the film outright and fail to enjoy it. I'm not criticising the film as a whole, just a part of it. And criticism is not automatically a barrier to enjoyment.

And I still maintain that, in this instance, the reasons for Kiddo's vengeance boil down to nothing new. This is the sense in which I meant "Thanks for nothing." He has not moved the portrayal of women in cinema further forward with this particular aspect of her character.

As for QT's contribution to mainstream cinema, I can't claim to have watched every single one of his films. The ones I have seen have stayed with me as interesting but, having seen them, I have little desire to do so again. They don't inspire a particular affection in me and having seen some, I don't feel the urge to go out and watch the rest. I watched Pulp Fiction over 8 years ago with my very first boyfriend who worshipped QT. I bought it for myself because I thought I quite liked it, but have never managed to watch it since. I got halfway through, once, in the first year of uni.

I'm not saying this makes QT a bad film maker, he's just not to my taste and I wouldn't regularly watch him from choice.

Settle those crests down boys.. ;P

TheTelf said...

Personally, I had no problem with your point, up until that last sentence that me and Bambi both reacted to. I don't feel it adds anything to your argument, which works fine without it, and seems like a sweeping statement intended to provoke a response.

"He has not moved the portrayal of women in cinema further forward with this particular aspect of her character" - potentially (IANAE), but going from this one aspect of one character in one film to dismissing the film-maker seems an unnecessarily strong reaction.

It was this phrase I (and I imagine, Bambi) was reacting to, so if we have misinterpreted it, then so be it. I feel it was not entirely our fault if so.

Also, "Settle those crests down boys"? Would that be like me telling you not to get your panties in a twist? Oh, except that'd be patronising and sexist.

Hanspan said...

Well... is that me told?

Let me re-assure you that it was not intended as a sweeping statement, and was not, of itself, more designed to provoke a response than the main body of the comment.

When I said: "it's still about being wronged by a man and looking after her daughter. Nothing new there. Thanks for nothing QT." I was specifically referring to my feeling that there is nothing new in her motivation. Nothing new there. In that specific instance. Not that there is nothing new in the rest of the film or in Tarantino's body of work as a whole.

Would you be offended if I suggested that yours and Bambi's obvious devotion to Tarantino might help explain the misunderstanding?

And yes, it would be both patronising and sexist. Though I could equally say the same thing to you, who am I to restrict your choice of underwear based on gender? And if you did say such a thing to me as a response in this instance, it would be entirely unwarranted, as there exist species of bird with crested females too. It was a non-gender specific comment made to tie in with my comment about ruffling feathers at the beginning.

It was intended to be mildly patronising, but it wasn't meant seriously.

Right... now to finish work for tomorrow...

Hanspan said...

Oh and I only added "boys" on the end because, well, you're both male.

But next time, I shall challenge you to handbags at dawn ladies.

Please excuse the misapprehension on my part ;P