Friday, March 10, 2017

Hollywood Flunks the Bechdel Test

So how did you celebrate International Women’s Day? For those not in the know, it’s observed in countries around the world every March 8. Though International Women’s Day had its origins (back in 1909) among leftwing working women in New York City, it was enthusiastically adopted within the Soviet bloc in 1917, following the Russian Revolution. In 1975, the United Nations formally recognized it as a day on which to honor women and the international movement against sexism. And in SoCal it’s gradually starting to become a time for protest marches and rallies.

Me? I spent the day thinking about the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Whazzat? Well, it all started with cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace. Bechdel, who has recently been represented on Broadway by the Tony-winning musical, Fun Home, for years published a feisty comic strip titled “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Back in 1985, one of her strips, using an idea she credits to Liz Wallace, showed a woman insisting, “I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it.  Who, two, talk to each other about, three, something other than a man.”

Out of that germ of an idea came the so-called Bechdel Test, as a way to judge which movies can boast a valid recognition of the female gender. When applied to contemporary Hollywood, the results can be startling. Naturally, most superhero movies don’t pass the test. But neither do a fair share of prestige pictures.This becomes clear when we look at the nine movies nominated as candidates for the Best Picture Oscar. Only one, Hidden Figures, truly adopts a female perspective. Both Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water are pretty much female-free. La La Land has an early scene featuring Mia and her three roommates, but what’s on their minds is going to a party and meeting guys. Lion, Fences, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight do contain meaty female roles, but these women exist in support of a very central male whose problems dominate the film. Then there’s Arrival, in which (as in Jackie and Florence Foster Jenkins) the main character is decidedly female, but she’s the focus of a story in which she’s played off against a pretty much all-male establishment. (Unless, of course, Arrival’s aliens are girls.)

A few nights ago I was lucky enough to attend an American Cinematheque screening of a classic from 1952, High Noon. Though Golden Age of Hollywood movies often featured the clash of two powerful women (think All About Eve), High Noon perfectly illustrates what the Bechdel Test is all about. It contains a terrific scene between two strong and diametrically opposed women: blonde and beautiful Amy (Grace Kelly) and dark and sultry Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). The former projects dewy-eyed innocence; the latter bitter experience. But what exactly do they discuss? The plight of Sheriff Will Kane, the character played by Gary Cooper, who is the newly-wedded husband of Amy and has clearly been around the block with Helen.   

Alison Bechdel, whose Fun Home is currently having a triumphant run in L.A., is the author of not one but two graphic memoirs, autobiographical comic-strip-style books in which she reveals the secrets of her family tree through both carefully chosen words and vivid drawings. Bechdel’s great subject is her relationship—as a daughter and a lesbian—to her difficult, complicated parents. Her interaction with her mother, her female lovers, and her female shrinks are an essential part of the mix. I’d say she passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.  


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