Fame follows the lives of a dozen or so young performing artists at the New York Academy of Performing Arts over a period of four years. It’s been roundly panned by the critics, but from a feminist perspective, there was a lot I liked about it.
Obviously, this being an ensemble cast, it’s hard to define who the main character is and who is secondary, so for the sake of clarity, I’ve narrowed it down to four main female characters: Denise (pianist/singer), Jenny (singer/actress), Joy (actress) and Alice (dancer). Of those four, Denise is black and Joy is Filipina. That’s right, half the main female cast are WOC. There is another black character, Malik, and a Latino character, Victor. That’s four POC out of a cast of maybe a dozen. Not to mention all the actors of various races who features as extras, as well as an African-American principal. Major points for a decent cross-section of races there. And they don’t even make a point out of it. It’s like, duh, it’s New York, of course there’s people of all races here. Talent doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped Aryan package, y’know.
As well, of the four women, maybe one – Alice – might meet Hollywood’s impossible standards of beauty in women – tall, slim and blond. Incidentally, of all the characters, Alice is the one who gets the big career break – as a dancer in one of the best modern dance companies in the world, doing a 22-city world tour – but I don’t think The Powers That Be were making a point about the most packageable of the women getting the big break. Kherington Payne, the actress who plays Alice, is a phenomenal dancer. Denise is curvaceous or fat, depending on whose opinion you ask. She has a Jennifer Hudson figure and a voice to match. Joy is actually kinda cute, but not about to meet the impossible beauty standards of the tall, slim, white blond anytime soon. And I thought Jenny was on the pretty side of plain without makeup.
Jenny actually annoyed me. As a singer, she had quite a sweet voice, but nothing special. There’s no comparison to Denise. It made me wonder how much of it was intentional, that sometimes people get in who are merely passably talented and how much of it was sloppy casting. (Given that a lot of complaints about the show was that they watered down a lot of the edgier elements of the original, I’m inclined to go with the latter.)
As far as the Bechdel test goes – I’m inclined to give the movie a semi-pass. The four central female characters don’t interact with each other much – Alice and Jenny mainly interact with their boyfriends – although I’ll give them partial credit for the fact that those interactions are almost always performing arts related. (And I was pleasantly surprised that Alice was willing to leave Victor for the sake of her career without a second thought.) It would be a fail if it was constantly gooey proclamations of love, but it wasn’t, not even close. Denise mostly interacts with two male writer/producer friends who she’s making a record with, and, since it’s all shop talk, I’ll give them a partial credit. Joy has a few scenes with Jenny, all about performing arts, and she has a scene with one of her female teachers about her grades. Even though there aren’t a lot of scenes with women talking to each other about something other than men (and in all fairness, there aren’t a lot of scenes with men talking to each other, either; it’s primarily men and women talking about their performances and careers) I’m inclined to give the movie a bit of leeway because there’s maybe a minute spread out over the entire movie where women talk to anyone about their boyfriends/relationship problems.
Something tells me I would enjoy the original movie more, and maybe if I had seen it, I would be far more critical of the remake. But I really enjoyed this version of Fame and was pleasantly surprised to find that not all of the women were white, maybe one fit Hollywood’s narrow beauty standards, and none of them sat around all day moping about men. They had better things to do.