Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test

While writing Female characters exist to promote male leads for network profits, I realized something I had never quite put together in so many words. It’s important enough to deserve its own article (thanks, Bellatrys!), so here it is: my screenwriting professors taught me not to write scripts that passed the Bechdel/Mo Movie Measure/”Dykes To Watch Out For” test, and I can tell you why, and this needs to be known.

The “Dykes to Watch Out For” test, formerly coined as the “Mo Movie Measure” test and Bechdel Test, was named for the comic strip it came from, penned by Alison Bechdel – but Bechdel credits a friend named Liz Wallace, so maybe it really should be called the Liz Wallace Test…? Anyway, the test is much simpler than the name. To pass it your movie must have the following:

1) there are at least two named female characters, who

2) talk to each other about

3) something other than a man.

So simple, and yet as you go through all your favorite movies (and most of your favorite TV shows, though there’s a little more variety in TV), you find very few movies pass this test.

It’s not a coincidence. It’s not that there aren’t enough women behind the camera (there aren’t, but that’s not the reason). Here’s what we’re up against (and for those who have requested a single post that summarizes my experiences in film for linking reference, now you’ve got it).

When I started taking film classes at UCLA, I was quickly informed I had what it took to go all the way in film. I was a damn good writer, but more importantly (yeah, you didn’t think good writing was a main prerequisite in this industry, did you?) I understood the process of rewriting to cope with budget (and other) limitations. I didn’t hesitate to rip out my most beloved scenes when necessary. I also did a lot of research and taught myself how to write well-paced action/adventure films that would be remarkably cheap to film – that was pure gold.

There was just one little problem.

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

I was stunned. I’d just moved from a state that still held Ku Klux Klan rallies only to find an even more insidious form of bigotry in California – running an industry that shaped our entire culture. But they kept telling me lots of filmmakers wanted to see the same changes I did, and if I did what it took to get into the industry and accrue some power, then I could start pushing the envelope and maybe, just maybe, change would finally happen. So I gave their advice a shot.

Only to learn there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I’d found the “audience won’t watch women!” argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).

At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation from an industry pro: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”

“Not even if it advances the story?” I asked. That’s rule number one in screenwriting, though you’d never know it from watching most movies: every moment in a script should reveal another chunk of the story and keep it moving.

He just looked embarrassed and said, “I mean, that’s not how I see it, that’s how they see it.”

Right. A bunch of self-back-slapping professed liberals wouldn’t want you to think they routinely dismiss women in between writing checks to Greenpeace. Gosh, no – it was they. The audience. Those unsophisticated jackasses we effectively worked for when we made films. They were making us do this awful thing. They, the man behind the screen. They, the six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. We knew they existed because there were spreadsheets with numbers, and no matter how the numbers computed, they never added up to, “Oh, hey, look – men and boys are totally watching Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley like it’s no big deal they’re chicks instead of guys.” They always somehow added up to “Oh, hey, look – those effects/that Arnold’s so awesome, men and boys saw this movie despite some chick in a lead role.”

According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.”

Was I?

There certainly are still men in this world who tune out women when we talk, but – as I and other students pointed out – this was getting less common with every generation, and weren’t we supposed to be targeting the youngest generation? These young men had grown up with women imparting news on national TV (even I can remember when that was rare), prescribing them medicine, representing people around them in court, doling out mortgages and loans. Those boys wouldn’t understand those early ’80s movies where women were denied promotions because “the clients want to deal with men” or “who would take a woman doctor/lawyer/cop seriously”? A lot of these kids would need it explained to them why Cagney & Lacey was revolutionary, because many of their moms had worked in fields once dominated by men.

We had a whole generation too young to remember why we needed second wave feminism, for cryin’ out loud, and here we were adhering to rules from the 1950s. I called bullshit, and left film for good, opting to fight the system from without. There was no way Hollywood really believed what it was saying about boys who’d grown up with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as action heroes, and so there was no way to change the system from within. I concluded Hollywood was was dominated by perpetual pre-adolescent boys making the movies they wanted to see, and using the “target audience” – a construct based on partial truths and twisted math – to perpetuate their own desires. Having never grown up, they still saw women the way Peter Pan saw Wendy: a fascinating Other to be captured, treasured and stuffed into a gilded cage. Where we didn’t talk. To each other. About anything other than men.

Follow-up post: Why discriminate if it doesn’t profit?

Comments

  1. says

    Also, if you haven’t seen the webcomic “The Wandering Ones,” you might enjoy it – it breaks just about every Rule you’ve described and then some…

    (Main protagonist : female, mostly Native American. Main characters, male and female, nearly all not white – except for the Neo-Nazi leadership, natch! Women sitting around discussing strategy, politics, philosophies of survival, check. Women having rivalries that aren’t over a guy – Jedi master/apprentice style conflicts, all female charas–no, really! There are things that make me twitchy, but it’s so far beyond the mainstream it isn’t even funny.)

  2. says

    He just looked embarrassed and said, “I mean, that’s not how I see it, that’s how they see it.”

    And, alas, the phrase “concern troll” hadn’t been coined yet.

    (W00T for post!)

    You know, this is what was wrong with Catwoman. (Both of them.) I’ve had a couple Nothing New discussions about the problems with esp. the latter one, going thru the various versions of the script that are available online as well as the one that actually saw the screen, and while I think all our criticisms were valid, one HUGE problem underlying it all is that while the story is supposed to be about Catwoman, it’s actually a story about how this random chick responds to the men in her lives and the things they want and do, only she dresses up like a cat and kindasorta does catty things…

    I also think that’s why I have this feeling that there is a limited, but real, “protofeminist” angle to opera that somebody needs to tackle at thesis-length – it isn’t just that so many of the old operas are named after the heroine, but that these heroines are the protagonists, even when they’re the victims of patriarchal oppression. They still get to make the choices that matter (even if they’re lesser-evil ones), and the story is still all about them, with the men being catalysts, but not characters in the same way. There’s Tosca, but there’s also Aida, Madame Butterfly, La Boheme, Lucia di Lammermoor, Carmen, among the most famous, and while they all iirc fail the Mo Measure, several of them do have relationships between women that are very important, both friendships and rivalries as well as more than one strong female character – there’s Cio-Cio San and Suzuki, Mimi & Musetta, Aida & Amneris, Carmen & Micaela, even if (since they’re almost all romances) they do talk about the men.

    And there’s usually a strange nonjudgmental tone at least on some levels, as to the sexual activity and autonomy of these characters – it isn’t ever quite as simple as madonna/whore, even when it superficially looks like that. (If I was writing that thesis, there would be something in it about Victorian pop culture confronting,if briefly, its own mores and saying ‘wow, this is effed up’ and having a Catharsis before going back to the same old grind – kind of like all the Magical Girls and Powerful Heroines in anime, maybe…)

    I haven’t done any analysis, which I should, but I would be surprised if line for line, they don’t get as much screen time as any male chara as well as some of the best lines in musical theatre EVAR. (I just ran across Dryden’s libretto for a fantasy-history-romance-exotic-Other mashup, the Indian Emperor (less-well-known sequel to the smash hit The Indian Queen ) because I was looking up a quote and stumbled across this rockin’ line, spoken by an Aztec princess to the guy who’s playing the Guy of Guisborne role – “My mother’s daughter knows not how to fear” which sent me looking up the whole thing.

    Guess what, it comes from the climax of one of the many romance/political conflicts in the script, featuring Alibech, who we earlier have repeatedly seen has the highest stateswomanly motivations, even though she doesn’t have much power, and has told her two suitors, rival brother-princes, that she’ll marry the one who liberates them from the invaders, always puts duty over personal wish and then angsts about it in lots of soliloquy and ethical discourse, like thus:

    Alibech:
    Orbelan, though my brother, did disgrace
    with treacherous deeds, our mighty mother’s race;
    And to revenge his blood, so justly spilt,
    what is it less than to partake his guilt?
    Though my proud sister to revenge incline,
    I to my country’s good my own resign.

    So now she’s in a hostage situation where jerk brother has her and the sensitive, dutiful brother who she really loves, in his power and is of course gloating away, telling her that he’s The Man and now she’s got to be his, how he’s lied/cheated/stolen his way to the top: but Spunky Heroine doesn’t swoon at his manliness and stop hating him, she sneers:

    Alibech:
    … I loved thee not before, but, Odmar, know,
    that now I hate thee, and despise thee too.

    …so of course Odmar says “but I did it for YOU!!! and don’t make me hurt you, you ungrateful wench!”

    Odmar:
    With too much violence you crimes pursue,
    which if I acted, ’twas for love of you.
    This, if it teach not love, may teach you fear:
    I brought not sin so far, to stop it here.
    Death in a lover’s mouth would sound but ill:
    But know, I either must enjoy, or kill.

    Alibech:
    Bestow, base man, thy idle threats elsewhere,
    My mother’s daughter knows not how to fear.
    Since, Guyomar, I must not be thy bride,
    Death shall enjoy what is to thee denied.

    Odmar:
    Then take thy wish–

    Guyomar:
    Hold, Odmar, hold;
    My right in Alibech I will resign:
    rather than see her die, I’ll see her thine.

    Alibech:
    In vain thou wouldst resign, for I will be
    Even when thou leav’st me, constant still to thee:
    That shall not save my life: wilt thou appear
    fearful for her, who for herself wants fear?

    So, get this, Odmar threatens to kill his brother to motivate the heroine!!1! [sigh] Who later gets hold of a sword and starts fighting alongside her True Love!!! Not to mention the repeated matriarchal theme, appropriate because Alibech and her sister are the daughters of the Queen in the original story –they don’t make ‘em like they used to, that’s for sure.

    • Kate says

      Off to look for a copy of that libreto! I sure don’t remember THAT one from the Chicago Opera OR from music history!

      But you are also quite right about the number of strong women — mostly but not all sopranos — who are the heart of many operas.

  3. harlemjd says

    Is the third rule violated if the two characters are talking about a male, but in a non-romantic sense? (like, say a buddy-cop movie where the two female cops are trying to catch a male criminal) Because men in movies spend very little time talking about women, but at least some of that is because in lots of movies the only women around are “the girlfriend/crush object/whatever”

  4. Genevieve says

    Your professors must’ve been really surprised to see the critical and box office success of Juno, then, eh? Not only does it pass the Mo Movie Measure–I think it fails the reverse. Hopefully that’ll start something new.

  5. says

    harlemjd, I can only speak for myself, but I go back and forth on that, because I can see it both ways. On the one hand, two female charas talking about a man in an entirely non-romantic light are being written as if they were just people, getting the sort of scene that male charas as you note, always get! So, on that hand, I want to say that, say, two French Resistance heroines discussing the best way to take out Major Strasser would not violate the Bechdel Test requirement.

    But then my contrary self argues with that – but the fact that they are always talking about a dude in that third active role, just points up the need for it! You can (usually) make excuses for it, in a historical, but how come in all these contemporary and worst of all) futuristic tales, we still get such a shortage of female charas that the notion that enough of them could be in active roles and positions of power or key influence that two women could be having a, what I’ll call generally for want of a better word, political discussion (or strategic if you will) about a third is so unlikely to happen? (Mars Needs Women! ahem.)

    So I incline to give a qualified “pass” to such scenarios, because they do give us something important, but we need to remember what we’re not getting at the same time, which is what the asterisk there helps to do.

    (I seriously couldn’t get over how much it meant to cynical ol’ me, reading The Wandering Ones that I linked there, and having – avoiding spoilers – one woman having a ranting, yelling match with another, both of them important in their post-apocalyptic government, over professional ethics and human experimentation and overstepping of boundaries in wartime; or three young apprentices of the same elder shaman – all four of them female – having intense quasi-sibling rivalries for her attention AND this having to be hammered out between them, the living and the dead, with the men being relegated to the margins of the fray in both scenarios. Or when [sorry, redacted upon rereading - too much of a spoiler] … It was so totally backwards from the norm, and I keep waiting for it to go back to some Status Quo of helpless Chicks and unflappable He-Men, but it doesn’t. Which is not to say that there aren’t heroic dudes, too, or romances – but they mean more, as a result, imo.)

  6. Patrick says

    I expect that Juno will be regarded as a fluke, just like all those other successful movies with female leads. If any data appears to contradict a position, some reason will be found for why that data “doesn’t count.”

  7. says

    Ballatrys, re: Catwoman, it’s not unusual for a movie about a woman to reek of the male gaze as its male creators focus on how she deals with men. Re: the opera – I would suggest the Golden Age of Hollywood managed a few heroines like the ones you’re talking about. Or female protagonists. Women were still fascinating back then. It’s only post WWII that we became boring and useless except as eye candy.

    Harlemjd, what Bellatrys said. I usually go by context, too – i.e., I’ll give more leeway to a military drama devoid of civilians, in which you don’t expect to find many women and everyone else they know is male.

    Genevieve, I’m afraid I agree with Patrick. Juno will be rationalized away. The problem is, they really honestly believe it’s a fact that people don’t want to see women. So when they sit down with demographic numbers and start interpreting, their approach is to rule out the obvious impossibility that people wanted to see a woman, and then look for some other reason the film did well. If pressed, they’ll “realize” the other films that were out at the same time simply failed to compete with it properly.

  8. Genevieve says

    Jennifer–
    I know, you’re probably right. There are times when being an optimist really isn’t good for me.

    We (women) are 50% of the population. What’s so bad about asking to be treated like human beings?

  9. says

    Everyone might be interested in Peter Bradshaw’s review flyting of Wanted – not entirely drinksafe, no (“bin juice” refers to the nasty liquid buildup at the bottom of your trashcan, btw)

    Some choice grafs:

    None of the violence and the action have a fraction of the beady-eyed intensity with which the director invests the moment where Wes quits his job and tells his boss to shove it. Because his boss is a fat ugly woman. This horrible bitch is always snapping at him and she gets her comeuppance in a big way, her obesity being a clear sign that she’s asking to be brought low and laughed at. [...]

    I have to say I don’t think I’ve seen a film recently which expresses hatred of women quite so openly, and fervently, as this one. In a way, Wes’s boss is the most vivid female character in the film, more powerfully and pointedly conceived than the others: more than Wes’s horrible, duplicitous girlfriend, who gets to be humiliated by seeing Wes kissing Fox and more than Fox herself, who is basically an honorary male.

    I realize this is a) Old Europe and b) The Guardian, and he is being privilegeblind to the truly wretched way that Hollywood does indeed handle race, but it is nice to see a male ally who at least partially Gets It and calls bs on the proceedings.

  10. says

    I had a longish thing about internalized narratives shaping our perceptions of reality from the start in the post that got eaten, but I can’t reconstruct it all to my satisfaction, so I’m just going to post the relevant links.

    The Ivory Ceiling (Women don’t have anything important to say in non-fiction media, too)

    From the Hair Pulling Files
    Women are too emotional for politics.

    “Well, some women may be offended by this, but here’s another dose of reality…” women are inward-directed and selfish parasites (and thus shouldn’t be allowed to vote), not altruistic self-supporting rationalists b/c those virtues only come with a penis.

    “the gendered aspect of violence only becomes visible when women kill” — because the default human is still, as in Aristotle’s day, always male.

    WaPo claims to want retain female readership, but insults women – is it merely coincidence that of the few female voices in the mainstream media, most of them can be counted on (q.v. Maureen Dowd, Kathleen Parker) to spend most of their time validating the gender-essentialist status quo?

    The ones who tell the stories rule the world.

  11. says

    Aw man, I feel cheated…here I was expecting an actual REASON why screenwriters/the film industry acted like total cocks. All I got was “because they’re total cocks”. Hell, I already knew that.

    *removes tongue from cheek*

    I really am curious why an industry that’s supposed to be so focused on consumers (the audience) and the almighty dollar is making such stupid decisions, though. This is not in any way contesting your point (i.e. “they wouldn’t do that, it’s stupid!”)…I believe you implicitly. But what I still don’t get is the WHY.

    I can understand (though not condone) many reasons for sexism (plus racism, other isms, etc)…most of which boil down to ignorance and self-centeredness. But I know they’re not ignorant (discounting wilfull ignorance, of which they probably have a truckload), and while I think they’re definitely self-centered, greed is another form of self-centeredness, and I’m not seeing that one making as bold a showing as I’d expect. Does the film industry want so much to be “right” that they are willing to shoot themselves in the foot financially? Repeatedly? ‘Cause man, that just don’t make no kinda sense.

    Good article, though…let me know when you can write the followup, “How To Make the Film Industry Think Rationally”.

  12. says

    What’s so bad about asking to be treated like human beings

    I think “asking” is part of the problem. I think it needs to be demanded.

    is it merely coincidence that of the few female voices in the mainstream media, most of them can be counted on (q.v. Maureen Dowd, Kathleen Parker) to spend most of their time validating the gender-essentialist status quo?

    Exactly. I could go far in film, they assured me, if only I’d learn the game. It wasn’t like they were asking me to kill anybody, was it?

    I kinda thought it was.

    Spartakos, you don’t ask much, do you? :P

    I thought I came as close to explaining it as I could without resorting to tons of speculation on what’s in people’s heads. With the Peter Pan thing, I mean.

    As for the economics, I don’t think they can see the profits they MIGHT have made, so as long as everyone agrees the Emperor’s wearing new clothes, it’s as good as reality to them. OTOH, if they were greedy enough, you’re right: they wouldn’t ignore evidence that doing things differently might bring even more profit.

    But… and this is just my belief… I think ego is at the base of sexism, racism, etc. Even greed – it’s the ego that wants to have more than enough. The ego wants to feel special and unique, and to do that you either have to distinguish yourself above others or you have to tear others down. By inventing excuses to exclude huge chunks of humanity (genders, races, etc.) from the “race” your ego’s in, you make it that much easier for your ego to believe “I’m #1!” That’s what I think in a nutshell. And the solution, IMO, is to accept that you are NOT special but neither is anyone else, and it’s all good – that you still deserve love even if you’re not special.

    • says

      The whole post is brilliant. The comment thread (so far anyway) is brilliant ::totalshock:: And now this. This is it exactly:

      “By inventing excuses to exclude huge chunks of humanity … [you can] believe “I’m #1!” … And the solution, IMO, is to accept that … it’s all good – that you still deserve love even if you’re not special.”

      I wonder how many thousands of years will pass before that story soaks into the world.

  13. says

    Does the film industry want so much to be “right” that they are willing to shoot themselves in the foot financially? Repeatedly? ‘Cause man, that just don’t make no kinda sense.

    Check out the history of the Civil Rights movement. Does it make sense to drive away paying customers? Or to close down your own schools & swimming pools and other places of entertainment, rather than have to share? But over and over, century after century, people have preferred to discriminate, by race or religion or gender, even when it costs them – the privilege ego-boost is just somehow that much worth it.

    Most recently, computer retailers have tried to retrain their sexist male staff – that is, the upper level management is aware that they lose female customers like crazy because over the years we have gotten extremely fed up with being ignored, and/or talked down to like idiot children, when we have gone cash in hand to buy some well-researched piece of hardware or software, and it’s gotten increasingly easy for us to just buy it online, no hassle, no condescension, no being ignored while the male clerk geek giggles with the other male clerk geek about that bitchin’ new game or video card, as we tap our feet and look at our watch in vain trying to get SOMEONE to unlock the case and get us that WD umpteen-gig hard drive down… Yes, Compusa has closed its brick-and-mortar doors, but the memories remain.

    Recently a woman’s similar bad experience at an Apple store and her subsequent letter to the management was written up in one of the online Mac journals. I know that there is a bit of a cult of “oooh, Mac users are sooo much more liberal/progressive than M$atan worshippers” in Left Blogistan, but you’d never guess it from reading the comments thread that followed there – poster after poster insisting that she must have been badly treated because she was stoooopid and the salesman just instinctively sensed that, and treated the bitch the way she deserved (assuming she wasn’t just lying about the whole thing, that is!) It was pretty much Feminist B1ng0 versions 1 & 2, the Mac Geek version.

    (At least CNET mods have jumped hard on that sort of thing the one or two times I’ve encountered it in a thread there – “You don’t know what’s wrong with your computer because UR A WOMN, LUSER!- and so did other male commenters.)

    Why would computer retailers blow off hundreds or even thousands of dollars in potential sales? Sales that they hardly even had to work for (Do you have X? Yes/No. How much is it? Here, take my money! – and maybe answer an “Is it compatible with Y and Z?” for a real challenge…) but nevertheless they do, and have done, to the point that the industry has tried to come up with “initiatives” to succeed in sensitivity training to regain and attract customers. (q.v. that WaPo mess…)

    A few years ago there was an article I heard on local NPR, about why movie trailer narration is mostly male – they don’t actually have any studied evidence that men won’t go see a movie that’s trailer is narrated by a female voice artist, and in fact the very few that there have been, indicate the opposite. But the very old guys in suits, with their gravel voices sounding like your grandpa after a few martinis, all said that well, they didn’t dare gamble with that kind of money, and they just KNEW that men didn’t want to hear a woman telling them something, because, hey, WE’RE men (and yes we can speak for all guys, implicitly) and WE don’t like to hear women talking at us! – but women don’t mind being told what to see by a guy and anyway their boyfriends/husbands will make the decisions about which movie they see anyway so…

    Pride and habit are very, very strong forces. And “profit” has to be measured in social as well as fiscal terms to understand humanity: someone who spends a fortune to become the best at something is one example, but so is someone who spends a fortune to be the envy of their neighbors, and likewise someone who turns down a fortune because it means compromising their principles – even if those principles are rather nasty ones, and perhaps even ones they don’t fully realize they have.

  14. MaggieCat says

    Most recently, computer retailers have tried to retrain their sexist male staff – that is, the upper level management is aware that they lose female customers like crazy because over the years we have gotten extremely fed up with being ignored, and/or talked down to like idiot children, when we have gone cash in hand to buy some well-researched piece of hardware or software

    *arg* This is why I now have to go 9 miles out of my way to buy anything computer related. Because despite having a Best Buy less than a mile from my house I refuse to give them any money, ever, after both receiving myself and hearing about the crappy treatment they’ve given my mother over the years. I’ll go buy stuff from the lovely people who immediately notice when I walk in and ask if I know what I need and then either help or get out of my way, and went out of their way to save me about $300 the first time I was ever in there, thanks.

    Seriously, what is with that? I’ve worked retail, and in a sector where male customers were spotted about as often as unicorns we realized that they had money too, and were aware that lousy service is the fastest way to make it to the top of the ‘expendable employee’ list. Yes, sometimes people have no clue what they need, but there is a way to ask questions to get the information to help them without all but calling them an idiot. (Can you tell this is a sore spot? I lost patience completely sometime after it became clear that they could not understand the concept that “not possessing a Y chromosome” does not also mean “lacks the ability to understand the magical WiFi thingy”.)

  15. says

    I lost patience completely sometime after it became clear that they could not understand the concept that “not possessing a Y chromosome” does not also mean “lacks the ability to understand the magical WiFi thingy”.

    Oooh yah. Worse is when you actually know more about the product/what it’s used for than they do, and they’re too ignorant + arrogant to even realize this, so they go on insisting that what you want is not really that but something simpler that doesn’t do what you need it to do. I walked out of (the now late) Computrend w/o buying a printer when the printer department salesman insisted that I didn’t need a CMYK Postscript printer, b/c he didn’t actually know what ‘separations’ were or why proofing them was important.

  16. sbg says

    But the very old guys in suits, with their gravel voices sounding like your grandpa after a few martinis, all said that well, they didn’t dare gamble with that kind of money, and they just KNEW that men didn’t want to hear a woman telling them something, because, hey, WE’RE men (and yes we can speak for all guys, implicitly) and WE don’t like to hear women talking at us! – but women don’t mind being told what to see by a guy and anyway their boyfriends/husbands will make the decisions about which movie they see anyway so…

    Yes, this is all very tacit approval of the “men don’t want to listen to women” BS. It’s actually pretty astonishing, if not surprising in the least, how many different ways this message is imprinted on us time and again. It’s everywhere. Instead of men trying to understand better the way women communicate, they simply tune out. Everyone tells them it’s the natural order of things.

  17. says

    Wait, it’s not just me that gets ignored when I walk into the Big Box Stores to buy a computer? I thought it was lousy sales staff.

    I think a lot of it is fear of success. If we make a movie that actually satisfies this INCREDIBLY OMG DIFFICULT criteria and it succeeds… what’s that saying about the past 20 years of movies?

    What I hate about trying to discuss this stuff is that folks then assume I’m saying that movies that don’t satisfy this suck. Since I own many a movie that doesn’t I obviously don’t think that.

  18. Death Worm says

    Yes, this is all very tacit approval of the “men don’t want to listen to women” BS. It’s actually pretty astonishing, if not surprising in the least, how many different ways this message is imprinted on us time and again. It’s everywhere. Instead of men trying to understand better the way women communicate, they simply tune out. Everyone tells them it’s the natural order of things

    And it all goes back to the Bechdel test: there’s a vicious cycle of pop culture telling us that women never talk about anything interesting, so men don’t listen to them, and then go write movies/TV shows where women never say anything interesting. If writers and producers started creating more TV shows, movies or comics were the women characters actually had interesting conversations, then you’d probably have men starting to find those conversations more interesting (and in real life too) because pop culture would finally be acknowledging that, hey, sometimes women say stuff that’s worth listening to!

  19. sbg says

    hey, sometimes women say stuff that’s worth listening to!

    Quite often, in fact. I cannot TELL you the number of times I’ve made suggestions or contributed information in formal and informal settings only to be completely ignored…and then five seconds or minutes later some dude (whom I suspect actually did hear me the first 25 times I said it) suggests what I’ve suggested, and is met with a resounding “Good job, ol’ chap!” from everyone else.

    It angers me to the point of shaking. When I stand up and state I said the very same thing not too long ago, I still get the obligatory pat-her-on-the-head-tell-her-she’s-pretty routine.

    ARGH.

  20. says

    sbg, that happened to me. This week. On a feminist blog. ARGGGGG.

    Zingerella and I talked a bit about having an experiment where we’d each take on a male persona and follow each other around the blogosphere for a bit, posting the same ideas but one using male name and the other using female and see what happened.

    I just don’t want to do it because I want to believe there are spaces where that doesn’t happen.

    I tried to talk at work the other week about how we’re used to “male” voices being in authority and how that affects things and… well, that went no where. *sigh* “It’s just that women’s voices are so grating!”

  21. Jennifer Kesler says

    We’ve been cultured to think women’s voices are annoying. As evidence that this is heavy programming and not nature, I present a quick run-down of the last few presidents’ voices:

    Bush: horrible, soft, gravelly, grating voice, poor diction.

    Clinton: sounds like he’s recovering from laryngitis. I always want to clear my throat when I hear him talk.

    Other Bush: wimpy little nasal voice

    Reagan: sounded like somebody punched him in the throat. How did he ever work as an actor?

    Carter: too soft (that’s a Southern thing) yet the best of the bunch.

    So they’re fit to run the world, but Hillary Clinton’s voice was intolerable? Reagan was fit to act, but we can’t scrape up one woman narrator we can risk a trailer on? What about all the women narrating documentaries and unsolved crime type shows? Their voices are not only wonderful, they’re far less depressing than the downbeat, funereal male voices on similar programs. Why do male narrators on shows like Cold Case always sound like undertakers, whereas the women merely sound serious and respectful of the content? And why aren’t we all complaining and refusing to vote for men and just basically hating on the menz because their voices are annoying?

    Because we’re been taught we must make exceptions for men. For women, we look for excuses to dismiss, and voices are just one. (Another example would be: don’t overlook the potential of an ugly man, you shallow fool, he might have something else to offer! But an ugly woman? I dunno – she could be a doorstop, maybe?)

    BTW, one of the best voices around today is Tamara Tunie, who narrated the hell out of Eve’s Bayou and plays the medical examiner on L&O:SVU.

  22. Patrick says

    I’m sure exectives will tell us that The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring would have been even more successful if Cate Blanchett hadn’t been narrating the first eight minutes. They’ll even have number that “prove” it.

  23. Amy McCabe says

    They had Sam & Janet interacton SG-1 and talk about things other then the men in there lives, but then look at how they killed Janet and had Sam react to that death. It was almost if not worse then ever having them interact in the first place. :(

    Plus, that was just a little interaction for a tv series.

  24. says

    You know, Amy, I was wanting to say something about SG-1, but wasn’t sure where to start (it often came so close to being great on gender issues, then it would turn around and destroy all that). You put this very well.

    And yet… for the most part, Sam and Janet usually either talked about the men they worked with or Cassie. Men or kids. I guess it was that or shoes? *sigh*

    I think the actresses really sold it as something that passed the Bechdel test (hey, if all your co-workers are male, you can’t even talk about your groundbreaking feminist career without effectively talking “about men”), but if you just look at the words on paper, it kind of didn’t. And then, as you say, the way it all ended just threw all that down the garbage disposal and flipped the switch. :(

  25. SunlessNick says

    Sam had a beautiful speech at the memorial for Janet, listing the people who are alive because of her. But then it was also Teal’c’s idea – which I don’t mind per se, as it was a very Teal’c thing to come up with – what I mind is that it wasn’t accompanied by an idea of Sam’s own.

    I think the most Bechdel-friendly scene was from the episode Frozen, where much of the action was Sam, Janet, and a female scientist of the week discussing the implications of a woman frozen in the ice. Jonas intruded, but I can’t think of another episode that gave as much to female characters, or had as many of them; which is a pretty sorry bar.

    (Frozen was my favourite episode from the Jonas-season; partly due to that, but also to my weakness for strories set in Antarctica).

  26. David says

    If we’re gonna make headway in this area, i think it is going to start in Sci-Fi/Fantasy.

    In a rather unrelated thought:
    Most of the examples any of us can think of come from television because by the third or fourth season of a TV show, there are likely to be at least two female characters who are at least as fleshed-out as a typical male character ten minutes into a movie (and are therefore capable of non-stereotypical discourse)

  27. Jack Ketch says

    William Goldman described the phrase “non-recurring phenomenon” in his book The Big Picture, a collection of essays discussing movies with studio execs during the 90s; any film that had success while challenging the prevalent assumptions was described as a “non-recurring phenomenon” by the studio execs to explain why they wouldn’t repeat what had been successful.

    The primary example was The First Wives Club; Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn pulled in almost $20 million the opening weekend, and finished over $100 million domestic. There’s obviously an audience for films with older (by Hollywood standards), female leads, why aren’t the studios making more of them Goldman asked? Because that film was a “non-recurring phenomenon” was the answer.

    Goldman’s explanation was that the studio execs, the moguls and big shots who decide what movies get made, are terrified that people will find out that they really don’t know anything at all; they can always explain away a failure, but a movie that succeeds when common wisdom says it shouldn’t truly threatens them. So they perpetuate the common wisdom by not making those films in the first place, not because they’re afraid that the films will fail, but because they’re afraid that they’ll succeed.

  28. says

    Jack, that’s a damn good point to bring up. Yeah, I think that mentality is also really common in TV too because not only do you need your bosses and other colleagues to think you know something: you have to convince advertisers. Constantly. If you can’t explain why something did well, they go to someone who can (even if that person’s full of it, so long as he sounds convincing).

    I think too that sometimes networks and studios sabotage projects that buck the system too much – bad marketing, moving shows around too much. I don’t think anyone doubts that Fox deliberately derails shows that are too avant garde after a few seasons (or sooner!).

  29. says

    Oh, this is beautiful and makes the point so well.

    I didn’t know Bechdel credited Liz Wallace for the test! For years I heard people refer to it as the Dykes to Watch Out for test and as far as I know, I started naming it “Bechdel test” a few years back because it was shorter and I like the idea of naming ideas after women who come up with them.

    But the thing I wanted to say is that the other day I was talking with Charlie Jane from io9 about SF heroes and heroic characteristics. We could not think of many mainstream SF heroes who were female. Strong female characters, sure. Fantasy heroes, yes. Not just characters who behave bravely – but ones who are The Hero character larger than life. (Our other caveat was “and don’t have “she-” or “-woman” in their name.)

    Sad that this is true, but even sadder that despite thinking about SF all the time I didn’t realize there was still such a gap.

  30. William Salt says

    Just wanted to chime in (a lot of the things I wanted to say were said by others, and better than I could) that I would pay for the whole movie if I could to see Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley team up, ’cause that would be the most awesome action movie ever (a little boy that still loves explosions, so long as a strong lead character is either causing or dodging them :) ).

  31. bellatrys says

    The frustrating thing, William, is that the media gatekeepers are saying that you (and guys like you) don’t exist either, which is just as insulting in its own way as saying stuff like Women only care about the Diamonds! and Clean Floors! and Shoes! and other shallow nonsense. It’s like they have these cliches in their heads of What A Man Is and What A Woman Is, and no amount of factual evidence can overwrite that.

  32. says

    This is eerily similar to the counter-arguments people make when I go on the various Lego forums and declare that Legoland Needs Women! “The audience is mostly males and won’t buy sets with female characters”, they say, never mind that on the auction sites, the most expensive mini-figures are the various “Princesses” (which is another peeve, why can’t they be proles?).

  33. Patrick says

    This is eerily similar to the counter-arguments people make when I go on the various Lego forums and declare that Legoland Needs Women! “The audience is mostly males and won’t buy sets with female characters”, they say, never mind that on the auction sites, the most expensive mini-figures are the various “Princesses” (which is another peeve, why can’t they be proles?).

    Then why is it that the Lego Batman set I’m most excited about is the one with Harley Quinn, her enormous mallet, and oh yeah a couple vehicles or something?

  34. Eric says

    I think the most disappointing moment I’ve had in my cinematic experiences was watching “Death Proof” for the first time in theatre (I was excited about it for months) with my girlfriend. I was awestruck by the witty dialogue penned by Tarantino amongst the group of female roles, especially since Tarantino is quite famous for writing fantastic dialogue for women – and they talked about subjects OTHER than guys (and even when talking about guys, it wasn’t petty). And at the end of the movie, my girlfriend complained about the conversation amongst the women! Here’s what she said – “my girlfriends and I don’t talk like that. girls mostly just talk about other girls and their boyfriends/guys.” I was dumbfounded. And my girlfriend is NOT an airhead by any stretch of the imagination.

  35. says

    Eric, I’m sure that really is her experience… or at least her perception of her experience.

    There are safe topics for each gender when getting to know one another. For men, it’s sports, beer, etc., for women it’s the men and children in their lives, or appearance stuff. These are the topics most people start out on, and then they get to know each other better and feel safe talking about more profound and random stuff. Well… women do. Some men swear to me men NEVER get beyond the sports and beer talk, but that’s so sad I hope it’s not true for most men.

    Anyway, if your girlfriend hasn’t gotten too close to women over the years, it’s possible she doesn’t realize there is a point where you get past those topics to other stuff.

    I’ve met some women who seemed to only talk about men and whatnot for a very long time, but after a while of me talking about everything under the sun, they always prove to have thoughts on other subjects. I think some of them don’t feel safe defying gender expectations until they know a person well. It’s like they’re afraid people will perceive them as something other than the “nice, normal person” niche they’ve fit into through careful work. (Remember, we’re a society that values conformity rather than being exceptional, so there’s a cultural advantage in fitting into stereotypes.)

  36. Brendon says

    Very interesting, but not so surprising. Your analysis seems dead on! I’m glad you had what it took to walk away.

  37. Vasi says

    Strangely enough, the military put a great deal of money into a study concerning response and attention to voice. They wanted their fighter pilots and such to have the quickest response possible at times of emergency. The results showed that the men not only responded faster to a female voice but also retained the information longer and more accurately. So that is why fighter planes speak in a female voice. Tell me again how men won’t listen to girls talk.

  38. bill wesley says

    There is a principal I call “the law of opposits.” basically most peoples justifications are the exact opposit of the truth. Hollywood has a vested intrest in “dumbing down” its audience. Discriminating pigs wont eat whatever is thrown at them, to get them to do that you must DENY them better food. This is hollywwods primary motive, aclimating peopler to lifless art effectivly nutralizes them emotionally. A society is only as good as its myths…they are what guide a nations future. our future is aparently cheap ignorant and lifeless. Movies are PROPAGANDA, ours make evoking impotence into a fine art, like a herd of steer we may be MALE dominated, but only males who lacks testicales compleatly are allowed. Hollywood is the throne of cowardice, it is the shepard that follows the sheep because it dosen’t have the guts to lead. Its disgusting

  39. Miriam P says

    This is a fabulous post and fantastic discussion. Hat tip to my husband, a statistically non-existent man, for sending it to me. For those of you who haven’t already, you might want to check out an oldish article by Thomas Cripps called “The Myth of the Southern Box Office,” which basically details how Hollywood execs pulled analogous bullshit on black men and women for decades by claiming that though they themselves *really really wanted* to stop casting black men and women as grinning, eye-rolling, shuffling idiots, if they did so, then they would offend and lose the patronage of southern moviegoers.
    Edward Campbell’s book The Celluloid South extends and amplifies the argument, talking about how Hollywood basically created a whole genre of “Southerns” (comparable to “Westerns”), movies which advanced the ideals of white supremacy, and of the pre-emancipation south as an agrarian eden where everyone was happy and understood their place.
    It’s amazing that now the excuse is not about just one region of the country, but a even more nebulous and more effective general “they.”

    Oy. Anyway, thanks for the great post: I’m putting it up on my Facebook page.

  40. DEAF FEMINIST PUNK!!! says

    Chick flicks can be quite profitable. Just don’t expect men to want to see them.

    Oh, wait a minute. So every film with a major leading female character is a “chick flick,” to you Frankie?

    No wonder I can’t stand this sexist bullshit in Hollywood.

  41. Lindsay says

    Now, I must ask – does this failed Bechdel test apply largely to live action, human characters? Or is it just female characters in general? For example, what about the medium of animation? (Of course traditionally, the story in animated films is developed visually via storyboards, and not a script – but let’s just set that aside for now!) Are the Bechdel test requirements avoided even if your two female characters are cartoon bunnies, or somesuch? ;-P

    On a related note, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a Bechdel equivalent for film settings. Why is it that about 70% of mainstream U.S. films take place in New York City, when the vast majority of the audience is only familiar with the abstract idea of the place? Is isn’t as though the audience “knows” the city, more than they are familiar with its imagery through constant exposure, as 95% of them have never set foot there. Meh. Just more U.S. Powers-That-Be furthering the effort to maintain a myopic view of the world, I suppose.

  42. sbg says

    Now, I must ask – does this failed Bechdel test apply largely to live action, human characters? Or is it just female characters in general? For example, what about the medium of animation?

    Absolutely not limited to live action, human characters. C.L. Hanson wrote a post about recent-ish animated films and this test about a year ago. See it here.

    Tacking this on:

    USA Network’s In Plain Sight does not only revolve around a lead female, but also features two other women. All have had conversations not related to men. It’s not without faults, but overall the show does a decent job of lending complexity to most of their characters, male or female. (I love Marshall, and I love that he’s very clearly the supporting character…)

    AMC’s Mad Men also has a decent line-up of women who manage to talk about things other than men. It’s a bit more problematic, given that it’s set in 1960 (and in NYC, hee).

  43. says

    Miriam P, that’s really fascinating. That essay doesn’t seem to be available on line, but if I can find it in a book I’d like to read it and maybe report on it here. Thanks!

    DEAF FEMINIST PUNK!!!, of course it is. Hollywood thinks “mainstream” can apply to one narrow segment of the populace, and you can designate half of humanity as a “niche.” Frankie has learned this like we all did, but unlike some of us he still hasn’t thought it over analytically.

    Lindsay, anime tends to do better on the Bechdel test than live action. But mainstream animation – as in Disney, Pixar, etc. – tends to do worse than live action movies. As for animation’s use of human substitutes – talking rabbits, robots, whatever – it’s extremely rare they have two female characters in the first place, a la The Smurfs. This sends a clear, disturbing message that men are useful for many roles, but women are only useful when caretaking or baby-related functions are required.

  44. SunlessNick says

    Then why is it that the Lego Batman set I’m most excited about is the one with Harley Quinn, her enormous mallet, and oh yeah a couple vehicles or something? - Patrick

    Back in the day, when I collected Lego Space (before there was Lego tied in with films and stuff) why did I want female figures among the astronauts?

  45. Amanda Weinstein says

    How broad is the “not related to men” requirement?

    I started to play the game of seeing what novels pass the Bechdel test, and I ran into one that is feminist in message and has strong female characters, but places them in a Dark Age society. It posed some interesting questions. Does it or does it not count when you have a female overlord, who inherits her demesne because the laws deem it better for a woman to rule than for the demesne to leave the clan, sitting and discussing with her two serving women and closest confidantes how to deal with her rebellious vassals? The vassals, after all, are all men, but on the other hand, the women in question are essentially talking about the first woman’s job.

  46. says

    Amanda, we discussed some hypotheticals earlier in the thread, and not everyone agrees exactly, but as I see it… maybe, maybe not. For me, it depends on other factors. If there was a lot of logical opportunity to have women talking to each other and I feel the author just didn’t exploit that opportunity, I give it a fail. If I don’t see that the author left opportunities on the table, and find there’s at least a tiny nod to women being fully human creatures even when men aren’t around to observe it, I might be inclined to give it a pass.

    Also, the passing or failing of the Bechdel test is not the sole measure of a film’s feminist value, so even when a movie fails it, it might still be valuable from a feminist perspective. For example, I like Fight Club because as *I* read the story, it breaks down the myth that the cult of masculinity is where a man finds his identity and value. Doesn’t say a damn thing about women or our journey, but the obsession with manhood (and lack of corresponding value put on “womanhood”) is definitely part of why we need feminism, so I think the movie has value even though it only features one woman and therefore fails Bechdel. (Also, I acknowledge some people get almost an opposite read on Fight Club – that it celebrates the cult of masculinity. I disagree: the deeper “Jack” gets into his “manhood”, the closer he gets to realizing it’s a construct – Tyler – that’s doing him a lot of harm and no good. He has to destroy the construct to become himself again. Hmm, I just realized I never stated this flat out in my articles on Fight Club – looks like I should write another, LOL.)

  47. Anna says

    Also, I wouldn’t want anyone to fall into the trap of assuming that just because a movie does pass the test means it’s either a feminist movie or a great movie. Beaches passes the test. I’m not going to stand up and say it’s either great cinema for the ages or a great feminist story (again with the breakdown of women’s friendships over men *sigh*), but I still own it and watch it.

  48. says

    As someone living and working in the entertainment industry, this is all quite depressing and not remotely surprising.

    I am, however, going to make a point watch “Death Proof” soon, and that exchange in the comment thread reminded me of an older woman who used to be in my knitting group who commented one day that all we women talked about was men… After being in our group for months and months where we talked about career, the entertainment industry, the health industry, politics, and a million other things, and yes, sometimes, men. I seriously could not abide that woman after that.

    That’s the hardest, I think. To work in this industry where we have so far to go, and then have some woman in a meeting make some comment about how women get all crazy when they have their period. (True Hollywood story)

  49. sbg says

    That’s the hardest, I think. To work in this industry where we have so far to go, and then have some woman in a meeting make some comment about how women get all crazy when they have their period. (True Hollywood story)

    But it is true! And it’s great fodder to set up a man’s confused expression or long suffering sigh as they watch a woman turn into some unrecognizable thing right in front of them.

    Because a truly female experience is somehow still about the menz.

    /end sarcasm and tangent ;)

  50. says

    I had a friend who studied writing and his professor told him that main characters needed to be straight white males. If they were female, black, gay, etc, then the work needed to be an “issue piece.” Having a gay main character in a work that wasn’t about homosexuality was just too distracting.

  51. says

    Lizriz, I’m not surprised by your true story. To get anywhere in the business as a woman, you have to demonstrate that you’re one of the boys by showing you harbor the same sexist notions about women that they do. And while a guy who’s not sexist can just hold his tongue and keep doing his best to write non-sexist material around all the assholes, a woman who holds her tongue is immediately pegged as “offended” and therefore incapable of handling the “realities” of the world and her job.

    Terry, exactly. If it’s a story about a Whitey, it’s a story about being Whitey. If it’s a story about any other variety of human being, it’s a story about the hardship of not being Whitey. Interesting how it all comes back to Whitey, isn’t it? He must be at the center of all things, including the things that supposedly aren’t meant for his enjoyment.

  52. says

    a woman who holds her tongue is immediately pegged as “offended”

    THAT is how I got labeled as the Radical Feminist when I didn’t say ANYTHING about sex or gender roles! Well, except to call down some homophobic “jokes” made about an out gay coworker. (“But he doesn’t mind! He laughs along at them!” was the objection to my tart asides.)

    The mere fact of not joining in with the Hipster Liberals at the SCLM outfit I used to work at, in their constant put-downs of (other) women, the jokes about how nasty (yet oh-so-desirable) whores and strippers were, all that “edgy” “ironic ” crap – I was TRYING to avoid trouble because I couldn’t afford not to pay the rent, to miss a single paycheck, because unlike them I didn’t have a wife with a full time job and good benefits or a mom in whose basement I could live, but might as well be hanged for a sheep – my attempts to keep my head down and be Nice and Sweet and professional by ignoring the sexism directed at me were taken (correctly, but still) as proof of my radicalism and hostility.

    So, like I said – might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb…

  53. Jaco says

    Not only is this whole sexist thing offensive to women, I think it should also be considered offensive by men.

    I mean, do ALL men just want to watch men fighting other men? If we really did, we would ALL watch WWF. That’s such a stereotype.

    So it is a case of stereotypes reinforcing stereotypes. Like so many other cultural things, it is really hard to change.

    I think we need to create a culture of change and acceptance, so as to make up for our natural tendency not to change.

    I wonder, if one would write a story, but only assign genders to the characters afterward and randomly… I think there will be some people saying that I am not respecting the differences between the genders. Are they right or wrong?

  54. Nialla says

    According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.”

    I reread this after hunting it up to link somewhere, and this bit got me to pondering.

    Is it possible the all-knowing “they” is also looking at it from both sides, as they perceive it? As in men don’t want to watch women talk about something not revolving around the menfolk, but also that women in the audience only want to see “romance” stuff, even if it’s an action flick.

    Could either be taken as “they” really think women only want to see romance, or better yet, expect women should want to see romance, because they’re worthless to the story (and in their personal lives) without it.

    Possibly a bit of both, depending on who you ask. I know I’ve seen some shippers (and slashers too) that could find Tru Luv chemistry between a character they like and a piece of paper, based on favorite character getting a papercut.

  55. says

    Could either be taken as “they” really think women only want to see romance

    That’s absolutely one of the assumptions at work here. The reason they toss bits of romance into action movies is to appeal to the girlfriends and wives they presume will tag along disinterestedly with their menfolk. If they want more female viewers, they often rely on romance to get the job done. If a mainstream movie does well with women (say, Titanic), they tend to assume it’s the romance, not the SFX or the story or the gutsy female lead who didn’t just stand around waiting to be rescued.

    or better yet, expect women should want to see romance, because they’re worthless to the story (and in their personal lives) without it.

    I think there’s some of that going on, too. It sounds terribly misogynistic the way you put it (and it is, ultimately), but I believe it’s an insidious side effect of the idea that white men are the default and every other sort of human only needs to appear when you need a character to do/experience something a white man can’t.

    And yeah, there are women who are obsessed with seeing romance in everything. But far more common in my experience is the viewer – male or female – who assumes two characters of the opposite sex who appear on screen simultaneously must have sexual tension. This isn’t because they want to see it – it’s because they’ve learned to expect it, since TV/film never strays far from that formula.

  56. says

    I wonder, if one would write a story, but only assign genders to the characters afterward and randomly…

    Jaco, I’ve been reading a fascinating blog series which is about the contextual history of the X-Men comics, and apparently something like that happened several times when Claremont was writing – he was it seems famous for saying “but why can’t this character be a woman?” in brainstorming sessions when the default Bechedel-Test-failure mode was to have every character/plot role be male unless you needed a “chick” to be the love-interest for one of the heroes. Which obviously made for a more interesting storyline as well as providing a more diverse and well-rounded cast, but that wasn’t the norm 30 years ago – nor is it today, alas.

    On a personal level, in one of my original fic projects that I’m working on, I’ve changed a couple characters’ gender (and orientation too) from the original outline because I realized that they were very much in Traditional patterns and a) this was boring, b) a good opportunity to demonstrate my ideals, and c) an even better opportunity to stretch my writerly skills, by breaking the molds. What does it do to the story dynamic – and reader expectations – when a “typically male” aggressive career leadership role is played by a heterosexual woman (can’t be written off as “butch”), or a “typically female” nurturing role or “in distress” role is played by a straight guy…or when one of your square-jawed, swashbuckling, debonair hero characters is a gay working-class dude?

    But far more common in my experience is the viewer – male or female – who assumes two characters of the opposite sex who appear on screen simultaneously must have sexual tension. This isn’t because they want to see it – it’s because they’ve learned to expect it, since TV/film never strays far from that formula.

    [SNARKLOCK ON] But gee, Jennifer, what else is there for two characters of the opposite sex to have in common, except sexual tension? Everybody knows it’s impossible for men to look at women as anything but sex objects, and women to look at men as anything but potential husbands! [SNARKLOCK OFF]
    [SNARKLOCK OFF]
    [SNARKLOCK OFF]
    …Snark key is still stuck on….

  57. Patrick says

    I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this lately, since my 29th birthday prompted me to get off my ass and start working on the screenwriting that I abandoned when I went on dialysis a year ago.

    The problem the industry has with the Bechdel test seems to be a consequence of good screenwriting intersecting with bad social ideas. In a conventional film (specifically, one with a single lead, not an ensemble) you do want everything to reflect on your lead, and having a conversation that neither features nor is about your lead draws the screenplay away from that. It’s bad screenwriting.

    The part where the test becomes important and enlightening, of course, is when it comes to the sex of your lead. After all, with a female lead, you have ample opportunity to pass the test, but little to pass the test in reverse. So all those films with female leads shoul be fine, right, putting things about equal. Right?

    What’s that, Hollywood? “People” don’t want to see films with female leads? “They” only want to see films with straight white men as the leads? Hmm… now we have a problem.

    In short: Everything must be about the lead: sound screenwriting. The lead must always be a (straight white) man: sexist bullshit.

    As I said, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this regarding my own writing. The screenplay that I’m currently working on is fundamentally about a young man’s relationship with his father, so trying to pass the test would probably work to the detriment of the story. But I’ve got another screenplay in mind focusing on a group of teenage girls, and there’s barely a speaking male part to be found in it. In both cases the sex of the leads determines its Bechdel/reverse Bechdel status before I’ve even written anything.

  58. says

    @bellatrys, those snarkkeys can get stuck for weeks on end.

    @Patrick, what you say is true. BUT how many movies contain the following:

    –A scene that establishes our villains, who haven’t even met our hero yet. Naturally, they’re not talking about him. What they are talking about sets up the story and forwards it, even though he’s not touched upon. Take Star Wars – 20 minutes before we meet any of our three main heroic leads, during which time we get to know the droids and Vader fairly well.

    –A scene in which incidental or supporting male characters are talking about their jobs or their damn taxes or their wives when in walks the hero and THEN the scene is all about him. This can be a scene to establish the supporting players as nice guys, mean guys, or average guys. Or they could be talking about the plot – “Did you hear there’s been a rash of burglaries?” which our hero is eventually going to solve. These scenes forward the stories while passing the test of two named characters talking to each other about something other than men.

    It’s not just the lack of female leads that causes the Bechdel test to be failed. It’s the perception that women aren’t interesting, period. Check out how many people made just that argument in the Reddit thread that linked to this post.

    Or perhaps it’s the fear that we are interesting, and if everyone finds that out, they’re going to stop centering our entire cultural lens on white men.

    Keep in mind, too, that this test could be applied to a lot of other groups, with a few tweaks. For people of color, for example: does your story have two named people of color who talk to each other about something other than white men (and/or the Issue of being Of Color)? That test would be rarely passed, too, because it would expose people of color to be just as interesting as white people.

  59. Patrick says

    I agree fully about the villains; female villains would enable a film to pass just as well as a female lead would. It again becomes a question of how often we see those.

    Personally, I’d avoid the type of scene you’re describing where supporting characters have a conversation before the lead walks in. I see it as unnecessarily extending the scene (get in late, get out early) and any characterization can be worked in with the lead. So when I see this sort of thing in a movie, I don’t think of it as a missed chance to feature female characters as sloppy screenwriting.

    (Obviously, though, everyone comes at films from different angles. One need only look at five different people’s lists of the greatest of most overrated films to realize that different people value very different things in film.)

    Regarding the race/other groups point: my thinking applies the smae way there. The industry-wide focus on straight/white/male/other “default” leads is the factor, not any individual film.

    Again, I don’t think there’s anything remotely wrong with a film not passing the test. What gets me up in arms is the fact that so very, very few films pass it overall.

  60. says

    Personally, I’d avoid the type of scene you’re describing where supporting characters have a conversation before the lead walks in.

    Actually, scenes like that can be almost necessary to a well-written script. Let’s say Sidekick is going to turn on Hero or make a big mistake, but Hero has to be utterly blindsided by it – the audience must not think Hero could’ve seen it coming, but to raise suspense, we have to give the audience a chance to think something’s wrong. So Sidekick has an interaction with a friend about something that has nothing to do with the plot or with Hero. But in that interaction, Sidekick tells a lie or reveals a character defect through her behavior. The penny drops for the audience; now we have suspense, and a clueless Hero, all from a thirty second scene.

    I don’t think it’s good screenwriting that dictates everything should come back to the star. I think it’s good star-building. Most movies aren’t supposed to be great stories; they’re meant to be great star vehicles. And as you say, the star is almost always a white man, so that’s whose careers are getting built.

  61. says

    I don’t think it’s good screenwriting that dictates everything should come back to the star. I think it’s good star-building. Most movies aren’t supposed to be great stories; they’re meant to be great star vehicles.

    Argh, I had a longer post about comparing/contrasting old Hollywood films and their ensemble setup even in star vehicles, like Arsenic & Old Lace, Casablanca, and some others, but my browser ate it & will have to reconstruct my examples (grrr, argh).

    But I think this is why we see so few lasting classics, or even moderately memorable films any more; star vehicles by default are NOT good stories, and as I was making my coffee just now I had an epiphany:

    The Star Vehicle setup, with the White Straight Guy as the Little Tin God on the altar of the film, is just a Canon-Stu fic.

    And Stus and Sues eat the story. They eat the plot, they eat the other characters, they eat the worldbuilding, b/c EVERYTHING is about them. They’re like No-Face after it gets corrupted by the greed of everyone else around it at the bathhouse. You *need* a world, and other people in it, for your Main Man and Leading Lady to bounce off of – nobody can *act* in a vacuum! (Leading Lady? What’s that? No, nobody in Hollywood today has ever seen Gaslight or Casablanca!)

    The more they turn the spotlight on Mr. Straight & White standing there like a lump center-stage (even if he’s doing high-kicks and all kinds of martial-arts cavorting) the more boring the productions become.

  62. says

    Yeah, and actually I don’t think star vehicles are meant to be the best of scripts. You’ll notice how the two never go together. It’s like the theory with fashion magazine articles: you don’t want the writing to be so absorbing it distracts people from the ads, ads, luscious ads, that are the money artery for the magazine.

    Great scripts could distract people from how much they like Mr. Star. When you watch a movie and think, “This isn’t great, but I enjoy watching Mr. Star so much I don’t mind”, you come away with the impression they want you to have: that you’ll pay $9 to see anything featuring Mr. Star.

    And BTW, this is a really good example of why I did not expect ANYONE to take my claims to be a good screenwriter as boasting. I later realized some people did, and I was all like, dude, have ya seen what gets filmed?

  63. says

    You’ll notice how the two never go together. It’s like the theory with fashion magazine articles: you don’t want the writing to be so absorbing it distracts people from the ads, ads, luscious ads, that are the money artery for the magazine.

    It’s actually worse than that in newspapers, based on my experience: there is a war between the publisher on one hand, and the editors/writers on the other, where the publishers simply don’t care what is on the page so long as it doesn’t get them into trouble (which will lose them ads or cost them money.)

    They refer to content as “fill.”

    Like, what you use in your yard to level it.

    (Then they wonder why people would rather read field-specific websites and blogs.)

    Great scripts could distract people from how much they like Mr. Star. When you watch a movie and think, “This isn’t great, but I enjoy watching Mr. Star so much I don’t mind”, you come away with the impression they want you to have: that you’ll pay $9 to see anything featuring Mr. Star.

    There is such a whole chicken-egg-chicken madness to this method – I’m going to have to think about it some more, because it fuels itself I think, and yet it’s such a death-spiral. The reason that The Fugitive was so great as a thriller was that it wasn’t just The Harrison Ford Show, nor even the Harrison Ford & Tommy Lee Jones show, tho’ it mostly was – everybody got little moments, little tiny bits of shading to round them, and so much lingering was spent on the “backdrop” – it made me realize that Chicago was also a beautiful city, for the first time in my life. All that made you care about the main men, and made it seem like the stakes were real and mattered, even if it is a total WiR and Bechdel failure it’s less othering in a key way than so many films with token Action Grl chick sidekicks.

    Because, after all, we can’t be Gary-Stu: in any Gary-Stu vehicle, There can be only one!!! Nobody in the end can identify with a solipsistic hero whacking away at a bunch of cardboard cutouts.

    (And then they wonder why Arnold can’t keep pulling them in to make up for his insanely high salaries. Hint: it wasn’t Arnold that made Conan, it was Conan & Subotai & Valeria & King Osric & Thulsa Doom & the cranky old wizard Narrator & the score & the vast, grand settings…)

  64. says

    That’s because it was made back when he still played characters, instead of playing Harrison Ford™. It’s almost the guaranteed Kiss of Death as an actor to be treated as A Star regardless of what they actually *do* on screen, what the vehicle is (the same is true imo for directors). I used to like Tom Hanks, but now it’s hard to remember that he was ever in Apollo 13

  65. says

    I think it’s awesome that the first comment on this post – inspired by Alison Bechdel – was about a 17th-century Spunky Heroine named Alibech.

    Erik, that’s a wild coincidence! I hadn’t even realized that when I posted it!

  66. says

    Oh, Patrick, you want to hear a good one?

    Years ago, in the mid-90′s, I was doing coverage (reviewing) scripts for agents. Speed was a runaway hit, so the trend of the day was to write a script you could pitch as “Speed in a train/submarine/airplane/other fast-moving vehicle” (making it ironic that Speed 2 was set on a slowboat to China, I know, but that’s a whole other thing). Out of the steaming heaps of “Speed” rip-offs came one very good script. Even I thought it was good, after having read so many bad rip-offs I was ready to hurl at the sight of another Speed-like script.

    Two studios got into a bidding war over it. At the beginning of one sunny workday, it looked like the script might sell for a couple hundred thousand, which was great. By the end of the workday, it had sold for $1 million. Which was very rare back then (screenwriters do not make the kind of money most people imagine).

    It was never filmed. To this day. It never will be.

    Reason? One in forty sold scripts actually gets filmed. Scripts are bought for all sorts of reasons. For example, if you can’t afford the $50 mil to make that movie and you know it could kick your studio’s ass next summer, you’ll gladly spend $1 mil to keep someone else from making it. Or they buy it with the full intention of making it, but it falls apart. Or two departments are in a weenie measuring contest. Or whatever. There’s so much money flying around, it doesn’t always make good business sense.

    That one always struck me as sad because it was actually a very good script.

    You know, I just realized something. Speed passes the Bechdel test very early on. And features a competent female lead. Graham Yost must be responsible for Annie not being the usual dimwit damsel, but guess who Yost said was responsible for “98% of the dialog”? A young, uncredited screenwriter named Joss Whedon.

  67. Patrick says

    I agree on the issues of actors vs. movie stars; the movie star does pretty much always play a Sue!version of themselves. You can often tell when an actor is trying very hard to avoid becoming a star, even to the detriment of their career.

    Thinking of actors that I’ll see in pretty much everything, pretty much none of them are Movie Stars. (I can’t even imagine Paul Giamatti being called a movie star.)

    And yes, Hollywood does try to write star vehicles, because stars are the main factor they perceive as being “bankable.” This is probably why there are so few ensemble pieces being made compared to during the years of the studio system.

    bellatrys: Conan the Barbarian is probably my favorite movie for many of the reasons you listed. It’s also a great example of characterization where you have a monosylabbic lead in nearly every scene.

    Jennifer: I’ve been reading a lot of screenplays lately, and the lack of understanding of the craft in major Hollywood scripts is simultaneously aggravating and disheartening. Agrravating because so much money was spend on movies with bad scripts, disheartening because I think “Sure, I can write a better screenplay… but will anyone with decision-making power be capable of recognizing that?

  68. says

    Anna, thanks for highlighting Betty’s post – I’m behind on my blog and LJ reading right now. She’s right on. A couple of years ago, I thought you could (carefully) draw those analogies to show how a subtle form of sexism became quite blunt when you made it a race thing instead of a gender thing. But the analogy falls apart when you consider that there’s a group experiencing both sets of prejudices (and often a whole special third collection of stereotypes about women of a particular race), and the subtle bigotry of your failure to account for her in your analogy reveals more about insidious bigotry than your analogy does.

    It’s much better to use analogies that are sort of silly, but get the point across, such as: “Just replace every instance of ‘woman’ in that sentence with ‘People whose names end in R.’ Now, would you ever say such narrow things about such a diverse group of people?”

  69. Mecha says

    Reading through this thread, specifically the concept of ‘lead building’, reminded me of another thing which has come up before on this site and becomes relevant: the idea of ‘buddy’ or ‘ensemble’ movies/stories, as opposed to single hero monomyth-heavy stuff.

    When you have those setups, which are in no way rare (although good ones can be rare), you have a prime opportunity to play off all sorts of different people of different sexes/genders/races/etc. However, as was pointed out earlier, without the ‘Why couldn’t this character be a woman/PoC/homosexual’ (or perhaps ‘why is this character a man?’) question, even when your script/setup demands a lot of interaction between people who are all equally important, it’s still too often majority white men with a token woman.

    So even when people are given the chance to do it without ruining a story by detracting from the ‘leads’, it still happens far too often. That’s a real strong indicator that there’s something else here (such as white straight men being default, or institutionalized sexism, or what have you.)

    -Mecha

  70. Rae says

    Excellent post and many, many excellent comments. The roles women play in movies and television is a topic where I get scoffed at constantly. Any time I bring this up, I’m told I’m just being too sensitive.

    Anyway, I have a friend who was pitching me his idea for a fantasy series of books. He was telling me about the characters and the themes and it all sounded very interesting. At some point he says something to the effect that he doesn’t know how to write female characters. I said to him to just write the character the same you would a male and for an example told him how any of the characters he described could be female. He still seemed to think that women were too different from him. It was insanely frustrating that I actually had to explain to him that women have mostly the same goals, hopes, and thoughts as men. ::sigh::

  71. says

    @Mecha, that’s very true. I’m thinking I need to write a series about how the film industry works. One part would be the vicious circle that is the lead white male star. They mainly attempt to build white men as stars because they believe the audience only wants white male stars (with a few token exceptions). Because white male stars have been built, they rack up high-grossing movies to make them “bankable.” Because they’re bankable, they’re the only stars people want in their films (which is why, when you specify your script’s lead is an African-American man, they ask you, “Why does he have to be black? What if we can get Bruce Willis to play him, thus ensuring the movie’s success?” but no one ever asks, “Why does it have to be a white guy? What if we could get Demi Moore?”), so the films have to accommodate a central white male lead. So there’s no room for women of all races and men of color to star in high grossing movies, thus proving their viability. It’s a vicious circle. We’re told, “Well, as soon as their movies start grossing as much as white men’s, we’ll make more movies with them.” But if you don’t make AND MARKET big movies with them, how can they prove it?

    @Rae, the assumption that women are a different species drives me insane, but I understand it a little. I’m intimidated by trying to write people of color, people from vastly different backgrounds than mine, etc., because it’s hard to get a clear view of the lives of those “below” you on the privilege ladder than those above you. If your friend is white, able-bodied and het, then he’s at the top of the ladder and it will always be harder for him to write someone lower down than for them to write him.

    But I don’t think that’s an excuse. It’s better to try to write people from other demographics than to avoid it with excuses. If you’re concerned you’ll accidentally send a bad message (it’s always possible, even for the best of us), show a draft to a friend from that demographic and ask them if it rings true. And then listen.

  72. Patrick says

    I’m curious as to Hollywood’s explanation for Will Smith’s success as a highly bankable non-white lead. No doubt they’ll have lots of data to explain how he’s an anomaly, and white people don’t really like him.

  73. says

    Patrick, I don’t doubt there were some who tried to explain away his success, but the explanation I always heard for his popularity was that he was “an exception.” Another non-recurring phenomenon. They accepted that the target audience really was happy to go see him in a film. They just didn’t extend that to the possibility that the target audience really didn’t care about a star’s race as much as they cared whether he was fun to watch.

  74. Hyperphonics says

    They accepted that the target audience really was happy to go see him in a film. They just didn’t extend that to the possibility that the target audience really didn’t care about a star’s race as much as they cared whether he was fun to watch.

    Unfortunately, when it comes to entertainment, I’d have to agree with that. Enjoying watching someone on screen is a far cry from respecting them as a human being. In fact, in most cases and to much of the ignorant population, being entertaining is the only thing that allows a minority or gay or handicapped or retarded person (or otherwise within the same realm of the “second class citizen” so to speak) the privilege of being respected.

    I know many whites who talk about how “niggers are so stupid, ugly, violent, and smelly”, yet still break their necks to watch their favorite black quarterback score one for their favorite team. I know many heterosexuals who talk about how “homosexuality is so gross and gay people totally shouldn’t be allowed to get married”, yet they wouldn’t miss Ellen’s talk show for the world because she’s just so funny

    No, being entertained by someone enough to want to see them – even to pay to see them – is not equivalent to viewing them as equal or having a positive view of particular attributes they possess. It only means that for that moment you can put your prejudice aside to satisfy your own desire to be entertained.

    I do believe many people enjoy watching Will Smith, but one would be hardpressed to convince me that it’s regardless of his race as opposed to in spite of it.

  75. Hyperphonics says

    In the same token, I don’t believe the issue with the way that women are portrayed in the media is that people don’t want to see women in strong, leading roles or presented in a positive light but rather that people don’t object to it when women aren’t given those roles. In a lot of ways, complacency can be considered the same as support.

    “You liked this movie where the only female characters in it strutted around half the time in a bikini fighting each other over the rich guy with the sports car, therefore, we’ll assume that’s what you want to see.”

    There are many people praising shows, films, and novels with incredibly powerful female leads that have substance and just as much weight in their roles as men if not more so, but only a fraction of that number complains about shows, films, and novels that do the opposite.

    As long as people keep “accepting” it, there’s no reason to make changes, and while I do believe that retail stores losing out on customers due to their ignorance is a great point, I don’t believe that translates into film.

    The industry is not losing any dollars because of the way they portray women and they won’t because the fact remains that whether the public enjoys seeing something different or not, they still don’t object to seeing the same old thing. Regardless of how progressive a man is in his view of women, it doesn’t mean he won’t watch, enjoy, and spread via word of mouth a movie where the only female character is a hot half naked ditsy chick whose only line is, “Give it to me, daddy”.

    It’s obnoxious the way execs like the ones you mentioned try to pawn their foolish bias on the audience saying they do it for the benefit of what the audience wants to see, but until I see the audience objecting by saying, “I’m not going to see the latest piece of crap film you churned out where all the women are imbeciles”, I won’t give audiences a clean record either.

  76. Patrick says

    Hyperphonics: Your argument regarding entertainers’ popularity not indicating respect is spot-on. It reminded me of a book I read addressing entertainers like Josephine Baker.

    (Oddly enough, the book was mostly about bogeyman folklore, then started talking about the cultural significance of bananas in Europe. It was kind of unfocused.)

  77. Dan says

    First of all, let me say that Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor rule so hard it hurts.

    This looks like it’s been an awesome discussion, with lots of potent issues raised. A lot of what I wanted to say has already been said, so I’ll just put in my two cents in response to a couple previous comments.

    “Also, I wouldn’t want anyone to fall into the trap of assuming that just because a movie does pass the test means it’s either a feminist movie or a great movie.”

    Good point. I’m sure there’s a scene or two in The House Bunny (I haven’t actually seen it, so I can’t be sure) where they talk about something besides men.

    “I had a friend who studied writing and his professor told him that main characters needed to be straight white males. If they were female, black, gay, etc, then the work needed to be an “issue piece.” Having a gay main character in a work that wasn’t about homosexuality was just too distracting.”

    While this is a highly problematic assertion that is frequently proven false, there may be an unfortunate kernel of truth to it. I’ve often heard film analysis that drew huge conclusions from the race or gender of a certain character, even if it was not important to the plot, or went without mention in the film. It’s certainly an absurdly broad and simplistic assumption on the part of filmmakers to say that the general audience won’t like a film because the characters give off too much of a sense of “otherness”, but they have a basis for fearing that people may read too much into some casting decisions.

    For example, I’ve heard a lot of negative sentiment about the fact that HANCOCK, the first major film with a central black superhero (Catwoman was a poorly-funded, under-promoted, badly made flop, so I’m not counting that one), happened to present him as an aggressive, homeless, incarcerated drunkard.

    Some reviewers found it unusual and anachronistic that in Unforgiven no one in the 19th century West displays any racism toward Morgan Freeman’s character. Simultaneously, they noted that he was killed off while his white partners survived, a common and problematic cliche of non-white supporting characters.

    Also, hints of homosexuality in some film villains have been criticized by gay rights activists as an attempt to associate queerness with amorality.

    I’m not saying this by any means justifies the white-straight-male trope. It’s ridiculous for this group to be perceived as the “default” for characters, but since that is an unfortunately common perception, deviations from this imaginary norm are sometimes believed to be specifically motivated. I think that’s why sometimes, when in doubt, studios choose to stick with what they know.

    “I wonder, if one would write a story, but only assign genders to the characters afterward and randomly… I think there will be some people saying that I am not respecting the differences between the genders. Are they right or wrong?”

    Case in point: some feminist critics of Wanted said that Fox, as portrayed by Angelina Jolie, was just an “honorary male”, because there was nothing about her character to distinguish her from her be-penised cohorts. And the film’s negative treatment of the hero’s detestable, fat, unattractive boss probably wouldn’t have raised the ire of feminists had she been male (god knows there are plenty of movies with awful male bosses). The problem I mentioned before comes into play here: even though it shouldn’t be, the straight-white-male is often considered the “default” person in stories. And an individual character failing in such a person could be perceived as a negative stereotype if that character’s gender or race were changed.

    It’s a sensitive issue, and I’m not sure what the answer is. As we see from the way so-called “color-blindness” has been used as an excuse to ignore problems of racism in society by claiming to treat everyone equally, there is a difference between equality and homogeneity. While people of all genders, races, religions, etc. should be treated fairly in media portrayals, that doesn’t necessarily mean covering up their identities.

    “I’m curious as to Hollywood’s explanation for Will Smith’s success as a highly bankable non-white lead. No doubt they’ll have lots of data to explain how he’s an anomaly, and white people don’t really like him.”

    I’m not sure I’d agree with that. There are lots of non-white actors that Hollywood clamors to put in whatever star-vehicle they can. It doesn’t get much more bankable than Denzel, and Halle Berry has had lots of chances to shine. The same goes for Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, J-Lo, and Jackie Chan. I don’t think the problem is so much that Hollywood doesn’t like putting people of color in leading roles. It’s that when they do, they often feel the need to specifically acknowledge the star’s race with unsubtle exposition or even outright caricature (see: Jackie Chan). They picked Will Smith for the role in I Am Legend that they had previously considered Schwarzenegger in. But chances are they wouldn’t have cast a black woman as Schwarzenegger’s wife.

  78. says

    Dan, it IS tricky to write “minorities” in fiction if you’re not one because even the best-intentioned among us can accidentally invoke a stereotype we’re not aware of. The answer is: you learn by doing. Try, make mistakes, apologize in the DVD extra, and don’t make the same mistakes again. It’s better than shying away from us for fear of screwing up.

    There are lots of non-white actors that Hollywood clamors to put in whatever star-vehicle they can.

    That’s true, but I think the original commenter’s point was that each of those non-white actors are thought of as exceptions by the studios and networks. They think the audience continues generally to resist black leading men, except for Denzel (for one example).

    I don’t think the problem is so much that Hollywood doesn’t like putting people of color in leading roles. It’s that when they do, they often feel the need to specifically acknowledge the star’s race with unsubtle exposition or even outright caricature (see: Jackie Chan).

    This is kind of what is meant by the industry’s notion that “If you do make a movie about someone other than a white man, it has to be an ‘issue’ movie.” Meaning you can’t have a lead who just happens to be a woman or person of color, it has to be a whole movie about being a woman or a person of color. It can’t be about a woman or person of color who stole back the atom bomb from the evil Dr. Zed and saved the world, or whatever.

  79. Salma Hayek says

    While a guy who’s not sexist can just hold his tongue and keep doing his best to write non-sexist material around all the assholes, a woman who holds her tongue is immediately pegged as “offended” and therefore incapable of handling the “realities” of the world and her job.

  80. Gordon says

    Got 9 minutes of battery left on this laptop; hope I am not covering old ground here.

    I’m responding to bellatrys response to spartakos:

    [Unread Comment] bellatrys { 07.02.08 at 2:56 pm }

    Does the film industry want so much to be “right” that they are willing to shoot themselves in the foot financially? Repeatedly? ‘Cause man, that just don’t make no kinda sense.

    **************************************

    My feeling is that egotism extends to group identity, and selfishness is on behalf of this identity. White people enslaved black people and rationalized it because this helped their own group, that each individual white person ‘belonged’ to.

    Am I alone in thinking that Humankind’s total wealth (or if you prefer, power) is like a pie that can only be carved up so many ways? If this model of wealth/power is correct, and, as I suspect, hidden at the back of everyone’s minds, it goes a long way to explaining why humans often do things that financially cripple and disempower other groups. If I am selfish and shortsighted, I will feel (but resist saying or even thinking directly) that anything that hurts some ‘other’ group leaves more of the pie for me and mine.

    Particular groups fall in and out of power; is selfishness a constant? Nothing real can be achieved unless selfishness can be tackled, that is my feeling.
    Extremely well-written blog, by the way – I hadn’t heard about the Bechdel test and just stumbled on this and was most impressed.

  81. Laura says

    Just reminds me again of a bit of futurama where Bender ends up on TV

    Network President: Greetings, gentlemen. You already know my Execubots: Executive Alpha, programmed to like things it has seen before.

    Alphabot: Hey, hey, hey.

    Network President: Executive Beta, programmed to roll dice to determine the fall schedule.

    [Betabot rolls two dice.]

    Betabot: More reality shows.

    Network President: And Executive Gamma, programmed to underestimate middle America.

    The gender thing is a more specific type of this but Film and TV moguls never seem to think we are capable of watching anything challenging or different just a new variation on the same old same old

  82. says

    UCLA’s film program is antiquated and overly full of itself. I was there for 2 years for a masters and then I ran for the hills. It’s not you; it’s not your scripts; it’s the school.

  83. Anemone Cerridwen says

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. I was feeling so alone on women in film issues. (Even after joining Women in Film.)

    I just wanted to comment on the Joss Whedon thing. He’s cited James Cameron as an inspiration for his tough female characters, and Cameron is from Canada, where we have this stupid women-and-nature thing where if nature is tough (Canadian Shield tough, natch), then so are women, regardless of reality. (Margaret Atwood wrote about this a wee bit in Survival.) So I, as a tough Canadian chick, am not as impressed with tough female characters as someone from softer lands might be. So I’m not as impressed with Whedon as others seem to be, either. The Buffy concept was a blast, but he still prostitutes his talent, same as almost everyone else (I have a big problem with sexualized content in job descriptions), and he completely lost me when he sniggered about a character on Firefly who works as a prostitute.

    He does seem to like women, when they’re tomboys. Reminds me a bit of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz books. There is a lot of girl power in the Oz books (a lot), but it’s girls, not women. Preadolescent, mostly.

    I think if we want a diversity of strong female characters, we need more strong women to write their stories. There are some good examples in SF/F novels. Of course I’m not sure how they then get to the screen. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

    I think most of my screenplays-in-progress pass the Bechdel test. I wonder if this will cause me problems, or whether it’ll be the least of my problems.

  84. Tim says

    This is in reply to Gordon,

    I partially agree with you, so I’ll start with the part I disagree with. I don’t agree that the wealth or happiness of humanity is a pie that can only be sliced and divided so many ways.

    The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution showed that we can, indeed, increase the wealth of the world. Industrialized nations no longer fear hunger or famine. The “Experts” once said that India would never be able to grow enough food to feed its own population. But now it does.

    Max Brazeman has an excellent book out, You Can’t Enlarge the Pie that deals with these issues.

    India aside, can anybody really say that humanity is poorer now than it was during the 6th century BC? Europe was in the crushing poverty of the Dark Age, and even where civilizations prospered, the vast majority of the people feared famine, disease (what costs us the inconvenience of one doctor’s visit could easily cost them their lives), and double-digit child mortality rates. Even in the 18th century in France, the average lifespan of the peasant class was 30 years.

    That said, there are distribution difficulties, and I won’t get into the politics of why those difficulties persist, except to say that it’s more complicated than the TV and radio pundits make it seem.

    However, I believe a lot of people believe the fallacy that you can’t make a bigger pie, you can only fight for the pieces of the existing pie. So, instead of finding creative new ways to expand human wealth and experience, they scrap and discriminate and claw at each other.

    In other words, while I don’t believe in the “one pie theory,” I think a lot of people still do, at least subconsciously. And so, in a way, you’re right. This false belief lies behind much of the discrimination and stupidity that goes on.

  85. Gordon says

    Tim, I really dig that post – thank you for your considered reply, and I will have a rummage online to see what the book’s like at the very least.

    I actually do believe that it is a prevailing (insane) logic that imposes the limitations of the ‘one pie’ paradigm; in reality if we were free, generous and creative we could make intelligent use of natural resources, so we would still be drawing from The Bank of Nature, but not in an unsustainable way… and it’s a big universe out there.

    So I think we are in agreement.

    However, I feel you’ll probably agree as well that industrial-age gains were seriously problematic in all sorts of ways.

    I think that if the deep problems of the human psyche are resolved, then women’s gains will be men’s gains and vice-versa. No need, ultimately, for a battle of interest, though this battle dynamic is a real thing in the world at present.

  86. says

    I don’t doubt there are ways to continuously expand the pie, and the problem is more that we collectively choose not to. Why is there homelessness in a nation as richly resourced as the US? Because of choices we’ve made. Remember when (starting in the 50s) we were promised that technology would give us all more leisure time, and instead we now have less leisure time than our grandparents? That’s because we chose instead to raise the standard for how much one should accomplish in “a day’s work” out of fear that some other bunch would get ahead of us. (I wonder if eventually we’ll get to the point where we’re completing more tasks than our brains can actually handle knowing about, and we all have nervous breakdowns? Actually, I think we’re about 3/4 of the way there already.)

    As long as most humans believe the pie is finite, it’ll continue to operate like it is. Unfortunately.

    But it shouldn’t be quite that difficult to get one relatively small, self-contained industry to grasp the concept of infinite possibility.

  87. N. Litend says

    it’s called the ‘highest common factor’ approach. men can’t handle content above a certain threshold (i.e. women talking to other women about something other than a man) – gore, guns and gratuitous sex is their baseline, and they don’t stray very far (unwilling or unable? hmmm.) the fact that women can condescend to watch such things must be the reason why most films are pitched at this level ;)

  88. Gordon says

    Wow N, I haven’t heard such a sweeping statement about an entire gender in a long time – I hope that was supposed to be ironic… (if you are male I find the joke to be somehow distasteful – I mean, what was the purpose of it, to suck up?)

    Jennifer, Tim, I was recently doing some more thinking and discussing about the ‘economic pie’ issue and I want to add something here.

    There’s an ever-expanding pie only if technology allows us to do increasingly more with less, and if we can range out into new territories (which at present mostly means: outer space) to get new resources. But if the population expands to take up all of these gains (as it pretty much has since the development of agriculture) the net gain per person is zero. Also, although the total economy grows in size it has a fixed value at any one moment in time, so it effectively is a pie of fixed volume for the people living at that moment.

    Wealth comes from resources, not from tokens issued by banks. Money and banking are systems for regulating resource-distribution, usually weighted in favour of the groups who create them. So as a thought-experiment, if you imagine that money has disappeared form the Earth, this serves to clarify the issue: effectively Bill Gates has ownership over 1,000 barrels of oil, 1,000,000 tins of corned beef and an entourage who work in exchange for oil and corned beef, and Joe Shmoe has ownership over 20 gallons of oil, 10 tins of corned beef and a pit-bull. In the world at any given time there are only a fixed number of barrels of oil and tins of corned beef.

    We do in fact ‘continuously expand the pie’ (we drill for oil and cut timber), but there are two very good reasons why this doesn’t alleviate problems such as homelessness: 1) industry makes crap we don’t need, wastes resources (esp. by sponsoring warfare) and irresponsibly gets us overdrawn with The Bank of Nature, which is obviously not limitless. 2) The very wealthy work hard to continually consolidate their wealth and increase the differential in money-power between themselves and everyone else.

    So the only kind of world imaginable in which men do not steal power from women and and Europeans do not steal power from Africans, is a world in which people want little, practice birth-control and are selfless. You have to imagine ten hungry people trapped in a cave who do not know if or when they will be rescued. They have only the food they took for the trip. There are different races, age-groups, ethnicities and cultures in this group, and some are blood-relatives. Imagine the sort of people who would never tear each other apart for the lion’s share, scapegoat and attack anyone over their predicament, or form coalitions based on group-identity in order to dominate supplies. People who can soberly discuss the best course of action for the majority and choose death if they deem it for the best.

    Such individuals exist, but not in abundance. However, if one can be this way, then presumably so can many. But those who author our economic doctrines and control industry are not such people – they are generally born rich-kids who think that because they would never sacrifice their own interests, human nature must be selfish. They see the poor as an engine for raising up the elite to ever-greater heights. This attitude, this social class has existed since ancient times. The ancient Greeks were sophisticated philosophers whose literate contemplative lifestyle was funded by silver mined by slaves. The Greeks thought that slaves and women were inherently inferior because this justified their domination of resources.

    When I refrain from acting against women in favour of men I am just like the person in the cave who shares food knowing that it may cost him his life. The hope is that a temperate, humane, rational society arises as kindness begets kindness. A society that voluntarily controls its own population-levels and expenditure, and values character-virtue over status.

    So you see, to my mind, sexism arises and subsides along with general greed and selfishness, and is of the same basic substance. Nothing provokes war like scarcity; nothing promotes tolerance like plenty – but not all hungry people are intolerant: there’s the hope for us.

  89. says

    This is my first time at your blog, having just been linked here from elsewhere, but it was a really fascinating post. Thanks for writing it!

    It does bring to mind for me an anecdote (and I realize that the plural of anecdote is not data, so I’m not saying that this says anything statistically significant about who is doing what, demographically): A bunch of us were discussing movies over lunch. Since gender is relevant to the story, three of us were male (I’m male), two were female. Since this is a story about my co-workers, I’ll try to skip specific names.

    We got to discussing the latest Indiana Jones film and how much we all despised it. One of my female co-workers piped up and said that she really loved it. We mentioned being unable to stomach the (spoilery element), among other things. She said: “(Spoilery element)?” We said, “Yeah, it was the whole last 20 minutes of the film, and was woven throughout, earlier. You remember?” She didn’t remember.

    As we analyzed deeper into how someone could forget such a massive and bothersome element of the story, she confessed to us in her own words how she watches movies: First, she chooses what movie to see based on the presence of a cute male lead or major character (in the case of Indiana Jones, she has a huge crush on Shia LaBoef — we confirmed that she also processed Transformers much the same way); Second, she does not even watch any scene which does not contain that actor — she just utterly doesn’t take those scenes in (we asked what she did during that time and she says she thinks about her week, organizes her calendar in her head, thinks about school or work, etc.); Third, if the actor she likes is in the scene, she only listens to his dialogue, although if there are women in the scene with him, she memorizes in excruciating detail what they are all wearing (she reproduced from memory descriptions of every outfit worn by Megan Fox in Transformers to demonstrate). She emerges from films with no idea what happened or what the story was, but with a sense of whether she enjoyed it or not based solely on whether the male lead she likes was presented in a positive (I think she mostly wants him to be shown as heroic, but I’m not sure of the criteria here) light, and whether or not the female characters shown opposite him wear fashionable clothing.

    It’s almost hard to relate this without feeling like I’m making some ridiculous stereotype but, but honest to goodness, this is even how she explains it herself, and she says that that’s how she likes to watch movies and she has fun, so who am I to say that it’s wrong? However, it did seem worth noting simply in terms of the assumption in the post that the phenomena the people you spoke to were trying to posit would have been the purview of a presumed solely-male viewer (and I guess by extension to also note it in terms of the idea that the audience being posited is entirely fictitious). I don’t think she’s representative of female viewers in general, much less viewers in general, but still, she does exist.

  90. says

    Irfon-Kim Ahmad, interesting story, and here’s how I parsed it. Not everyone watches for the same reasons. This will always be the case with a form of entertainment that you are taken to from early childhood whether you have a specific love for it or not. Ditto on sports. I’ve known other women who watch like your friend. I’ve known men who just watch for a cute actress. I’ve known people who watch strictly for stunts, special effects, etc. That’s all okay.

    But would your friend demand her money back if a movie contained a few scenes where two named women talked about something other than men? Would she avoid going to see a movie if she heard “[Cute Male Actor] is so hot in that, and oh, yeah, there are a few scenes where two named women discuss something other than him.” I don’t think so, because she would just go over her grocery list during that scene, LOL.

    So my point is not that I think everyone *craves* named women who talk to each other about something other than men, but rather that Hollywood is full of shit to argue that the presence of such a thing would automatically cause a movie to fail. It’s ludicrous.

    On another interesting anecdotal note: this site actually developed because I was seeing a lot of female TV fans online waxing on and on about the male characters and hating on the female characters. On the surface, this might seem to support Hollywood’s view that no one wants female characters, and they should be kept behind the men if they’re allowed to surface at all. But the deeper we got into discussions (this was Stargate SG-1, specifically), we realized very few of the women who hated Sam actually disliked her character so much as they disliked how she was being written, as the writers fell deeper and deeper into typical Hollywood stereotypes and tropes. So when women are served a steady diet of cardboard cutout female characters (and while there are plenty of good male characters about, it’s true that most characters of both genders are just plain lousy), they might be even more prone than men to zone in on that which DOES work for them.

  91. says

    Yes, that’s absolutely a good point — I certainly don’t think she’d object to the scene being there, even if it didn’t contribute anything notable to the movie experience for her. :)

  92. Gordon says

    You are both being all delicate and tolerant about her way of watching movies, but I was actually horrified. My guess is that Hollywood has not provided her with a great education in film?

    Do producers assume that women don’t like female characters due to envy and competitiveness? Quite apart from the contradictions to this theory that I witness all the time, I would suggest that similar phenomena among men are overlooked. I watched parts of Lord of the Rings on TV the other night and got really annoyed with Aragorn. I thought he looked so smug! An observer may assume that I was jealous of Aragorn because he is a king and a triumphant hero who gets the babe, but I was annoyed with him because I cannot respect someone as a leader who is so preoccupied with crudely manipulating his face into the expressions he believes read as ‘rugged heroism’. How can I root for someone who seems totally in love with themselves? Surely women feel the same when they have to watch some perfect smug babe she’s supposed to want to emulate?

    Gollum was the only interesting thing about that movie.

  93. says

    Gordon, I wasn’t being delicate or tolerant. People don’t go to movies strictly because they have a real passion for the medium. Some go because there’s nothing else to do in a small town, or it’s what their friends like to do, or it’s standard date fare. Naturally, they don’t watch movies the way someone who loves story watches. What’s wrong with that?

    I’m sure Hollywood has not provided *anyone* with a good education in film, but the fact remains that even if Hollywood suddenly did everything just like you or I want, there would still be people who just aren’t very interested in movies, but will go see them anyway because it’s such a common way to socialize. (And that alone is a good argument for why these folks should NOT be at the top of H’wood’s list when it’s considering what sells.)

    Do producers assume that women don’t like female characters due to envy and competitiveness?

    Yes, and they’ve said as much.

    Surely women feel the same when they have to watch some perfect smug babe she’s supposed to want to emulate?

    I think so, only it’s not so much smugness with women as neediness, preoccupation with babies/shoes/marriage, insecurity and/or an avoidance of facial expressions (either to avoid wrinkling or because of Botox paralysis). Oh, and bland perfection – no physical “flaws” like male actors are allowed to have, which can be so fascinating to look at.

  94. Gordon says

    “Oh, and bland perfection – no physical “flaws” like male actors are allowed to have, which can be so fascinating to look at.”

    – I feel the same way about actresses who seem to function as little more than pornographic wallpaper. It messes people up as well – I keep picking up online (and pub) chatter where guys disparage the looks of an actress/celeb who is very likely more beautiful than the girl they will marry. That’s sad. No way is that kind of harsh judgementalism something anyone can keep compartmentalized to just the realm of celebrities.

    I think that genuine well-rounded attraction will usually be a weak force when it’s just a one-way connection through a screen (with someone playing a role), so the obsessive leering judgemental mentality easily overwhelms it. At 15 I thought that Rosie Perez (weird example I know) in White Men Can’t Jump was convincingly sweet, annoying, sexy and funny – but you could overlook all that and say “she has a big chin and isn’t a 10 like Megan Fox. Let’s get Megan Fox instead.” Because a girl being a 10 is tangible and obvious and everyone can agree on it regardless of mood, personal taste or temperament.

    American shows seem to have a lot of men with huge square jaws; I imagine them being bred in a barn somewhere in the Hollywood Hills.

    I know it seems crotchety to judge that lass for not watching films properly, but I just don’t get it – it’s like someone saying “I don’t like music”: it’s so closed-off; I don’t get it AT ALL.

    You are trying through debate and awareness-raising to improve the medium because you think it’s important and goes beyond ‘entertainment’ as this value-free disposable inconsequential commodity. You presumably think that a medium should be consummate and express the best, thereby exploring and nurturing the best in people; maybe you don’t explicitly think it out in these highfalutin terms but it’s an instinct, is it not? At the same time others are so oblivious; they contribute to halfassedness in the world. Is it not just innately wrong to be moving through the world, watching movies, whatever, with your mind glued on a handful of mundane desires and preoccupations? Ach, I dunno.

  95. says

    Because a girl being a 10 is tangible and obvious and everyone can agree on it regardless of mood, personal taste or temperament.

    Well, yeah, in that they’re looking at parts and not the whole woman. As I argued here, male actors are viewed more holistically, so their big noses and weak chins and paunches aren’t held against them if somehow they’re sexy despite them (and many are). But if a woman has a big nose or too small chest or too short legs or whatever, BZZZZZ – next, please!

    You presumably think that a medium should be consummate and express the best, thereby exploring and nurturing the best in people; maybe you don’t explicitly think it out in these highfalutin terms but it’s an instinct, is it not?

    Yes, I believe Hollywood’s obsession with catering to the lowest common denominator is unnecessary. You cater somewhere in the middle to catch more fish, actually. Going too “stupid” is just as bad as going too “smart.”

    At the same time others are so oblivious; they contribute to halfassedness in the world. Is it not just innately wrong to be moving through the world, watching movies, whatever, with your mind glued on a handful of mundane desires and preoccupations?

    Well, for ME it would be wrong, and I do think we live in a society that encourages that attitude in people who might otherwise have been less oblivious, and that sucks. But – and maybe this is silly – I find it difficult to get riled up about people who are oblivious to movies when people are routinely oblivious to things like child molestation. There is it. Not sure it’s particularly consistent, but I’m being honest there. :)

  96. Gordon says

    Ha ha, like Polanski? Yeah, that’s the kind of self-serving group-think you’re up against Jennifer…

    Ah you know, that 13 year-old girl was prolly just a gold-digger and therefore deserved all she got – let’s just assume that and we’ll all sleep easier LOL.

    My orientation is always: ‘what is the root of the problem?’ Obliviousness manifests in different ways in different people but is in itself one discrete super-problem. If you make people aware of one issue it should simultaneously be a wedge to make them more switched-on in the broadest sense. If you only succeed in crudely pushing one issue to the foreground something else will inevitably slip back into the background. (We had TV adverts here in the UK promoting awareness of domestic violence against women – in a scattergun way they seemed to paint all husbands as creepy abusers. They made a mini horror-movie where men are the monster and just left it at that.)

    That is why I pretty much equate obliviousness with child-molestation and obliviousness to movies.

    (There’s psychology that is difficult to get into here so I can only ask that you don’t attribute any absurd attitudes to me here: I wouldn’t imprison or even shout at someone for not paying attention to a movie.)

    If you believe there is a trait of generalized sensitivity and sound judgement then you can pretty much trust that that trait will apply attention to any issue as and when appropriate without too much prodding and cueing from any campaigning interest group. So in my vision, you have this central point you work from. You can be a religious type like the Buddha and use a ‘selfless principle’ to advise working people like businessmen and kings, or you can be part of an interest group, like yourself, and work from that one specific issue toward an enlightened centre.

    I like your blog because to me you seem in your own way to be doing this – you do not talk in a bitter divisive way and appear to come from a perspective of wishing everyone well. If you didn’t have this root intention I think that even the wildest success would really be a failure.

  97. says

    My orientation is always: ‘what is the root of the problem?’ Obliviousness manifests in different ways in different people but is in itself one discrete super-problem. If you make people aware of one issue it should simultaneously be a wedge to make them more switched-on in the broadest sense. If you only succeed in crudely pushing one issue to the foreground something else will inevitably slip back into the background.

    That’s why my orientation is the promotion and teaching of critical thinking. American culture (I’m not qualified to speak on any other) discourages critical thinking. The film industry is a great example of that (“Let’s remake Robin Hood yet again, this time with animated frogs, rather than take a chance on an original script”), but hardly the only example. The majority of teachers discourage critical thinking. Critical discussion is almost impossible in political races. And so on.

    The goal in American culture is to get other people to agree with you. My ultimate goal is to encourage critical thinking whether they end up agreeing with me or not. I know a lot of critical thinkers with whom I disagree vehemently on some subjects, and I accept that if everyone learns to think critically, we will still not all agree on how to run our society, or what to prioritize. But one thing that critical thinkers have in common is a tendency to flinch at broad stereotypes and easy answers. Not just in fiction, but from our leaders, teachers, etc.

    I like your blog because to me you seem in your own way to be doing this – you do not talk in a bitter divisive way and appear to come from a perspective of wishing everyone well. If you didn’t have this root intention I think that even the wildest success would really be a failure.

    Thank you. That IS my intention. I have never wanted the world to change to suit me; I want changes that I believe will be better for everyone.

  98. says

    Anemone, somehow I missed your comment in this thread until today.

    What you say about Canada’s approach to female toughness is really interesting, and probably explains why even an American show like “Northern Exposure” (set in Alaska, which probably has more in common with Canada than the rest of the US) featured women who were, above all, survivors. They came in all varieties, and they were flawed, but they resounded to me because my own experience of women is that we are survivors. We endure a lot, and often not for much in return, but we stick it out.

    Joss Whedon… oy. There are lots of reasons to like and dislike his work, but I’ll skip those and just say: he was the main reason I eventually quit film. People kept telling me if I would just play the game, then Someday! I would have enough power to change things. Then I looked at Joss Whedon, who clearly *wanted* to do more with women characters than he was being allowed to do, who clearly had some pull in Hollywood but was still being kept on a very short leash, and I was like, really? When do I get enough power to change things, if someone like Whedon is still having to beg, cheat and connive to get his mildly challenging stuff past the suits?

  99. Gordon says

    Jennifer, Henrik Ibsen inspired censorious fury by attributing the Victorian-era woman with carnal desires and marital discontentment. His incisive social critiques seem incredibly restrained by contemporary standards. Was it all futile just because his message might have been stronger had the ‘suits’ of the day not opposed him? Is there not some worth in the notion that we ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’?

  100. Anemone says

    Jennifer, what you say about Whedon reminds me of my mentor in grad school. When I saw him struggling to find work after his PhD, I bailed.

    At least in film I get to meet lots of fun women in Women in Film, even if I never get work. And nobody expects us to find work, so it’s not a disappointment when we don’t, and a serious bonus when we do. Yeah, I’m in film for the social life.

  101. says

    Is there not some worth in the notion that we ’stand on the shoulders of giants’?

    Of course, Gordon. I wasn’t putting down his efforts. I was saying that when even someone that successful still isn’t being allowed to break the formula *too much*, I didn’t find credible the promise that if I would just sell out for a while, then I would be able to enact big changes.

    Also, as much as I like to believe that people like Whedon are making small changes that’ll lead to big changes someday, I’m afraid the record of women’s progress in film speaks not of slow progress, but of lashes and backlashes. Who would make Cagney & Lacey now, with two women in the lead? Who would make Gone with the Wind or Wizard of Oz or any Barbara Stanwyck movie? Bette Davis’ movies would be made as chick flicks, sponsored by Prada with careful product placement. Who would now employ any of the Golden Age women stars as leads, with their diverse looks and vibrant personalities?

    Anemone, exactly. If you see people are not making it by Path A, you can try Path B or give up. But it takes a special sort of masochism to beat your head against a brick wall that’s already got a lot of blood on it.

    You know, my experience of women working in film, including actresses, is that they are tough, smart, impressive individuals. Maybe those are necessary traits if you’re willing to risk getting a lot of crap in order to do what you really want or believe you should be doing.

  102. Gordon says

    Who could knock you from taking path B? It may be more worthwhile for you in the end. Nevertheless, film is only a century old though; it’s not so long, though it seems forever to an individual person.

    I heard on TV the other day that it’s only been 600 generations since the agricultural revolution.

    Overall progress is hard to gauge – maybe you’re right about Cagney and Lacey, but haven’t there been improvements as well? I expect that the experience of lashes and backlashes is common to many struggles, but over the long run a general trend may emerge, and that trend depended absolutely on the combined efforts of all the strugglers.

    I say that, but sometimes I wonder whether other forces – changing technology and demographics for example – aren’t way more important than debate.

  103. Charles RB says

    It says something about films and the Bechdel test when I rewatch Neil Marshall’s Doomsday and note “hey, it passes the test” (other named female characters talk with Major Eden Sinclair about the mission). There’s something faintly wrong about that, when Doomsday is basically Marshall giving his inner 12-year-old £15 million and seeing what happens.

  104. Anemone says

    Is there a list somewhere of films that pass the test/have female protagonists?? You know, that people can just add film titles to? Alice in Wonderland. The Lovely Bones. Both made my day.

  105. says

    I’ve seen a few blog posts where people were adding films in comments. Search something like “movies that pass bechdel test” and you’ll find some.

    Or we could start one here, if there’s enough interest…?

  106. Anemone says

    I didn’t know about it before, and I didn’t notice the part where we can add films ourselves either.

    They don’t include TV, though. And I wonder what they’d think if I added Canadian titles.

  107. says

    They don’t include TV, though. And I wonder what they’d think if I added Canadian titles.
    As long as there is an entry on IMDb I’d welcome it :-)

  108. amarygma says

    Just wanted to point out that it’s pretty true in books too. Just as you still have all your Lifetime movies starring women, most “serious” books are written about men.

  109. photondancer says

    Charles Stross and Neil Gaiman are both pretty good at the Bechdel test. There are good webcomics too: Girl Genius, Questionable Content, Something Positive and XKCD are a few of my favorites that would pass. Way upthread someone mentioned The Wandering Ones, which I will give a whirl.

  110. AmyCat =^.^= says

    You’re ABSOLUTELY right about why so many “Stargate” fans were “hating on” Sam: when she went from being an interesting and independent character to the Object of The Hero’s UST (and not coincidentally seemed to drop about 50 IQ points), I and many of my friends started snarking on her. But at least half of the bitchiness was due to severe disappointment; it was like starting to read an excellent story, only to have it end up like a teenager’s “Twilight” fanfiction, or voting for a supposedly “progressive” politician and then discovering that he’s been sexually harassing his secretary.

    I’m also reminded of “Jessica Rabbit”‘s line: “I’m not BAD, I’m just drawn that way”… Another reason why the acronym “TPTB” (The Powers That Be, i.e.: the show’s creators and directors) started being replaced with “TWIC” (The Wankers In Charge)… :-(

  111. says

    You may well like Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues”. The time has come for filmmakers to make non-Hollywood films.

    The biggest cost (film) is reduced (dirt cheap thanks to improvements in video technology), and the biggest barrier to distribution (monopoly) is gone thanks to Internet distribution (why personal filesharing – aka “piracy” is so popular.) It’s a whole new frontier…

    It’s time to make movies!

    • Maria says

      But Sita doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. It’s lovely (though controversial because of the issues with copyright and colonialism) and well worth discussion (which is why my campus will be doing a screening in 2011), but honestly, the female characters are

      1. an evil ogre princess who wants Sita to get kidnapped
      2. Sita (who has no female friends)
      3. the woman whose husband throws her out for adultery
      4. Nina Paley (who has no female friends)
      5. The female shadow puppet

      None of these women talk to each other, and for the ogre princess, Sita, and Nina, all their motivation/characterization comes through their relationship with male characters. They’re not independent agents, and I feel like Sita and Nina both get defined by their waiting/pining/goodness vs. anything much beyond that.

      It’s really pretty, but it doesn’t pass the Bechdel.

    • Charles RB says

      “The biggest cost (film) is reduced”

      Film stock cost more than the actors, the crew, the props, the location, the lighting etc? Even using digital, you’re going to be out a pretty penny unless you’re being very modest, can be very creative, or are half-arsing.

    • says

      Please don’t tread any closer to the “stop complaining and make movies” line than you already have by stating this as a response to this post. We’ve had more than a few people suggest that since EVERYBODY obviously has a few thousand bucks they don’t need for more important stuff like food and shelter, we should stop critiquing what billions of people are seeing and start making movies that dozens of people can see without paying us! I do not tolerate that privileged argument, nor respect the opinions of anyone who lacks the worldliness to realize there really are people who can’t afford to dump even a couple of thousand into an investment that’s not going to even repay itself.

  112. Goldarn says

    I’m reminded of the original Star Trek: the computer on the Enterprise had a female voice, but when they went to the alternate, evil, Spock-beard universe, the computer had a strong, male, voice.

    I think it was one of the more jarring “you aren’t in Kansas” parts of the show.

  113. says

    This article is fantastic and I’ve passed it along to my forum of writers. :)
    Would this apply to novels as well? I think it might.

    I wish you could/I could make a thread on ‘what should my female characters talk about other than men and babies’ as an idea board for writers.

    Some of the things in these comments I had never even thought about before, like the part about male/female voice overs and that men are seen to tune out if it’s a woman.

  114. Tera Overstreet says

    Genevieve,

    It possibly fails the reverse, I believe, because when you write a cohesive mainstream narrative, your supporting characters won’t have the screen time to pass the test. If it’s a female protagonist, usually the test fails in reverse, just as often as the male protagonist version fails. The problem remains, not enough female protagonists.

  115. MaggieCat says

    Notebookinhand:

    Would this apply to novels as well? I think it might.

    I think applying it to novels might be a little trickier, particularly if it’s written in the first person. By nature novels are more likely to center on a certain character without showing anything that doesn’t involve that character, and have less space for incidentals like walking into a room where a conversation is already happening; it’s understood that if it isn’t important to the plot it won’t get mentioned in a book, but movies have to fill in mundane interactions to make it look like the real world.

    So if the protagonist is male nearly every conversation will involve him or be told to him later without letting us see the interaction happening and thus technically failing the test. I think the only reason the Harry Potter books would pass is thanks to Harry’s habit of eavesdropping, but there was still evidence that the female characters had non-Harry related lives outside the plot relevant bits.

  116. Dani says

    I’m going to school to be a visual development artist for animated movies and the like, and things like this are very, very discouraging to read; it makes me wonder if I should just get out while I can, lest I get stuck drawing for movies made by people like this :(

    I can see the effects of his kind of thinking (that men don’t want to listen to women) all around me; many of the guys I know emulate that in how they talk to, and about, women, and I wonder how much they were influenced by the stories Hollywood chose to present to them (and how subjects like history are taught in schools, but that’s a rant for another day). I know that the TV isn’t supposed to be the babysitter, but I also know how powerful a tool storytelling can be.

  117. says

    sbg, yesno. I don’t think anyone really tells us how to do shit. At least nobody taught me how to be a man.
    Most of the crap I picked up from the media and from friends, and realizing that something is grossly lacking by researching it myself.
    But no, I don’t recall a day or month in my life when my father and grandfather and uncle set me down and explained to me, “This is how you piss of your girlfriend, this is how you mistreat your wife.”

    But I also don’t recall anyone – and I’ve been mostly raised by women, in the 1980s and 1990s – sit me down and explain to me that, “Look kid, Feminism has happened. This is what you what changed since I was a kid, and you might find it strange, because much of that crap you’ll still see on the telly.”

  118. Casey says

    Igor Galić: I don’t recall a day or month in my life when my father and grandfather and uncle set me down and explained to me, “This is how you piss of your girlfriend, this is how you mistreat your wife.”

    Nobody really DOES do that, when SBG says that this “treat women like shit and ignore them” meme is imprinted/ingrained into society that means it just kinda happens without anybody really realizing it or thinking critically about it. That’s how patriarchy works. It’s not a bunch of guys conspiring around a big table Legion of Doom-style and coming up with ways to oppress women, it’s something that’s taught, but not explicitly.

  119. MP says


    Dan,

    There are lots of non-white actors that Hollywood clamors to put in whatever star-vehicle they can. It doesn’t get much more bankable than Denzel, and Halle Berry has had lots of chances to shine. The same goes for Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, J-Lo, and Jackie Chan

    Dan, Antonio Banderas is not a ‘person of colour’, but a white Spaniard. Of course in USA if you’re not WASPy-looking, you’re not even ‘white’ enough, eh? Especially if you speak with a Spanish accent.

  120. says

    Well, you see, being a woman is a character attribute in film. The Smurfs demonstrates this pretty well, but it’s true of most film: you have the angry one, the artist guy, the builder guy, the nerdy one, the stupid one, etc. and then you have the one who is a woman. The woman doesn’t get any defining attribute like being the smart one or the one who solves problems: she is just there to fill the empty roll of “woman” – whatever that means.

    With that perspective in mind, it’s easy to see why so few films pass the test: because the more generic woman characters you include in your film, the more you’re doubling up on character types. You don’t want a film full of characters who are all alike, and women can’t be all that different from each other, right? Right???

  121. says

    I was at a “how to get an agent or manager” seminar for screenwriters and the man said that if we handed him a great screenplay, he could get it to a studio, guaranteed. Then he proceeded to define greatness as “an action screenplay with a male main character and a female in a subservient romantic role.” I kid you not; he said that. In the Q/A, I said I had written an “an action screenplay with a female main character and a male in a subservient romantic role,” and that I didn’t want him to get it to a studio but to an independent production company, and that I wanted to find a manager or agent with social conscience. He responded (I kid you not, part 1) “We don’t have social conscience.”

  122. Mario says

    First: Sorry my bad english. Anyway:
    I was also upset that in the 21st century, writers, directors and producers in Hollywood continue perpetuating sexist and racist stereotypes. And I think one of the reasons why most movies fail the Bechdel Test (besides the ones you’ve mentioned) is the tendency to give to the women superficial and secondary roles. I also wondered why they could not create a dialogue that develops between two women and that make advance the story, I came to the conclusion that a dialogue like that necessarily breach the third point of the Test: if the protagonist and the antagonist and almost all other main characters are men, it is impossible that these two women would have a conversation relevant to the story without talking about men.
    Sadly the whole Hollywood system is conditioned to be sexist

  123. says

    Mario, that’s exactly it. When a movie has few women as characters, and those characters aren’t important, they really can’t have the kind of conversation we’re talking about here without it distracting from the story. If a screenwriter included a conversation just to pass the Bechdel test, it would be awkward and meaningless. What they need to do is let the women be valuable characters in the first place.

  124. Eric Ledger says

    Upon reading this entry and certain related entries on this blog, I can say that Hollywood might just cut the bullshit if the ACLU steps in. Putting together said entries in this blog, any number of off-site articles about the Bechdel test, and an analysis of movies throughout Hollywood’s history regarding the roles of males and females, they’d have an epic case of gender discrimination that no other business would prevail against. Here are just a few more pages you could show them:

    http://bitchmagazine.org/post/televism-the-bechdel-spectrum
    http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/02/the-2012-oscars-and-the-bechdel-test/
    http://www.feministfrequency.com/2009/12/the-bechdel-test-for-women-in-movies/

    As for TV shows, if we were able to legally require TV networks to host a minimum of three hours a week of genuinely educational programming (and they had to be goaded into it, and forbidden from passing shows such as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Leave It To Beaver as educational), then I’m sure we can use whatever methods were involved to require the inclusion of multiple full-fledged female characters whose lives don’t revolve around men in all shows where the setting would allow for it.

  125. Eric Ledger says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    I’m not sure whether or not anyone even brought it up with them. They probably do need to be alerted, and I posted my initial comment to whoever wrote this post as a suggestion for action, not to ask why they haven’t done anything about it. What I’m saying is, compile as much material as possible to use as ammunition, and then contact them and ask them to look through Hollywood’s history the same way they did with Merrill Lynch and other businesses.

    From what I do understand, the reason they’re feared so much is because they only tackle cases where there is no chance that the entity under scrutiny will successfully bullshit their way out of trouble (or, in short, a slam-dunk). This is in order to make it look like they always win, but this is one such case where the opponent has no real way out.

    Here are some more entries on this blog (which I initially assumed were by the same person who wrote this entry):

    http://thehathorlegacy.com/the-bechdel-test-its-not-about-passing/
    http://thehathorlegacy.com/if-audiences-dont-want-women-as-leads-why-did-aliens-succeed/
    http://thehathorlegacy.com/why-discriminate-if-it-doesnt-profit/

    Want more? Look at Japan’s anime industry. And no, Japan’s interests not matching ours won’t explain anything. There are lots of titles that are *about* girls, and are successful both there and here in the US, such as Sailor Moon, Lucky Star, Azumanga Daioh, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. In all four of those shows, a lot of what the (mostly female) characters talk about is not guys. There are even more masculine series, such as Digimon (which has had most of its seasons aired here), that still pass the Bechdel Test in just about every single episode. And that’s not counting countless other titles, which, while not *as* prominent, were at least successful enough to even be released here since the end of the 90′s, like Kanon, Pani Poni Dash, A Little Snow Fairy Sugar, Read Or Die, Popotan, Excel Saga, and more! No, different kinds of people on either side of the Pacific is not a playable card. All kinds of people like movies, and all kinds of people like anime.

    Knowledge is power! Compile the pages I linked to in both this post and my previous ones, find more on your own, research how well anime and manga as twin media tends to do in America despite being much more well-rounded with their characters than movies, and compile as many excuses as the people behind movies will give you and the counterarguments you can give to each, and then present it all to the ACLU and let them take care of things from there. There is no way the guys behind the scenes will continue to fudge their way out of anything then.

  126. says

    Eric Ledger, what I was hinting at is that the ACLU is aware of more obviously criminal gender issues within the film industry, such as sexual harassment, but they’ve not been very helpful on any of it. What you’re talking about is not only more difficult to fight because it’s harder to define with evidence that would fly in court, but it also challenges freedom of speech. I mean, that’s what the industry would fight back with, and this is an extremely pro-freedom of speech country. I believe the courts would agree with the argument that no one has to watch these movies, and that would be the end of that.

    The change HAS to come from culture, because the law is inadequate to deal with nebulous issues like “creating an atmosphere of [whatever]“. We’ve seen this consistently through the Civil Rights movement. For example, Affirmative Action was a noble attempt to force some kind of diversity on some employers, but the law couldn’t address the subtle ways in which employers “punished” the minorities they hired, or created an atmosphere where they felt unsafe. It takes cultural shifts to fix stuff like that.

  127. says

    Eric Ledger, why don’t you read the About page, maybe explore the site a little? We don’t advocate boycotts; we raise awareness by discussing these issues and striking a chord with people who are unhappy with the situation but haven’t quite put it into words. Eventually, you reach a tipping point with any cultural meme, and people start making new demands on industry, and industry either capitulates or gets replaced by something that meets the demands.

  128. Annie says

    And this is why I watch anime and manga, just one of the reasons albeit. There are more female badasses there. Am I doing my own small unmentioned boycott by never watching hollywood films?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test – by Jennifer Kesler at The Hathor Legacy The author describes her experiences taking film classes at UCLA and the dogma taught to aspiring screenwriters: good scripts must contain straight white male leads. Be sure to check out her related pieces on why the industry ignores profitable films that don’t follow this rule and the double-standard faced by films with female leads. Be sure to check out her explanation of the Bechdel Test – it’s a tougher challenge than you think! [...]

  2. [...] you’ve never read this post by Jennifer Kesler about how screenwriters are strongly discouraged when it comes to creating fleshed-out female [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.