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Women, film, and the Bechdel test

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Movies are trying to change everything. Studios are listening to the clamor of audiences to tweak the formula or even break the tradition for better storytelling. Not long ago, Hollywood was dead set on pleasing everyone with uplifting animated movies and comedies that exploit people’s boiling points and funny bones.

Nowadays, comedies are wittier with bite while exploring the concept of being “meta;” animated movies are no different. Even action and horror films are doing their best to pull their own weight in a market that is riddled with better and brighter choices for a day out in the cineplex.

More and more people are becoming wary of content by examining the intrinsic value movies have. Of all the conversations on film, however, nothing is more resonant than the roles and stereotypes of women.

A certain comic artist named Alison Bechdel, in a 1985 issue of her Dykes To Watch Out For comic series, came up with a simple test that is now used in Hollywood and beyond for the benefit of feminism. The Bechdel Test looks for three things in a film: there should be at least two women, they have to interact with each other, and their conversation should be about something besides a man.

While you rack your brain to find out whether your favorite films pass the test, most films that are engraved in popular culture haven’t ticked the marks of the test. Once upon a time, women were subjected to non-speaking roles, hiding behind a brutish cowboy or a mysterious detective. As society (and film) has progressed, women have started to have more roles in films and better character narratives that explore their characters’ humanity and stories.

Action and the cool girl 

If you’ve been living under a rock, The Hunger Games trilogy has been making waves worldwide, both critically and financially. With Jennifer Lawrence on center stage, Katniss Everdeen represents women in a good light, strong and determined to stand up for herself and her people. Coincidentally, Lawrence is known to be an icon who stands up to society’s views on body image and female roles. Indeed, modern action films have featured women who are not just strong, but are also deep and complex as men, maybe even more so.

Last year’s Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, is a prime example of a strong action heroine; however, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test for some technicalities, like only having two main characters, the other being George Clooney’s Kowalski. Bullock’s other film with Melissa McCarthy, The Heat, passes the test with flying colors for the narrative arcs of the two women and their talks on friendship and work. It seems that Hollywood is starting to take note of how strong female-driven films, notably action, do in the box office and in the conversation of pop culture and feminism.

Women are funny too!

While action seems to be natural for some actresses, the notion that women are funny has been an issue for quite some time. While Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett are comedic legends, people are more familiar with the comedy of Steve Martin and Robin Williams. The bias is being broken by some of the funniest women in media today. Kristen Wiig, an alumnus of SNL, starred in and co-wrote Bridesmaids, a raunchy ensemble comedy that was critically adored and is now the highest-grossing female comedy of all time.

On the other hand, the a cappella comedy Pitch Perfect has made waves worldwide, creating a cult following and spawning a sequel in the process. Not only did both films pass the Bechdel Test for their take on friendship and downfalls, but they rejuvenated the argument that women are funny and won it, to the advantage of women. However, if one looks deeper, it’s not just content that’s the real problem. 

Numbers against women

More than just box office receipts, female-driven films aren’t all they’re cut out to be. Despite proof of female power in the box office, Hollywood is still not fully convinced. In a recent study done by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State, roughly 18 percent of women were represented in all technical aspects of the top 250 grossing domestic films in America. It is also interesting to note that few female directors, like Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola, are hardly recognized by the masses; on the other hand, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron are household names in terms of filmmaking. Writing-wise, women aren’t doing better in film for business models and studio connections still persist over content and narrative strength. Spec scripts, Hollywood’s gold mine for great content, by women aren’t selling as much like before; the number of female-written spec scripts sold in 2011 and 2012 combined ranks that of 2001’s. 

Perhaps more troubling than the numbers game in Hollywood is the amount of understated sexism that is occurring in summer movies today. Many argue that most superhero films today, though having a female character, do not explore the arcs of the characters unlike their comedic and dramatic counterparts. Fans cite a “need” for a Black Widow standalone movie and more female-driven superhero films.

Thankfully, adaptations of novels like Divergent provide strong female heroines that provide complex and noteworthy stories of women. While adaptations pass the Bechdel Test, it’s easy to note that a few notable summer films this year have not passed the test, despite the buzzing conversation on feminism in film. The women of Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, strong heroines with names and arcs, barely had any dialogue with the other female characters in the film. Subjecting all three films to the test translates to failure, and it should be alarming. Bechdel test scores by Cheska Martin

Small screen grace

Television is now touted as a brighter place for women scriptwriters and directors than in film. Aside from being responsible for more female showrunners, television has given audiences strong female characters and their complexities aren’t few and far.

Executive producers like Shonda Rhimes and Jenji Kohan have provided intelligent characters through their writing and producing of female-driven content. Scandal is not just a look into the lives of political fixers nor is Orange Is The New Black just about a white, educated woman. Both shows showcased the lives of different women through different prisms, and the struggles of being a woman in a politically biased society.

On the humorous side, comediennes like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have given extraordinary performances for shows like 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation. Both have garnered accolades for their witty and sharp acting that easily led to more comedy from the likes of Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham.

Mistresses and mothers

In our home turf, films and shows could have easily passed the Bechdel Test, but haven’t quite gotten there. The recent trend of “cheating” movies have made Filipino moviegoing a chore; the women, though strong, either only talk about their men or cut each other down for the man. Fortunately, indie films have provided a break by showcasing the lives of ordinary Filipinos. Movies like Transit and Crying Ladies have transcended the common dilemma Filipino cinema has been suffering from.

Primetime TV is on middling ground for women because if the Bechdel Test were utilized, few shows would ever pass the test. Ironically, women writers and directors are given more freedom here in the archipelago. With names like Cathy Garcia Molina and Laurice Guillen and breakouts like Marie Jamora and Hannah Espia, Filipino films and television may not be suffering; it may just have plateaued. 

Right now, the debate for feminism in film is raging hot. Even Alison Bechdel has admitted that she’s quite “ambivalent” towards the test being attached to her, but she heavily supports its cause. Though it may be polarizing for some, the Bechdel Test does spark a debate about the state of women and feminism in film. After all, it took a long time for Hollywood to realize that women can open the box office. With the Bechdel Test and its steady stream of supporters, how long will it take for Hollywood to realize that women aren’t just action icons and witty heroines, but actually people to employ?

By Daniel Ian Comandante

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