Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why I won't be paying to see The Social Network - Part 1: Women in Movies in general

So apparently there is this new movie out! And apparently, it's the movie that is DEFINING MY GENERATION.

My generation - according to this movie - the geek shall inherit the Earth, by shitting all over womankind to get there.

There's always a lot of discussion in pop feminism about women's roles and portrayals in various media. The consensus is, basically, that it's not really a pretty picture. There is a gross dearth of media that allows women to be human beings rather than caricatures, and that actually bothers to tell women's stories and doesn't act like those stories are For Women Only (it's why stories with a female protagonist are 9 times out of 10 "chick flicks", but stories with a male protagonist are "for everybody".)

There's a pretty genius litmus test for whether or not your movie even pretended to give a crap about the existence of women. The Bechdel Test has three simple requirements.

1) There are two women with names in this movie...
This first criteria requires that the film acknowledge that some 50% of the world's population are women, and thus, even if your main character is a man, chances are he probably has significant interactions with women every day. So, point #1 says that if your movie exists in our reality, there are probably women involved in the protagonist's life. Because the women must have names, background extras don't count. You'd be surprised how many movies - good movies - can't even nail this one.

2) ...who talk to each other...
This speaks to the point of giving the women an actual character. They're not just props who respond only when spoken to by the (probably male) protagonist.

3) ...about something other than a man.
This is the killer. So many movies get this far, and then fail, because whoops! If you're a woman in a movie, you're probably a love interest, or you're interested in love. So even if you have a sassy female friend, you're probably talking about the guy you're interested in. Because what else do women talk about anyway?

This video sums the test up rather nicely:

What's interesting about the Bechdel test, as alluded to in the video, is that it's actually a pretty low standard and isn't really meant to be used on an individual basis to grade movies. Because the bar is set so low for including women, it's fascinating to examine Bechdel in terms of the number of movies that don't pass. When they don't pass, it's because most movies are starring men. In these movies, you may have one token female coworker, and/or a female love interest. So they stuck some women in there, but they're only there because of how they relate to the male protagonist. And since most movies default to a guy as the main character, women are more often than not very superficially written supporting characters. When the movies are about women? They're usually rom-coms, so even if a movie passes the test by having two female characters briefly talk about something other than the dude she's lusting after, women in these movies are motivated by falling in love with men (unless of course she's the uptight career-driven archetype who needs a fun-loving rogue dude to teach her to love.)

Another interesting way to look at the test is to evaluate the reverse Bechdel test. This would be:

1) There are two men in the movie, with names
2) Who talk to each other
3) About something besides a woman.

When you look at it this way, it seems almost silly, because this is true of almost every single movie (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants comes to mind as a rare exception!) We take it for granted that, in film, men have had their stories told so many different ways, and that their characters are fleshed out - it makes perfect sense that men would have a lot to talk about other than women. The Bechdel test isn't about trying to police women's conversations so that they never talk about men. Instead, the test is about trying to get the audience to accept that women aren't always just talking about men all the time, especially since we internalize that men talk about all kinds of different things in movies. Why should women be any different?

So I know that in Part I of this post that claimed to be kind of about The Social Network, I didn't talk about The Social Network hardly at all. That's because I wanted to set the stage for my critique of that film by establishing that there is, in the movie industry, a systematic disregard for giving women characters the opportunity to carry a story and exist as more than re-usable archetypes (who only talk about men.) This issue is widespread, as it rears its head in good movies as well as in blatantly misogynistic ones. The bottom line is, the dudes that write and direct these movies either feel that they don't understand women well enough to create realistic ones, or they simply can't be bothered to do it (they don't care, or they don't even realize they're perpetuating the exclusion.)

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