Things I Loved and Forgot

It can be such a thrill to rediscover something one lost sight of, for whatever reason. The Film Experience blog, for example, provides an oh-so-useful list of the films of 2010 grouped into categories like “Don’t Miss,” “Recommended with Reservations,” and “Make It Stop.”

According to Rogers’s list, cross-checked against the Indie Spirit Awards results, the most important films I haven’t seen yet are Black Swan, Blue Valentine, and Rabbit Hole. And I don’t have to feel bad about missing Alice in Wonderland and Iron Man 2! What a relief.

Still, get set for a tear-soaked holiday season, y’all! Maybe I’ll blow off all those movies and just re-watch Babies, which is basically one long YouTube video capturing the cuteness that transpires when small people with big eyes and no motor skills play with things (rocks; cats; goats; their siblings).

Not listed, presumably because Rogers hasn’t seen them yet: True Grit and Love and Other Drugs, both of which I’m curious about if only for the glimpses of little Gyllenhaal.

Speaking of films, a site called Jon’s Ego printed an argument against the Bechdel test (which I call “the Ms. Test for Movies“). It’s simply explained this way:

all credit belongs to A. Bechdel, friends, for this brilliant 3-part movie test:

1) Is there more than one female character? If so,
2) do the female characters talk, and if so,
3) about anything other than men?

You would be amazed at how many movies don’t pass this test. Good movies. Great movies, even — go ahead, count.

I don’t think you need to self-flagellate over this, for what it’s worth. A movie can flunk the Ms. Test — I mean, the Liz Wallace via DTWOF and Ms. Test — and still be quality. But for what it’s worth, one of the reasons I’ve never been crazy about Scorsese is that virtually none of his movies pass the LWVDTWOFAMT Test. It’s all-macho-all-the-time with Marty, with the glorious exception of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which you could say is the only Scorsese movie he’s only made once and which almost no one talks about.

Is it so hard to have women be real people in good movies? I mean, even master-of-macho, Russell-Crowe-worshipping Ridley Scott hasThelma and Louise AND Alien on his resume.

But Jon’s Ego has a problem:

I hate the Bechdel Test. It seriously annoys me every time I see it brought up and used as proof of sexism in movies (Even when they’re used by esteemed coworkers of mine. Sorry, Rachel!). Hollywood is clearly filled with sexism but the Bechdel Test proves nothing. …
let’s try something else. Think of a movie that has a female main character. I’m not talking ensemble piece here. This has to be a clearly defined main character who is a woman. Now do an inverse Bechdel Test about the male characters. Does it pass? I’m gonna guess it doesn’t. Does that mean that that movie is sexist against men? Of course not.

Jon seems like a good guy, and I don’t mean to get all patriarchy-blaming on his ass, but he’s pulling a total Limbaugh here. First of all, his main evidence is that he’s “gonna guess” that if flipped on its head the rule will still apply — i.e., in a movie featuring a clearly-defined female lead, there will not be a substantive conversation between two male characters. I’m gonna guess he didn’t spend five minutes thinking that through. There are always prominent men in movies, even female-driven ones. And they always talk.

Check out IMDB’s Top 250 list. You may notice that you have to scroll before you find a film that even fits Jon’s criteria, which to his credit he acknowledges is a problem. Depending on your point of view, the first entry is either Psycho (#24, which, btw, is bullshit — that should be in the top 10) or Silence of the Lambs (#27). Either way, both of those films also feature very prominent male characters, characters who have, in fact, arguably juicier roles than the ostensible female leads.

If you want to be more orthodox about his rules, we can keep going til we get to Amelie (#45) which is beyond debate a movie centered around a woman. Even there, the male characters have conversations with each other about things other than women. In French, sure, but that still counts. Or Pan’s Labyrinth (#74 — also bullshit; that movie is amazing), where the only thing dudes are gossiping about is fascism.

He can’t be thinking of “Sex and the City,” since he specifically says he doesn’t mean ensemble pieces. Even if you were to consider “Sex and the City” as a counter-point, though, I’d argue that, as a 25-minute TV show starring four women or a movie based on same, it’s a very different kettle of fish. Men are shortchanged in the show and the movies alike, sure, but sitcoms involve time and narrative constraints unimaginable to most filmmakers.

No, Jon’s “guess” is plain wrong. The fact that, in the entire top 100 list, there are maybe five films where it’s arguable a woman is THE lead character — and male characters outnumber female characters in just about every film by about four to one — is all the information you need to call Hollywood sexist. The Bechdel/ Ms. test helps make that clear in a straight-forward, accessible way. It’s not an indictment, but it’s a fair and a useful tool.

5 thoughts on “Things I Loved and Forgot”

  1. Hey, good guy seeming Jon here!

    You end your post by pointing out that there are so few movies with female main characters which is symptomatic of Hollywood's sexism. I totally agree with that. I just don't think the Bechdel Test proves that since it's so rigid that so few movies can possibly pass. Yet, since it's arguing something that is obviously fact (Hollywood is sexist) it's held aloft as some profound argument.

    Basically, I wrote that post on my Tumblr while waiting for water to boil so I didn't put in the time to think of specific movies. I didn't want to use a stereotypical woman's movie (some silly romantic comedy) even though, by nature, the men in those movie's are just as two dimensional as the female love interests in movies made for men (y'know, the other 95% of Hollywood's output).

    When I read your post, I asked my coworkers to help me think of a movie I'm very familiar with that has a female main character. We had a hard time (yep, Hollywood is sexist. No argument). Eventually we settled on Silence of the Lambs which, in addition to being a terrific thriller, has tons to say about the difficulty of being a woman in a "man's career" (in his review, Roger Ebert wrote "rarely in a movie have I been made more aware of the subtle sexual pressures men put upon women with their eyes.").

    I haven't seen the movie in years so I very well may be wrong. Thinking back though, the only scenes I can recall that feature only men (and ones who have character names so no Lecter escape scene) are conversations between Lecter and Dr. Chilton. However, these scenes are invariably about Lecter helping Starling, the senator, or her daughter. All women. Again, I could be wrong, but I don't think the movie would pass.

    My problem with the test rests in the fact that many, many movies that have great female characters fail it because it is just so strict. If you want a real test to prove Hollywood's sexism, I'll give it to you:

    Look at the movie's coming out near you and figure out how many
    1) Have female main characters, and
    2) Aren't vapid romantic comedies.

    Done. I proved Hollywood's sexism and I only needed two steps instead of three! Anyway, I enjoyed your post as well as the fact that, by clicking on the link to my Tumblr, you alone probably doubled its readership.

    1. hey jon! thanks for chiming in.

      the thing is, there is value in the metric of whether two women actually hold a conversation. in ordinary life, there are women to talk to everywhere. in sexist (if still, sometimes, fabulous) hollywood films, women only exist to serve very specific, often ornamental purposes. tracking when they are allowed to talk, and about what, helps put the focus on that point.

  2. ester, please don’t write off alice in wonderland. i loved its feminist take on the story. it turns “what a funny dream” into an argument that life is not a dream, you can effect the future by taking action.

  3. okay, anna! i promise i’ll give “Alice” a chance. you aren’t the only one who’s spoken up in its defense, and i do love the books.

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