Thursday, November 14, 2013

More on the Bechdel Test. And Meet The Smurfette Principle.

Alison Bechdel talks here about how this "test" came about and what she owes to Virginia Woolf in creating it.  For those of you who don't know what the Bechdel Test for a movie is, here it goes:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
The Bechdel test is not a real statistical test, and the recent proposal of some Swedish movie theaters to use it does NOT have any government force behind it. Neither does the failing of the test lead to any consequences.

The Bechdel test is just one tiny way of looking at the dearth of women-as-human-beings in popular movies, and it has obvious flaws:  A misogynist movie could pass the Bechdel test, a feminist movie could fail it.  Many classical movies would fail it, because the invisibility of women as a part of the world was more accepted than it is today.

But nobody is seriously proposing that the only way a movie could be judged from the "women-are-full-human-beings" angle is via the Bechdel test.  And as nothing happens to movies which don't "pass" it, I was utterly and totally flabbergasted when I read the comments to the initial Guardian story about Sweden and the Bechdel test.

Almost a thousand comments, and a big chunk of them* are cries of anger, outrage and fear about  the test (which is not really a test at all but rather a principle).  The usual argument is that this is the nanny-state stepping in, this is a feminist plot to soon introduce quotas and ban all the tough-guy movies, that this is sexist because the reverse Bechdel test isn't required.

By all means, let's introduce that reverse Bechdel test for a movie!  The more the merrier! It would be this:

1. It has to have at least two [named] men in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a woman.
What percentage of movies do you think would fail this reverse Bechdel test?  Heh. My guess is that such movies would be quite hard to find, compared to movies which fail the straightforward Bechdel test.  Because the role of men in the majority of movies is not to be just the love interest of the main female star of the show.  (All this is about heterosexual roles in movies.)

I found the outrage (both in numbers and quality) in the Guardian comments unexpected and bizarre, because of this:

According to a study by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, of the 100 most successful films at box office in 2012, just 28.4 per cent of the 4475 speaking characters were female. This is a drop from 32.8 per cent in 2009.  


Perhaps more worrying is the way those actresses who do have speaking parts are styled. Nearly a third, 32.6 per cent, of the female characters who spoke had sexually revealing clothes, the highest percentage in the five years the survey has been compiled. 

This percentage jumps for teenage girls, where over half (56.6 per cent) were dressed provocatively: a 20 per cent increase on 2007.  

The survey reflected wider trends in the film industry, in particular the number of female filmmakers, directors, writers and producers. Women made up just 16.7 per cent of the 1,228 involved in the 100 highest-grossing films.

Any move, even the most slowly creeping one, from this towards something closer to fifty percent was regarded as the final takeover by feminazis in those comments!  As the most heinous infringement of artistic freedom!  As a blatantly unfair and hideously sexist plot!

Here's a fine example of such comments:

The 'test' is pure bunk. Why would anybody wish to see an irrelevant dialogue between 2 unnecessary female characters for 1 minute that does not include reference to the main character, which in a large number of cases is male? It's poor story telling, flabbly editing and completely irrelevant to most sane people.

Mmm.  Pass me the garage door for kicking.

Many of the other comments argued that the markets have spoken, that the markets don't want to see women except as sexual partners of the male stars, and that if some feminazis are so bothered about all this then they can buy their own movie studios and make their own movie industry and then their own movies.  And besides, what's so bad about a little bit of gender inequality? 

Don't you just love this?  I got a kick from it all, because it made me realize what the time preceding women's suffrage must have been like for those fighting for the vote.

The point of the Bechdel test is to remind us that women in movies could be fully-fledged human beings. So from that point of view the rage in those comments was pretty instructive.

On the other hand, so  was the comment picked by the Guardian editors as furthering the debate:

When I was a teacher I noticed that short stories, novels, poems etc were not of much interest to the majority of male students if the central characters, or any characters of significance for that matter , were female. On the other hand, female students were able to be equally engaged regardless of the gender of the main characters. Why this is was not easily discernable. I suspected that it had to do with the relationship each of us has to power, even in fictional situations, and readers simply have more fascination with characters they assume will be able to affect change or be the 'heros' in the final outcome.....
If this is the case, perhaps the outraged men among the commentariat were scared that they would be deprived of their super-heroes?  And if this is the case among young male students, what is it caused by?

Is this something innate?  To go with the idea that the female heroes don't do guy stuff and that only guy stuff appeals to boys?  But if that's the case, why should girls not make the mirroring choices?  And would a female hero doing guy stuff make boys more interested?

Or is it based on the young boys and girls already having learned the correct pecking order of the sexes?   The latter is supported by girls' seeming ability to identify with a male protagonist. After all, if men are above women, it's not so terribly hard for a girl to reach upwards and to identify with a male protagonist, whereas it would be much harder for boys to reach down and identify with a female protagonist.

All those are just questions.

To return to the Guardian comments,  I wonder what all the outraged voices would have said if someone had insisted that they not only try to understand the Bechdel test (and many others in the comments did try to correct the misunderstandings) but also get the Smurfette principle.  This

In 1991 writer and cultural critic Katha Pollitt coined the phrase “The Smurfette Principle” to draw attention to the tendency for movies, TV shows, and other cultural products to include one, and just one female (source). For the unfamiliar, The Smurfs was a children’s television show, airing from 1981 to 1989, populated by a whole world of little blue men and one (sexy) blue woman...

I'd like to expand the Smurfette principle a little, in that many movies and television shows (and even political panel discussions) might have more than one woman but nowhere near the percentage of women that reality happens to have.

Which is roughly one half.  It's as if whoever does the creating of these movies or television shows tries to count out the minimum number of roles that must be filled with women, perhaps because those roles are viewed as "playing woman, " whereas other roles are viewed as "playing warriors, funny people, scientists, evil people" and so on.  Once "woman" is regarded in those terms, as essentially the whole description and requirement of the role, the Smurfette principle automatically follows.

I should spend some time studying the movie industry to understand why the main market for all movies seems to be teenage boys.  It was not always so.  What happened to the market to change it like that?  Are the other markets (young women, older men and women)  content with not having different types of movies?  What role does the disposable income of young teenage boys and girls have to do with it?  Who chooses the movies?  Do we have to have these simplistic genres of Rambos on the one hand and Twilight on the other hand?  Where are movies for adults?
*The comments are not all full of outrage.  The other side did pretty well in them.  But I was still absolutely surprised by the large number of people who thought this whole proposal was horrible.