Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Putting Movies to the Test

We saw a nice movie the other day – “Silver Linings Playbook”. The people on the screen were attractive, sympathetic and believable. There were no devils or angels, but real people struggling with their past, making the same bad decisions again and again, yet learning from experience how to give and find love.

“Silver Linings Playbook” rivets our attention on Bradley Cooper as the crazy good guy, so thoughtful, so compassionate, despite his obsessive fantasy about why his marriage broke up, occasionally exploding out of his control. As in real life, crazy isn’t so easy to tell from the rest of us. Then crazy good guy meets crazy good girl and off we go on an exciting ride to Happyland. We smiled at the ending, the one designed to tug our heartstrings right into the theater. But that’s not always real life.

It’s not just the happy ending that makes this a fantasy. If you step out of the dark theater back into the real world and think about this film, and all the other films we can see, a big question pops up – where are the women? and what are they doing?

In 1985, one of the dykes in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” explained to her friend how she rates movies: “I have this rule, see. I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.”

This Bechdel test is not about feminism, or any political ideas, unless wondering where the women are is being political. It doesn’t matter what the women talk about or think about, as long as it’s not always about some man. Lesbian porn, if there’s any dialog, and alien invasions can both pass the test. Hundreds of great films fail the test and some terrible ones can pass it.

The Bechdel test is just a reality check. Does a film portray life as we know it, where even if women don’t have half the power, they are half of life itself? Or does the film present some imaginary world, where every scene, every action, every conversation, is mostly about men?

The Bechdel test sets a pretty low standard – one conversation, however brief, between any women, even if they are not named characters, gives a pass. One website that allows people to rate movies shows 91 of 155 films from 2012 passing the test. But if you just raise the bar to two different scenes with women talking to each other, many more films fail.

More interesting than finding out if one film passes or fails is to examine the film industry. So let’s look at the Oscar nominees. Of the 9 films nominated for best picture, 2 failed the test. Most of the 7 which passed, however, just barely passed. “Silver Linings Playbook” has one conversation between women. In “Les Miserables” only unnamed female characters conversed. “Lincoln”, “Argo”, and “Zero Dark Thirty” are dominated by male characters, passing the test by one or two brief conversations.

The 5 best actor nominees all starred in films in which they were the main characters. But men were also the main characters in 3 of the 5 of the films nominated for best actress. All the best director nominees were men; only one woman has ever won that Oscar.

Thinking about the Bechdel test, and other measurements of how men and women are portrayed in films, helps us think about Hollywood and which slice of life it shows us. For example, Hollywood often borrows from best sellers, and loves suspense, action, and murder. Murder mysteries still sell millions of copies and offer great, usually flawed protagonists of both sexes. Female sleuths sell as many books as male sleuths: on mysteryguild.com’s list of the top 50 best sellers, 23 have female leads. But when Hollywood chooses which detectives to make into movie heros, it’s nearly always the heros and not the heroines.

It’s fine that films are fantasies – going to the movies means a brief respite from the daily grind. But why must it also be a vacation from women, a male-dominated zone, where films which have women talking to each other are derisively labeled “chick flicks”?

At the end of the strip which defined “The Rule”, the two friends decide to skip the flicks, go home and make popcorn. If more us did that, perhaps Hollywood would get the message that men having fantasies about men is not the slice of life that we all crave.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 5, 2013

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