I see a lot of bad movies. Watching mindless cinematic drivel can be very therapeutic and I don’t hesitate to indulge. But I can’t fully enjoy brainless box-office hits anymore—the under-representation or misrepresentation of women in some 2013 releases has been a little too overt. Or maybe I’ve just been more sensitive to it lately; as I’ve gotten older, insidious sexism in film has been easier to identify. I’ve also taken to putting every film I see up against the Bechdel test (much like Sweden), leading to a general disappointment in modern movie-making. Even as women today are screenwriters, directors, producers or all of the above, the entertainment industry feels very much like a boys’ club.
In a way, the Bechdel test ruined movies for me, and maybe that’s a good thing. I should be angry at the exploitation or lack of women in film. But while we should continue to look critically at the way women are portrayed in movies, we should remember that this test is a loose guide, not the ultimate arbiter of sexism in film. You’d be surprised to find that these five films actually passed the Bechdel test this year:
1. Oz The Great and Powerful
Not only do all of the women throw themselves at James Franco, but one of the main ideas put forth is that looks determine personality. As soon as Mila Kunis’ character is revealed to be evil, she is made to look “ugly” in the traditional sense. Even worse, it’s intended for a young audience.
2. The Smurfs 2
Okay, I’m going to quickly lose credibility by admitting that I haven’t actually seen this one, but the sexism is obvious: there are many male Smurfs and only one female Smurf, Smurfette, whose defining quality is that she’s female. (Also a kids’ movie!)
3. Only God Forgives
Despite it’s overall poor critical reception, there were things I actually liked about this movie, but it doesn’t portray females in any positive light. The only female characters are Julian’s mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) and his “girlfriend,” Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam). The mother is a monstrous, almost demonic matriarch, and Mai, who is essentially a prostitute, is mistreated by Julian throughout the movie. We’re not supposed to like Julian (played by Ryan Gosling) but we are supposed to sympathize with him.
4. The Big Wedding
Susan Sarandon and Diane Keaton play Bebe and Ellie, respectively, who were once friends until Bebe married Don, (Robert DeNiro), after he and Ellie divorced. Despite the fact that a lot of the movie delves into the friendship between Bebe and Ellie, the plot revolves around their competition for one man. Don, on the other hand, is hardly blamed for anything and sleeps with both of them over the course of the movie.
5. Machete Kills
Predictably, all of the women are hyper-sexualized—and that is an understatement. (Though they are badass)
But there’s another side to this, and it’s something I struggle with: if a movie doesn’t meet the test’s criteria, do we automatically declare it sexist?
A lot of popular, good movies have failed the test this year. I couldn’t wait to see the The World’s End as I’m a huge fan of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost trio. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s about a group of old friends that reunite in their hometown and aim to drink a pint of beer at every bar until reaching the final destination: a bar called “The World’s End.” (Also, everyone in the town has turned into an evil robot that they have to fight along the way. Cool!) There’s really only one female character and (huge surprise), she acts as the love interest for two of the male characters. Not only that, but she’s a sister to one of the main characters, which sort of implies that the audience needs a believable explanation for her existence. She’s someone’s sister, not “one of the guys.”
So in spite of myself, I was brooding halfway through the movie. Would it have been so difficult to diversify the cast a bit? Admittedly, a group of women or even a group of both men and women chugging beer and fighting robots all over town would make for a different movie. The filmmakers made a choice—a choice that speaks more to popular culture than to their own feelings about women’s roles in movies, presumably—but still one that excludes women. The movie is not misogynistic, and it definitely still drew a female audience, but it didn’t make any strides toward equality.
The Bechdel test is a good starting point for a conversation, but it’s not the end of the conversation, nor was it ever meant to be. Maybe I’m more angry at most films than I would have been otherwise, but like I said, that’s a positive. The test can be a good lens through which to view movies; if taken with a grain of salt, it makes even Blockbuster hits thought-provoking.