Why Don’t This Year’s Oscar Noms Pass the Bechdel Test?! (…A Rant)

by Brittany Allen

We already know the results of this ever-Sisyphean exercise: no. Surprise, everyone! Neither Martin Scorcese, Scott Rudin (and I wanna say technically) Spike Jonze managed to make films this year in which two even vaguely compelling female characters talk to one another about something that isn’t a boy. On the other hand, two other Best Picture nominated films that this snarky viewer considered problematic-re-their-female-portrayals-at-best (Dallas Buyers Club and American Hustle) managed to creak by the grand old Feminist Standard Test with a Pass – indicating, of course, that we ladies who like to see ourselves reflected in world cinema should be really grateful. As Oscar season flares up like an ulcer, something about that is niggling yours truly. Namely, the fact that vocally criticizing yet another year in the reign of the Hollywood Boys’ Club feels like niggling.

Image courtesy of Badassdigest.com

For the uninitiated, the Bechdel Test (named for Dykes To Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel) is a short list of criteria one may use to determine if a movie is feminist-friendly. It asks three questions : 1) are their two women in this movie? 2) do they talk to each other? And if so, 3) about something that isn’t a boy? We’ve held films up to this standard before, and it can be sort of shocking to apply – for instance, Run, Lola, Run and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II do not pass. The logic to the test is subversive, the idea being that women who can sustain conversations sans men are less likely to be treated as prizes/act as foils/exist on a two dimensional scale in a film. If you’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street, you can probably see where I’m going with this.


Image courtesy of Entertainment.Time.Com

Now before I continue to use this movie as a prop for argument, let me say: I loved The Wolf of Wall Street. I had a blast. Sure, in order to love it I had to put to bed certain qualms (just like we all do, sometimes) but I think it was Scorcese’s intelligent design to make a movie that made every layperson think twice about their gnawing need for glamour; in a way, I’m sure he expected to make me righteously indignant. And because I occasionally go outside, I realize it’s sort of silly to take Martin Scorcese to task for making a movie that’s inadvertently or advertently sexist (though he did do just that…). Cinema is fundamentally storytelling, and it’s not the powerful Mr. S’ responsibility to paint rosy pictures of a life we all affect to aspire to. He was writing about one man, kind of. But look to the modifiers, friends: almost. Sort of. Kind of. It’s sort of okay that it’s 2014 and we’re still loving all these movies about despicable, hedonistic white men who never face consequences for everything awful they do. I mean, like, mostly.

Because it is about stories, right? We mustn’t compromise the integrity of true stories. By the same token, let’s think about how Lena Dunham responded to all the flack she received last year about not having enough people of color on Girls. As in the case of Scorcese with three-dimensional women, Dunham was allegedly never trying to tell a story about minorities. It wasn’t her prerogative to add a racial layer to her real, raw life just to appease the masses. This was her defense, as told to NPR:

“I take [lack-of-minorities-related] criticism very seriously. … This show isn’t supposed to feel exclusionary. It’s supposed to feel honest, and it’s supposed to feel true to many aspects of my experience…I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to.”

Sure. Of course. I admire her candor and respect her mission. And while they’re laudable, Dunham’s new casting efforts do dance with tokenism – look to the somewhat forced, peripheral black characters populating the edges of Girls’ Season 3 so far.* But so what?! Tokenism, with its good intentions, portends the arrival of actual character. It’s obnoxious as hell, it’s a first friggin’ step, but that’s still where we are. Which brings me to the fundamental problem with Ms. Dunham’s defense: shows necessitate an audience, right? That relationship assumes a kind of burden. Because even if you do want to tell a personal story with a strict respect for its true-to-life-ness, nobody will let you get away with this unless you produce it in your basement. If a work of art purports to be realistic, people will really demand to see themselves reflected in it or they WILL NOT BUY IT. And for a long list of reasons related to being a member of two oft-infringed minorities, I think that’s their right.


Image courtesy of The New Yorker. 

But back to Girls. Peripheral though the new additions are, concessional though they may feel (to an angry, angry woman…), this is the shape and texture of pop culture today. The addition of minority characters into a show about nothing more than being young and broke and artsy in New York matters. Just like it matters that there wasn’t a single female character in The Wolf of Wall Street – which was three hours long! – who wasn’t a prop for a male sexual fantasy. Not a single one! It matters that Michael Wilkinson clad Amy Adams in exclusively plunging necklines for her role in American Hustle, and it matters that Jennifer Lawrence’s character was a shrew and Amy Adams’ was all but a magician’s assistant in that film. I haven’t seen Her, but it might matter that Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an idealized operating system with no definitive agency. You tell me, comment board.

It matters that Jennifer Garner and Matthew McConaughey’s almost-a-love-story was knuckled into the plot of Dallas Buyers Club when DO NOT ARGUE WITH ME McConaughey’s and Jared Leto’s relationship was clearly the more developed, fraught, topical, tender. It matters that even in audacious, important stories like Dallas Buyers Club, Hollywood’s fear of the alien story is palpable, as it’s supposedly soooo unsellable. There are still so many stories that don’t get told! All these perspectives and narratives that go neglected apparently because the world (as told by this one powerful industry) is “not interested in telling them.” That is a problem. And it is not a sufficient defense because it isn’t true. I’m interested. I’m interested in telling them. I buy tickets, and I’m interested in seeing them, too.

I think the indignity of being always ignored or belittled racks up, and even in the self-congratulatory spheres of Movieworld, this place from which it’s become foolish to expect more…I expect more. To be clear, this is not a rant called “Why aren’t there more female characters in men’s stories?!” This is a rant called, “Why aren’t there more stories about the world I live in?! Made for/by/ even involving the people I know?!” Because I know there’s an interested audience. I’ve seen them be consistently disappointed for years. Will we be clinging to Kathryn Bigelow’s astronomic Best Director victory for another four years? We women are more than half of THE WHOLE WORLD! We women live longer! And I’ll also argue that no other creative industry churns out mainstream 2D female and minority characters with such regular aplomb– not music (see: Beyonce), not television (see: Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, HBO’s Looking), not literature (see: this list). I know it takes a long time to make a movie, but is it a coincidence that many of the most-talked-about flicks this year were set in a distant past? There’s a complicated zinger in here somewhere about how my one solace for this diatribe lies in a movie about American slavery. 

Okay. Breathe….To round out the rage tornado, I’m trying to say that Lena Dunham’s effort to create even illusory equality on her extremely popular TV show seen by many young girls does matter, and in fact affects change while costing her carefully architected cine-reality…nothing. NOTHING. Diversity compromises nothing.* And even by seeing peripheral characters on screen, by seeing a movie palate made up of as many Katniss Everdeen’s as magician’s assistants’ and Madonnas’…this is how the next generation of makers and doers begins to reframe their image of the world, and so their aspirations. We are what we see. It is just not enough to keep telling so very many stories derived from powerful Caucasian chaps and call it specific, call the lacks incidental. Such a defense is its own way of qualifying systematic oppression. Moviemakers do have a responsibility, I think. And why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t they want to show the world as so much of it is?

I love the movies. I enjoyed all the nominated flicks this year, at least those I’ve seen. And I’m not really calling out Leo or Marty, I’m not really trying to be a buzzkill or a harpy. The hailstorm of this righteous indignation was so easy to tap into merely because it’s always there, as the world refracted around me continues to come by progress so very sloowwwwwwllllllly. 

*(Though Danielle Brooks we LOVE YOU!) 

*Also, diversity of gender and race DOES make for better stories. A wider net of people makes for more specific, more complex relationships. This has just always been true. 

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