Hollywood has a lady problem.
It is not personal. It is strictly business. And it is not getting any better.
Since it was created in a comic strip in 1985, the Bechdel Test has been a faithful barometer of female presence in the movies. The test is simple enough. To pass, a film must:
1. Have two women in it;
2. Who talk to each other;
3. About something besides a man.
There is no requirement that the women must be ‘strong’, ‘powerful’, or ‘positive role models’. Objectify away and still muster a passing grade. This is not exactly an imposing feminist standard of conduct. It is, in fact, a laughably easy test – the cinematic equivalent of writing your name at the top of the algebra paper.
Or at least it should be. The reason the test still causes a stir, and rightly so, is that it needs to exist at all. It is constantly surprising just how often films fail it. Especially Hollywood blockbusters. And not just the bad ones. Solid, even great films released in the last year to pull a failing grade include The Avengers, Midnight in Paris, Tintin, The Muppets, Mission Impossible 4 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. The latest Twilight film only just squeaked through because two women have a conversation about babies. Apparently, that’s progress.
You can often defend, on a case by case basis, the creative decisions that led to these failures. After all, can you hold it against a period war film for having few significant roles for women? Is it surprising that all films with male leads don’t have space for dialogue between female supporting characters? Weren’t Black Widow and Hermione Granger pretty badass, even if they only shared screen time with the boys? Failing the test does not make a film ‘bad’. By the virtue of the stories they tell, some films will have to fail. Yet from each decision, a trend emerges, and it is not one we should be comfortable with. Is there a single film outside the modern art circuit that would fail the reverse test: a single moment where a man speaks to another man about something other than a woman?
The point of applying the Bechdel test to The Avengers, for instance, should not be to bludgeon Joss Whedon with the result, but to ask the bigger question – why are there so few female heroes on our screens? Superhero films are conspicuously poor performers in the Bechdel – Batman Begins, Captain America, X-Men, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk and Green Lantern are all abject failures. Why does Thor feel unique simply for featuring a second woman for Natalie Portman to bounce off for comic relief? “But comic book movies are for boys!” comes the cry. So where, then, are the similar legions of big-budget, mass entertainment “for girls”? The Hunger Games is looking awfully lonely in that corner, with only sparkling vampires for company. Even then, aren’t we still defining ourselves by arbitrary gender roles created generations ago? Girls read comic books. Girls play video games. Over 40% of the audience for The Avengers opening weekend were women. No use pretending they were all begrudging girlfriends.
The truth is, we are caught in a game of demographics. Mass market movies today are made for boys. Boys aged 16-25, specifically. Good roles for multiple women? You’d best find solace in the arms of the indie scene, because the Hollywood majors will have none of it. Oddly enough, this is a regression. In the 1940s, Hollywood saw women as the primary ticket buyers. We may deride the gender politics of the age, but your average blockbuster of yesteryear was more likely be a Gone with the Wind or Katherine Hepburn vehicle, driven by strong women. Today’s ensembles usually feature a token lady who can kick ass – provided as she does it in a skin-tight leather jumpsuit that gives pubescent boys something to ogle. Yet an audience beyond the 16-25 male demographic still exists, even if they don’t necessarily line up for the midnight opening wearing cowls and Hulk hands. Women still buy nearly 50% of the tickets. They only take 30% of the speaking roles. The industry spent months waiting for Bridesmaids to fail (“a studio comedy? With women?!”). It didn’t. Even men turned up. Imagine that! Yet its success is deemed an aberration, even as yet another sequel to The Hangover and a dozen wolf pack imitators are prepped on the other side of town.
Why is this important? Films should not just be a numbers game. They are our culture. They shape us. They tell our stories. Women in films should not be consigned to the purgatories of “love interest”, “best friend”, “temptress” or “mother” – defined by their relationship to a man or absent altogether. No one accepts that in real life life – why is it the norm in movies? We should not have to applaud every time a film passes the Bechdel test, or features a complex female character.
A confession. See, I’m one of those white, middle-class boys aged 16-25. I love my Bond and my Batman. And yet my favourite action hero, as I grew up, was Ellen Ripley. I would not be surprised if today’s teens feel the same way about Katniss Everdeen. Men and boys will watch a woman on-screen. They just have to reach our screens in the first place.
Finally, it comes down to the storytellers. Not all of the blame can be placed on the men and women holding the purse-strings. Studio executives are unlikely take a chance on a way of doing business that is still raking in huge box office. In an industry where the vast majority of projects are unprofitable, where is the incentive to stake your millions on something new and expose yourself? Instead, we have to be responsible for the stories we tell. It can be all too easy to fall into familiar patterns, unconsciously repeating the stories we’ve been watching all our lives – stories where the default protagonist is a young white male, where the supporting female characters are defined by their relationship to him and where diversity and difference are left to the support bench. I know I’m guilty of this when I write (and being a young white male is no excuse – look at how well Joss Whedon writes for a diverse cast on his TV series!). There’s a wonderful article by Captain Awkward about how these presumptions persevere even in the most liberal film schools, and by Jennifer Kesler on how they are forced on young screenwriters. Compromises are made for the ‘mass audience’, often with the best of intentions. Yet a token strong woman or minority is not good enough. Strong, nuanced characters are the goal, and not an outlandish one.
We remember Alien as revolutionary for its heroine, but perhaps more praise should be heaped on the script itself. Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schuchett wrote the characters as gender-neutral. The writers felt that gender was the least important aspect of the people they’d created on the page. Casting made ‘Ripley’ a woman and ‘Parker’ a man. We are richer for it. In 2012, shouldn’t we be just as open? After all, why couldn’t the next ‘chosen one’, secret agent, criminal genius or wrongly accused schmuck be a woman? Or perhaps hispanic, or disabled, or even over fifty? Sure, it may not be the right fit every time, but these are choices that can open doors for storytelling rather than close them.
Audiences have to demand more from their stories. The next generation of storytellers has to be ready to provide.