A Curious Girl

The musings of a girl who is curious in both senses of the word. Life, God, and York. Oh, did I say York? I meant Bradford!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Male bias in movies - why?

Gender relations is a rather tricky kettle of fish. In a Facebook note, I talked about the Bechdel Test which is a very simple measure of whether women are properly represented in films...

A film passes the Bechdel test if...

1) It has two or more women in it
2) Who talk to each other
3) About something other than a man.

One of the reasons this is quite a satisfying measure is that it is so simple and yet so many films fail. After writing the original post, I saw both the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the Fantastic Four. LoEG had one female character. The Fantastic Four had about three female characters, none of whom spoke to each other (to be fair there was a near miss at the end, in which two women got a drink together but didn't actually say anything before the camera angle changed). The Da Vinci Code only just passed, in the last ten minutes of the film, and had four female characters (only one named) to its myriad male characters.

God knows why I watched the Da Vinci Code, but I was disappointed by the other two. I wasn't exactly expecting brilliance but I like superhero films and I know plenty of women who do. Why then, are we so underrepresented in the cast, relegated to the one stock "girl" character and/or love interest?

It's also something found in kids' movies and TV. Not all of them to be fair - of Disney movies alone, Jungle Book, Bambi, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Pirates of the Caribbean (all the trilogy), The Lion King, Aladdin, all fail. But Beauty and the Beast (I think. If you count tea pots), The Little Mermaid (there's a maid who talks at Ariel while she's bathing) and Cinderella pass. Feel free to add your own examples of failures and passes.

Perhaps this apparent discrepancy is down to style of film. All the failed Disney films mentioned have an element of the "buddy" story, two (sometimes three) guys, on a journey of discovery. With Jungle Book, it's Mowgli, Baloo, and Bagheera. In Bambi, it's Bambi and Thumper (and Flower, of course!). Toy Story it's Woody and Buzz. In Pirates, Jack and Will. In the Lion King, Simba, Timon and Pumbaa. In Aladdin, it's Aladdin and the Genie. And of course, Abu. It's a time-honoured tradition. Best pals, have fun, beat the bad guy, one of them gets the girl. There are hundreds of movies with this template, even the Muppet Movie starts with Kermit and Fozzie on a roadtrip.

And it makes me wonder what the female equivalent of this is. Thelma and Louise, obviously. Mamma Mia certainly comes close, being about one woman and her daughter, both of whom have two best friends with whom they can sing Abba songs. And both characters get the guy (not the same one, obviously) while their friends are humorous and supportive in the background.

It also makes me wonder what it is that means that in all these various movies where one guy "roadtrips" or equivalent, that a woman so rarely comes along. Is it to prevent inevitable romance? (One thing I will say for the Da Vinci Code is that I was pleased that the two main characters managed to grow merely a warm friendship through all the trials they suffered together.)

Is it because the idea of women roadtripping seems inherently wrong? Perhaps, alas, here's the rub. In old tales there are always wandering knights, and wandering minstrels, while women were staying put having babies. True, there are the occasional tales where women climb up glass mountains wearing iron shoes (there are always iron shoes for some reason) but it's only in the course of true love. Even poor Jane Eyre fled from Thornfield to avoid damaging her chastity and not out of any spirit of adventure.

So maybe my conclusion has to be we women, and anyone else who feels underrepresented by the film industry (LGBTQI people and people from ethnic minorities, step this way) should all stop watching silly male buddy movies, loose the bonds of our oppression and go on one big roadtrip. Who needs movies when we have real life?

Let's ride into the sunset!

(Does anyone here have a car?)

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  • At 1:35 pm , Blogger Lois said...

    Thanks Helen! Have linked to it from my blog.

  • At 8:11 pm , Blogger Dave K said...

    The Bechdel test. I'll have to remember that.

    All very interesting. Sad, but interesting.

  • At 1:26 pm , Blogger Doctor Why said...

    A good, thought-provoking read, Helen. The Bechdel Test is very interesting, but I'm not sure that it's a foolproof guide to the gender politics of a film. You can sometimes get a film that has only one major female character because it has only one major character, full stop: e.g. 'Alien' or 'Amelie'.

  • At 10:45 am , Blogger Helen Louise said...

    Thanks Doctor Why for your comment. I agree that the Bechdel Test is not a foolproof guide to the gender politics of a film - for example, I think most of the Disney films I listed that failed have, oddly, more positive representations of women than those that passed (Cinderella - ick!). And there are limitations - for example if I remember correctly, What Women Want only barely passes the Bechdel test with a conversation about make-up but doesn't pass the 'Anti-Bechdel test' (two men talking to each other about something other than a woman)... but then it was a film mostly about gender relations.

    But I'm a bit confused about your comment about "one major character", because there's nothing in the Bechdel test that specifies that. And in any case, Alien and Amelie both pass... In fact, in the original Alison Bechdel cartoon, the character remarks that Alien was the last film she was able to watch. Also I would say that Amelie has several main characters... there's all the people at the café for a start.


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