Feminism, Film, Bechdel, and Comic Con

Hollywood's view of women.

Hollywood’s view of women.

So I went to Comic Con and I saw a room full of feminists!

This is a first for this blog: Instead of doing a review, I am writing about a film related topic that is especially pertinent to the theme of Feminist Film Reviews. I attended Salt Lake Comic Con this weekend, including a panel all about the Bechdel test.

As someone who loves film and keeps the Bechdel test and other standards in my mind as I watch film and read articles, nothing brand new was presented to me. However, this panel was a fantastic and needed addition to a convention that focuses on genres seriously lacking in female representation.

One criticism of the Bechdel test is it is so minimal. Can it really accomplish anything? Does passing the Bechdel test say anything about the quality of the film or the representations of the female characters? Honestly, the Bechdel test is incredibly minimal. All it takes to pass is two female characters with names who talk to each other about something other than a man. Simple. And no, passing doesn’t have any bearing on the quality of the film or treatment of the female characters, which is why in addition to my section on the Bechdel test in my reviews, I also discuss the overall treatment of women. But, the Bechdel test is a conversation starter. It forces you to ask, “It is so easy and seemingly intuitive to write stories that pass the Bechdel test. So why did this film fail? Why do so many fail?”

One of the major problems in Hollywood–and this was addressed in the panel–is that stories about white males are considered the default story that everyone can relate to. A white male is considered normal, while women and people of color are considered specialized or abnormal. This is obviously a problem because most people are NOT white males. It’s important to remember that all stories matter, including those of white males. But those stories are plentiful, and you can see a white male in almost any role imaginable. But those stories do not trump those of everyone else. Those stories are not representative of the overall population, and not everyone can relate to them. Unfortunately, Hollywood envisions white men as the ideal audience, despite the spending power of women and all people of color.

The panel went on to discuss the roles of women in film when there actually are female characters. One thing that often occurs is, a writer or director or whomever will include a “strong female character” and act as thought that’s enough so all those crazy feminist filmgoers should just shut up now. The problem is, one female character is not enough when women make up about 50 percent of the world population. Additionally, the “strong female character” is just as much a trope as the damsel in distress. She is still one-dimensional and exists to push the plot of the man’s story forward. She doesn’t really like other women and falls into the trap of insulting men by calling them girly or some form of that tired insult. She is basically a stereotypical sexist man in a woman’s body. The “strong female character” isn’t enough because male characters get to be strong and crazy and weak and intelligent and funny and scary and dumb and ugly and mean and kind and loving and lovable all at once, while women are confined to either being strong or weak, a virgin or a whore. Female characters are continually defined by one narrow trait. Maybe it’s considered a good trait, maybe it’s considered a bad trait–but it’s still only one.

Anyone who has been following this blog for the last two years or so that is has existed will notice that films I’ve reviewed that are written by women tend to have a more balanced story in terms of gender. This is a key observation. The panel ended with the question, “How do we make it better?” The answer: have more women writing and directing films. Generally speaking, women do not write films that cast men into one-dimensional characters who never seem to interact with other men. Instead, the representation of both genders is more balanced and nuanced. Men and women interact in non-degrading ways. Women are well-rounded characters who associate with other women and have aspirations besides getting hitched. Men are also well-developed characters with stories of their own.

We need more women writers. We need more women directors. And when a movie doesn’t do well that happens to star women, we need to stop saying it’s bad because it starred women. This is another trend in Hollywood that is completely illogical. A movie that doesn’t do well in the box office starring men is just a bad movie. But a movie that doesn’t do well in the box office starring women, is bad because it stars women! And conversely, if a movie does extremely well and happens to star women it is considered a fluke! By that logic Bridesmaids, Frozen, Gravity, Lucy, Maleficent, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Divergent are all flukes. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a lot of flukes to me.

bechdel_724196827221Ultimately, film is better when it features nuanced characters of all genders. Furthermore, films that pass the Bechdel test do better in the box office. So if Hollywood is concerned about being sexist losing profits, maybe it should collectively consider that women’s stories matter–and people are willing to pay to see them.

Author: Tamsen Maloy |

 

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What If

What_If_poster-e1400099630508What If

Director: Michael Dowse

Key Actors: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Synopsis: Due to his previous girlfriend’s knack for cheating, Wallace has developed a keen attitude of cynicism when it comes to love, romance, and relationships. But all that starts to change when he meets Chantry, a girl he falls in love with only to find she’s already in a serious relationship. They become good friends, but this film explores the question of, “Can two people be just friends if one of them is romantically interested in the other?”

Overall Rating: 4 Stars

What If is refreshing. It is an independent romantic comedy and is blissfully absent the manic pixie dream girl. I love love love LOVE this movie. This film made me laugh and giggle, it made me love love, it made me speculate about the reality of love instead of the fabricated perfections that exist in so many romantic comedies. In many ways, this is the perfect romantic comedy. 

Bechdel Test: What If passed the Bechdel Test, which is unusual in a modern romantic comedy. In the film, Chantry and Wallace are best friends so naturally they spend a lot of time together. What is unusual is Wallace probably spends more time talking about the opposite sex than does Chantry. Chantry talks about her boyfriend and talks about Wallace. But she also talks about her career, food, art. Normal stuff. And she discusses it with her sister and two other friends. Oh, and her boss who is a woman. This film is an excellent example of female characters having other interests besides dating. 

Treatment of Women: Like I said before, What If is refreshing. This holds true for the general treatment of women. SPOILER ALERT: Chantry loves her job as an animator. She loves it so much she turns down a promotion because it would detract from the time she actually gets to spend animating. However, the person who is given the promotion botches the job so Chantry is offered the job again. She decides to take it and moves to Taiwan… despite Wallace’s eventual declaration of his love for her following her breakup with her boyfriend. She chooses her career and it is Wallace who follows her to Taiwan, instead of the typical female-character-chooses-guy-over-once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity one finds in several rom-coms.

I’m a big fan of this movie and want to go see it again. I like how funny it is. I like how it’s not a typical rom-com. I like how when Wallace messes up big time, instead of Chantry falling for it she gets mad, and Wallace recognizes it was wrong and doesn’t try to excuse himself. I like the simple silly and sweet moments. What If is a romantic comedy done right. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

x-men_days-of-future-past_international-posterX-Men: Days of Future Past

Director: Bryan Singer

Key Actors: James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Synopsis: In the near future, there is an outright war on mutants and humans who would help them. A new technology hunts mutants and utterly destroys them. In order to prevent the extinction of mutants and a dystopian reality, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr send Wolverine back in time to work with their younger selves to prevent Raven from committing the murder that starts the path of destruction.

Overall Rating: 2

X-Men are great. I used to watch the cartoon when I was a child, so I usually enjoy these modern reboots. This is no exception, however, though I liked it a lot I don’t outright love it. It might be one of those films that grows on you. Maybe. I guess we’ll see. I have been baffled as to why these films have focused so much on Wolverine. Yes, he’s amazing and his bad attitude makes him a more interesting character. But he’s not the only X-men. At any rate, I do love Wolverine and while it would have been great to see more female involvement, I can understand the rationale behind sending Wolverine back in time as opposed to someone else: With his self-regeneration/rapid healing he’s literally the only one who can survive the trip. I can buy that.

Bechdel Test: But I can’t buy the failure of the Bechdel Test. There were multiple female characters with names. None spoke to each other!!!!! Why??? It’s ridiculous. It is so easy to pass and yet so few movies do! There was a scene in which Raven speaks to a female nurse about Mystique’s appearance (the nurse obviously isn’t aware that her patient is Mystique), but the nurse doesn’t have a name! Fail!

Treatment of Women: The treatment of women is decent, despite the Bechdel failure. There are many female X-men (X-women?), and we all know they are super. Ellen Page reprises her role as Kitty Pryde and orchestrates the time travel. Storm makes an appearence, as does Rogue. And of course, there’s Raven/Mystique. These are all great characters, however they could use more development. In the last two X-Men movies, Raven has had some great character development–which is fantastic. But she is one out of numerous female X-Men (X-Women?).

All in all, this is a decent comic/action flick with decent treatment of women that failed the Bechdel Test. I like this movie, and recommend seeing it. Just don’t expect any landmark gender equality.

Um... I'm just a big fan of James McAvoy. So here's a picture.

Um… I’m just a big fan of James McAvoy. So here’s a picture.

Belle

Belle_posterBelle

Director: Amma Asante

Key Actors: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid

MPAA Rating: PG

Synopsis: Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is a bi-racial woman living in 18th century England. The daughter of a British Admiral and black woman, she is raised by her uncle, Chief Lord Justice Mansfield, alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray. She is simultaneously an aristocrat and outcast.

Overall Rating: 4 Stars

This is one of those films. A historical story that makes you wonder how much is true, and how much is the imagination of the writers. Even the most basic search will tell you that a lot of what occurred in the film was not true, or at least not true in the span of years depicted in the film. Nonetheless, it is a great story and the painting that inspired it is worth the clamor.

Bechdel: Belle passed the Bechdel Test, unsurprisingly. Once again we find that when female directors and writers are involved, the movie passes. What is fantastic about this particular film is, not only did it pass, but conversations surrounded politics and life’s realities. Eighteenth century women discussing politics? No way!

Treatment of Women: The treatment of women in this film is loaded. Given that this film takes place in the 18th century, it is unsurprising that there are many horrifying aspects, such as one man refusing to marry a woman because she has no money. And the whole “coming out season” so popular at the time is stiflingly dreadful. But, that was a reality so to ignore it would be idiotic. There is a scene in which the character Elizabeth Murray explains to Dido that to be a woman is to be owned because without the security of a marriage, women are nothing. That explains well enough how women were generally treated at the time.

Despite the historical awfulness, women were treated well in this film. Belle–or Dido as she is called in the movie–is a driven, intelligent, interesting protagonist. Dido has the double-whammy of being both a woman and black in a time where even one of those traits was a disadvantage, yet she forges her own path. Dido isn’t cowed and proves as much time and again, even speaking up to the uncle who raised her–the Chief Lord Justice, I might add.

Let’s count the ways Dido rocks:

-When she stands up to her uncle

-When she defies her uncle’s wishes by researching and becoming involved in the Zong case

-When she declares, “I have a voice,” to the wretched woman who sees Dido’s skin before all else

-When she stands up for herself when an icky man gropes her

-When she sneaks out of the house to attend meetings and to spend time with Mister Davinier

-When she and her cousin are best friends, despite different backgrounds (major plot point, not just a single moment)

One of the most important details–if not the most important detail–is Dido’s fear of being painted. All her life she has seen portraits that, if they include any black subjects, feature black people as subservient, always looking wonderingly at the glorious white subjects. So when her uncle decides to have Dido’s and Elizabeth’s portrait done, she is terrified. In the end, the two cousins are painted as equals, both in affection and status. Thus the inspiration for the film, for this painting is one aspect of the film that is absolutely real.

Overall, this is a great film. There were multiple times while I watched that I thought, “That is absolutely disgusting,” in reference to a racist or sexist conversation taking place. While those moments are infuriating and heartrending, they teach lessons we need to always remember. And it is absolutely wonderful to see a film depicting a female character whose worth is not reduced to her body or sex appeal.

dido_elizabeth_belle_custom-183cb3bd4f3bec0511a175e01856bf80dc2b9236-s6-c30

Painting that inspired the film

Inside Llewyn Davis

MV5BMjAxNjcyNDQxM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzU2NDA0MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Inside Llewyn Davis

Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Key Actors: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman

MPAA Rating: R

Synopsis: Inside Llewyn Davis a follows folk singer by the name of the title of the film in 1961 New York City. Davis struggles to make it as a musician as well as to maintain friendships. Other than that, there is not much of a plot. There are, however, a few cute cats (I love cats) and a brief appearance by Bob Dylan.

Overall Rating: 1/2 Star

I guarantee many (most) people will argue me on this, but Inside Llewyn Davis is a horrible movie. There is no point to this movie. It is two hours of angry people being angry at the world and each other, saying horrible things to each other. There is no recognizable story. There is no central conflict. (Leading a difficult life does not a central conflict make in a story.) I think this is going to be one of those movies everyone loves outwardly, but mostly only because it has the stamp of The Coen Brothers and people would feel “uncool” for not liking it. Is that rude? Probably. But there are movies/books/TV shows like that–media that don’t deserve the attention or appreciation they receive but garner it because for some inexplicable reason people “have” to like it. In fact, I saw this movie with my family and as we left the theatre we discussed the film and I was reminded of this scene from 500 Days of Summer:

I think “grasping at straws” is the phrase that applies here.

Also, I read on the giant poster outside the theater that this movie (or was it the poster?) was based on the cover of Bob Dylan’s album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. To use a Millennial colloquialism: Just no.

Here is how I feel about “artsy” films: Artsy films are great. I love artsy films. But there still has to be a point and a plot, etc.

Bechdel: Fail, fail, fail. There are two female characters in this movie. But they never even enter the same room let alone speak to each other. Just another vision of women in film only existing for the men.

Treatment of women: Where do I begin? How about with that Carey Mulligan’s character seemed only to exist for sex? By the end of the film you know of at least three men who have had sex with her character. And that is the only “value” her character provides. As a woman, it is beyond tiresome to watch movie after movie include women merely as sex objects, sex characters, or objects of desire. Seriously, what world do these male writers live in that they think women are only for sex?

And that is not to mention that Mulligan’s character is an accomplished singer but as she performs other characters don’t comment on her ability, but instead on how much they’d like to have sex with her. This movie is a serious fail for women.

And finally, a different female performer sings while the main character shouts obscenities at her and asks to see her panties. Do I need to go on? It isn’t enough that this movie has no plot, is painful to watch, and made me wish I had the ability to fall asleep in theaters. It also had to contain obscene sexism.

Maybe I should reduce my half star to zero stars? The acting is good. And the music is excellent. Do those two things warrant half a star when the rest is despicable? I guess I can throw this film a bone and include the half star. But it is grudgingly.

Thor: The Dark World

THURS_003B_G_ENG-GB_70x100.inddThor: The Dark World

Directors: Alan Taylor, James Gunn

Key Actors: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Synopsis: Some time after the Avengers’ battle in New York, and two years after the happenings in the first Thor movie, this story depicts Thor’s return to planet earth in order to protect Jane, who found herself crossing worlds through a scientific jibber-jabber I was not clear on (sorry). Thor faces Malekith who wants the power of the aether, a mythological substance that would give him absolute power over the nine realms.

Overall Rating: 1 1/2 – 2 Stars

Honestly, I only went to Thor 2 because Christopher Eccleston is in it. Though I was pleasantly surprised (even with Christopher Eccleston I expected this film to be mostly drudgery) it is still merely “meh.” You see, I have this thing against sequels. And when there are a gazillion (actual count) sequels for male superheroes while there is not even one movie dedicated to Wonder Woman, Storm, Black Widow/Natalia Romanova, or a decent rendition of Cat Woman, my exasperation with sequels merely compounds. And there really wasn’t enough Christopher Eccleston in this movie. He was the main antagonist! Why wasn’t there more Eccleston? That guy is truly a marvel (ha ha, get it?) and it seemed to me that there were more shots of his stunt double than there were of Eccleston.

However, Loki is incredible. He really made the movie. Loki is the only reason I rated this film 1 1/2 – 2 stars instead of only 1 1/2 stars. Tom Hiddleston. Well, geez he’s great. Loki is so evil and by far the best character (not just because he’s evil). He’s clever, manipulative. You never really know what he’s thinking. Can Thor really trust him? You just don’t know! It’s great! And to think, F. Scott Fitzgerald playing an evil master of illusion. Loki is reason enough to see this movie.

Bechdel: I have to admit, I was surprised this movie passed the Bechdel Test. I think most superhero movies fail completely. However, Jane’s intern Darcy (played by Kat Dennings) is full of spunk and they discuss science (What??? Female characters discussing science? Now way!) among other things. In addition, Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo) and Jane converse about self-defense. To sum up, this movie had three whole female characters with names who talked to each other about something (anything!) besides men. Quite unusual for superhero movies.

However, despite passing the Bechdel Test, it is quite apparent that Jane’s life is pretty much about Thor. Sure, she’s a brilliant scientist. But she pretty much cried for two years while Thor was away. Do male writers really think that’s what women do when the men we love go away? Spend years crying? Sorry. That’s just not how it works.

Thor: The Dark World really is just “meh,” even despite Tom Hiddleston. I just found it overall boring, thus am late posting this review. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to review it because I found it so overall dull. The real question is, is it dull because it is actually dull? Or is it dull because superhero movies are far too common anymore, especially sequels, and I have lost interest (except, apparently, in Loki. Can Loki have his own movie?)? And then there was the scene where Jane was floating in the air and I thought, “Wait. Did I somehow stumble into the movie version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince?” (Harry Potter fans, think cursed necklace.)

This movie wasn’t without its good bits, however. Stellan Skarsgard is quite hilarious. His portrayal of Erik Selvig is fun and great. Example: He thinks better when he’s not wearing pants.

And here’s a parting shot of Loki.

Loki

Loki

Wadjda

Image

Look at those Converse!

Wadjda

Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Key Actors: Waad Mohammad, Reem Abdullah, Ahd

MPAA Rating: PG

Synopsis: Wadjda is a young girl in Saudi Arabia. She is a trouble-maker who decides she wants to buy a bike–something girls aren’t supposed to do in Saudi Arabia. In order to earn the money for her bike, she enters a Koran memorization contest.

Overall Rating: 4 Stars

Wadjda is one of the best movies I have seen of late, whether in the theatre or at home. Wadjda the character is someone probably many of us can relate to: who hasn’t wanted to do something that everyone else says we shouldn’t? However, because this is a Saudi Arabian film about a Saudi Arabian girl living in Saudi Arabian, it is also completely otherworldly for my Western mentality. It makes you ask questions. “Is this an accurate reflection of daily life for Saudi women?” “Are girls really supposed to only touch the Koran with a tissue if they’re on their periods?” “Where’s a good ethnography about Saudi Arabian culture?” (That last one might just be me.)

There are many moments, when watching this film, where someone used to a Western culture cringes. Even with my cultural relativism in place, it is still hard to watch a husband leave his wife because she cannot bear anymore children.

Bechdel: Once again, a movie written and directed by a woman passes the Bechdel Test perfectly. And some. I’m beginning to notice a trend…

Wadjda and her mother talk about many, many things. Bikes, food, music, party dresses, transportation. And there was that fascinating (to me) moment when Wadjda told her mother that her school now wanted her to wear the full head attire to school. It was a sign that Wadjda is growing into a woman. Their relationship–like many mother/daughter relationships–was very up and down. But ultimately, they love each other and talk about everything.

Wadjda also converses with her school principal frequently. Usually Wadjda is being reprimanded. But on occasion they speak because Wadjda is progressing so well in her Koran memorization.

Wadjda is a tremendous film. I absolutely love it and want to buy it today but it is not yet on DVD. It is an amazing film just in its own right, but it is interesting to note that even in light of recent protests about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia submitted it for Foreign Language Academy Award. What good, good news.

And just for a little bit more information, here is an article about the film and director.