Quote of the Day: How the Bechdel Test could save the Oscars

If I can tell what role someone is going to play in a plot by their race or gender, you f**d up as a filmmaker.

– from a comment by Joseph Childers in the discussion of his article published last week – How the Bechdel Test could save the Oscars.

Although Childers acknowledges and supports the general social justice issues underlying the Bechdel Rule, his major argument in support of more films that pass the Bechdel Test (and the Deggans Test) is an aesthetic one about avoiding predictable hackery and thereby telling more complex/nuanced stories that challenge us to think differently – i.e. about how movies could be better art.

Now it would seem, as a white man, I’m not personally injured by the failure of most movies to pass either of these tests. Our stories are being told, our concerns are being addressed, our grievances are being aired; all is well in White Boy Town. But that is not so. First off, any group that only hears it own stories is not getting the full story. Surrounded by only look-and-think-alikes, it becomes impossible not to become parochial and stagnant. After all, one of the main social benefits of fiction is the encouragement of empathy, and these narrow narratives deny us its full expression.

First off, any group that only hears it own stories is not getting the full story.

But as much social harm as excluding half the population from being fully realized fictional characters does, I’d say it does even greater damage to movies as an art form. Think about it. Any screenwriter/director/producer that can’t think of anything more for a woman to do than be a girlfriend, wife, mother, or kidnapped daughter is probably going to lack imagination in other areas as well. A filmmaker who only sees minorities as Issues or wacky sidekicks is, more likely than not, a hack. After all, what are stereotypes if not clichés in the real world?

So of course the thread is full of ‘splainers about how Hollywood is just making rational business decisions when they limit women and non-white actors to playing characters whose prime function is to be a Woman of the House/Personified Issue/Sidekick whose storyline validates the emotional journey of the white male star(s), not forgetting the side orders of eye candy appeal and an inability to realise their own goals without The Awesome brought by Our Hero (even if they are superficially brimming over with drive, knowledge or kickarse warrior skills, because the more impressive they are at the beginning the even-more-impressive Our Hero becomes for fixing their problems for them in the end).

Duh. We already know how the studios play it so risk-averse that they rarely greenlight anything beyond tightly formulaic scripts-by-numbers with plots that excite nobody because there’s not a single untelegraphed “twist”. That’s the point. A few times every year a project within the studio formula hits on the right combination of writer, director and cast to make something compelling within the approved formulas, but they are running out of ways to tell the same story over and over again.

Major studio films occasionally blur the edges of this standard narrative box but rarely bust it wide open. Indie films that do break out of the box languish in limited-screen release seasons and don’t get picked up for DVD/cable/broadcast deals because they don’t get to tap into the marketing machine of the major studios, who then use these failures to make big profits as an excuse to stay safep within the standard industry box. The ‘splainers are trying to support this as not just a natural order but a desirable one for audiences who want not just entertainment value for their money but also entertainment choice. Tchah! It is to snort with a blatant disregard for decorum.

There’s also an argument to be had about whether the Oscars have ever truly been about art rather than really about cynically marketing the best moneymakers i.e. reinforcing the status quo – sure, every now and then the individuals in the Academy don’t stick to the commercial imperative script and enough of them are moved to vote a major award to a film that only does modest box office, but the astonishment that inevitably follows shows that these incidents are the exceptions proving the rule that making truckloads of profit is what is truly considered the pinnacle of filmmaking success.

What usually happens when I mention the Bechdel Test is that at least a few suggestions for little-known indie films that pass pop up in comments. Have at it, and films that pass the Deggans Test too. Actually, why limit it to films? And given the recent Evelyn Evelyn furore, why limit it to gender and race? Let’s hear it for any works of fiction in any media that tell stories involving people with disabilities, working-class and underclass folks, people with atypical gender identities, same-sex attracted people etc without falling into harmful clichés. And while we’re tossing the bouquets, by all means mention exceptional moments of FAIL that deserve the brickbats.

Final thought: now that the barriers for publishing print, music and film are falling, and distribution online is an ever-more-viable indie model, how many folks out there are not just creating innovative work totally outside the traditional publisher/recording-company/film-studio model of distribution but are actually making a living at it? How do we spread the word about their works better? Can a vibrant cyber-fanbase provide a groundswell of disenchantment with the predictability of Hollywood such that stock lowest-common-denominator blockbusters and their stilted stories become objects of apathy and ultimately a thing of the past? How do you see the possibilities (and limitations)?

Categories: arts & entertainment, ethics & philosophy

Tags: , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Let’s hear it for any works of fiction in any media that tell stories involving people with disabilities, working-class and underclass folks, people with atypical gender identities, same-sex attracted people etc without falling into harmful clichés

    Non-fiction, but this is a perfect example of how mainstream media can represent a minority group without making it a major issue or cliché.

  2. Replace “movie” with “game” and this post would have me nailing lead to the walls, convinced Tigtog was stealing my exact thoughts (but editing them for a family-friendly audience). Once I get back to my home computer I’ll post a nice list of indie games.

  3. I thought “Nim’s Island” actually did a really good job for young girls – the two main characters are a young girl (10) and a writer who connect through the books she has written, and end up connecting in real life, through a crisis.
    And in the completely small category, the Lowe’s DIY store chain in the US put out an ad that showed an African-American woman wanting to redecorate her bathroom, including putting in new sink and toilet, and going to the chain store, and a woman employee (white, which made me a little sad that it wasn’t reversed) helps her through the whole process. Nary a man to be seen, and no mention of men. It was so surprising, I applauded.

  4. I just read a post by yuki_onna, whose crowdfunded e-book is an Andre Norton award nominee (post on the nom). There are also awards for crowdfunded fiction. The mainstream success of y_o’s book indicates that it’s possible to be successful while working with a fanbase (crowdfunding) rather than a traditional publishing house, and that can open up spaces for more stories.

  5. If I may plug the Hathor Legacy, for a moment, Jennifer Kesler wrote a great furtherance to this article.

  6. I have always liked the Australian movie Love and Other Catastrophes for having main characters that were lesbian, but the fact they are lesbians is not the focus of the movie. They just were. Their relationship was a pivotal point of the movie, not their sexuality. It was nice to see it not made an issue, not made out as something ‘other’ and different.

  7. Unfortunately Love Actually cut the lesbians out of the story, though you can see a couple of scenes of theirs if you have the DVD. I really liked that touch. *is obsessed with Love Actually*
    The Amazing Kim: I’d love to see what games you’re going to share.

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