Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Bechdel Test and other issues concerning women in movies

First of all an admission. Yes, I can objectify women with the best (or rather, worst) of them. I went to see Real Steel the other day on the strength of how hot one of the actresses was, so for me to come down on this kind of behaviour would be truly hypocritical.

However, even in the shallow mood I was in when watching this movie I was still struck how Evangeline Lilly's character Bailey was sidelined in the movie. For the first three quarters of the film she's not seen out of her father's old gym once. Also? The only characters she talks to for the *entire* movie are Hugh Jackman's character, Charlie, and Charlie's son Max. All she talks about is Charlie and the things he did in the past, things he does now and what he could do in the future if only he tried hard enough. She owns a gym and she knows about robots for frack's sake, surely that should have given the creative team a lot of scope to develop her character? Charlie goes touring with robot fighters, a mechanic would have been useful to have on the road, no?

There are two other named characters in the film, played by Hope Davis and Olga Fonda. Hope Davis' character, Aunt Debra spends the whole movie talking to and about the male characters in the movie. Olga Fonda's character, Farra, is a whole different kettle of fish. She's portrayed as the brains behind Zeus's [the champion robot] team and she managed to convince a retired programmer to get back in the game. That takes skills and no, I don't mean of the flirtatious kind. It is a shame though that she is also the bad guy of the piece, thereby implying that for a woman to have unshallow pursuits which don't revolve around men she has to be bad. Also, not even this strong, confident woman talks to another woman. Even when there's a female journalist at a press conference they don't speak to one another.

So, this movie doesn't even get off the first rung on the Bechdel Test ladder. For those of you who don't know, for a film to pass the Bechdel Test, it has to:
  1. Include at least two women,
  2. who talk to one another,
  3. about something other than a man
There are so many ways this film could have passed it.  The female journalist could have asked a distinct question rather than be part of the din. Farra could have tried to steal Bailey as a mechanic, or get inside information from her. 

You might ask why this matters. It's only a film, not a very intelligent one at that, it's just entertainment, right? Well, wrong. Because one of this film's target audiences is clearly kids (as it features giant robots). Any kids watching this and countless other movies that fail the Bechdel Test or fail to treat their female characters with respect could grow up with the impression that whereas men are strong individuals women only matter within relation to men.

This isn't great for either girls or boys. A girl watching this and other films could grow up with the impression they are only worth anything when in a relationship with a man. Boys on the other hand are at risk of having it ingrained into them that women are only there for their needs, meaning they don't know how to relate properly to women.

Yes, I am possibly going a bit overboard, but writing well rounded female characters makes sense for commercial reasons too. Writing 1 dimensional women isn't exactly going to sell your film well to women, and they make up half of the population. Real Steel's basic outline could have remained the same, so still appeal to men, but writing the parts for women better would have meant it could appeal to women too.

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