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The Bechdel Rule – Feminism in Movies

I discovered a really fascinating movie-related concept this week, from my better half, who in turn picked it up from the Irish Times magazine. Basically, it’s The Bechdel Rule. Basically it states that the eponymous author will only watch movies that meet three simple conditions:

It has to have at least two women in it…
… who talk to each other…
.. about something besides a man.

There’s also a suggested corollary (known as the Mo Movie Measure) that the two women must be named characters. I’m dubious about using the test as a measure of quality, but it is interesting to think about how many movies meet that criteria. And which movies don’t.

So, does talking about how crap their lives are because they are oppressed by men count?

So, does talking about how crap their lives are because they are oppressed by men count?

There have been all manner of spin-off rules suggested to cover the ethnicity of television shows, for example, but we’ll stick with the original here. Doubt is the most obvious example of a pass I can think of (unless God counts as a man, but even then they do talk about other members of the order, modernity and ball point pens). The rest of the stuff I’m not so sure about.

It’s easy to think of obvious examples of movies that ace the test with flying colours. Thelma and Louise springs to mind almost straight away. Beyond that, I have to apply the rule on a case-by-case basis.

I read an interesting discussion of the rule which postulated that that the rule is important because it determines whether women drive the plot in a particular movie. Because of the law of conservation of detail, dialogue is at a premium in most movies (there are a lot of exceptions, I’ll concede) and the dialogue shapes the world that the audience are presented with. Those who do the talking shape the world in question. So, while it’s easy to see men talking (and shaping the world) in any number of movies, the amount of women in those roles are relatively small. This point I broadly agree with, but just because I accept that women not being afforded leading roles is a bad thing doesn’t mean the opposite is true by default: for women receiving lead roles to actively be a good thing, there must be some discussion of quality.

By way of example, allow me to examine various components of the rule. Does the discussion need to be a particular length in order for it to qualify? The stewardesses in Snakes on a Plane talk and joke about the lead character’s retirement (to go to law school, no less), but for a very short space of time. The three female attendents spend most of the movie apart, but does this qualify as conforming to the rule? Even if it doesn’t, a concerned wife talks to a stewardess about ordering a drink, which is a very small bit of dialogue – but it counts as a pass. I wouldn’t consider Snakes on a Plane to be a huge advancement in the role of women in movies.

What about the subject that they do talk about (as long as it isn’t men)? In the film 27 Dresses, the lead character spends the movie talking about her extensive wardrobe of dresses – as much as she talks about men – to the other women in her life. I don’t consider substituting ‘dresses’ for ‘men’ to be a particularly large step forward (and 27 Dresses remains one of the most offensive Rom Com’s I have ever seen). The remake of The Women would be another example of a movie matching the criteria of the rule but hardly offering anything more than a hackneyed and stereotypical portrayal of women.

Can the benefit of compliance with the Rule be offset by other content? Take the Charlie’s Angels movies for example. The eponymous angels kick ass and take names, but still spend the bulk of the movie in bikinis or as stylised sex objects. They are hardly striking a blow for stronger roles for women.

If a movie features asexual characters (take Wall-E, for example, or the upcoming 9) should it fail the test by default? Or should we attempt to assign sexual properties to the characters (propose Wall-E is male, for example, and Eve is female)? If we do, won’t our method of classification show something of our own stereotypes when it comes to gender roles?

What about movies that fail the test but are generally considered to be strong female-friendly films? Monsoon Wedding and The Tango Lesson are generally considered to be two examples (again, whether they pass or fail depends on the person applying the test – is talking about a wedding talking about a man, etc.?). I’m sure there are more. I’d imagine the original Alien falls down, even though the original source of the rule gives it as an example. Maybe the two female characters do talk about the monster (I honestly don’t recall that they did), but it’s a very phallic monster (despite the fact it can reproduce, as the deleted scenes taught us). By contrast, Untraceable passes with flying colours, despite being an uncomfortably misogynistic slasher.

Having thought about the test, I don’t buy it. It’s an interesting piece of trivia about any given movie whether it passes or fails and the test itself underscores a valid cause for concern in the world of film, but I find it hard to believe that the bulk of complaints about the roles that women play in films can be answered by a straight-forward three-step test. Would it not be much better for us – as a collective audience – to look at these movies and ask if they are showing an improvement in the way female roles are presented? It isn’t an easy question, but it concedes that there are no easy answers.

The appeal of the rule is that it offers the illusion of objectivity. The statements are binary. Yes or no. 1 or 0. Pass or fail. That’s handy and it seems easy, but this ignores that fact that virtually everything is inherently subjective. How do we decide if they are talking about a man? Is talking about a wedding talking about a man? What about talking to each other? Would being at a meeting with each other count, even if no dialogue was exchanged person-to-person? Does there have to be any substantive conversation, or does a simple exchange of dialogue suffice?

It is fun to play with the rule and it serves as an interesting jumping off point for discussions, but the discussion needs to take place in a broader context. Notions such as equality within popular culture require discussion and debate and cannot be solved by the application of a single hard and fast rule.

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