If I’d have predicted how much the Bechdel Test would ruin my enjoyment of cinema, then I might rather not have known about it. For those of you who remain blissfully ignorant, it’s a simple way of thinking about the way that women are represented in whatever film you happen to be watching, thereby ruining it forever. The idea is that to pass the Test, 2 female characters need to have a conversation on their own that isn’t about the male characters in the film. This in turn was based on Virginia Woolf’s pondering in a 1929 essay about the way that female characters are “almost without exception […] shown in their relation to men”.
Learning about the Bechdel Test is a bit like walking through the looking glass – things are never the same again. Since I heard about it I have of course evaluated every single film I have watched and the tally of winning entries is shamefully low. The guy that first told me about it seemed to think it was supposed to be some kind of test of how good a film was – the fact that he could think of loads of good films that didn’t pass it was proof that it was all a load of old nonsense. Despite having missed the point by about a fucking mile, nobody is trying to claim that failing the Bechdel Test means that a film isn’t very good. My favourite film, Withnail and I, fails miserably but I can still enjoy it whilst wearing my comfortable shoes. In fact, most of my favourite films fail the bloody thing but I am not about to delete my copy of Her or renounce my love of the Coen brothers.
The point is that Virginia Woolf was bang on the money. Women are forever defined by their relationship to others. There is an increasing tendency to try and raise awareness of sexism for example, by saying ‘imagine if that was your Mum or your sister’ who someone just harrassed on the street/raped/called a slut, which only serves to emphasise the point that women are still not considered people in their own right. I made my first appearance on the radio last year after the producer of the Morning show read my blog about porn, yet still the presenter insisted on describing me as a ‘mum of 2’. This was despite me emailing them beforehand to question why it was relevant. I don’t recall them mentioning whether the guy I was debating with had kids or not, because that’s right, it’s completely fucking irrelevant.
I often wonder what alien visitors to planet earth would think about human women if their only source of information was mainstream cinema. I find the gap between the reality of women’s lives and how they are portrayed on screen to be ever widening. You’d think that all we did was wait around doing our make-up and dying our hair while the men got on with the important job of you know, actually doing things. Men are tough and know how to save us and each other and usually the world; whereas women scream if anything gets a bit scary, are good at looking sexy when getting killed and oh yeah, specialise in looking scared and sexy and getting killed all at the same time (unless there’s a handy man around to save them that is). And despite the fact that there’s apparently a cinema in Sweden that has a new rating awarded to films that pass the Bechdel Test, it’s actually getting worse. There are fewer films with female leads now than there were in 2002, with only 12% of the top 100 films of 2014 having a strong central female character. Unless the aliens were as backward and sexist as Hollywood film producers then I don’t think they’d be particularly impressed when they realised they’d been conned into seeing women as perpetual objects, earning their place in the story only by virtue of their relationship to the male leads.
Film and TV are important because they are such a massive influence over our lives. They represent reality but they also contribute to the social construction of reality and gender is an essential part of this. I find myself continually telling my kids about the amazing things that women have done in real life because the mainstream media simply doesn’t care. Have you ever heard of Rosie Swale-Pope or Lynn Hill? No? Well the first one ran around the entire world, would you believe, and Lynn Hill kicked butt by being the first person to free climb an infamously difficult route on El Capitan. I want both my son and my daughter to know about these women because they are increasingly invisible. I do not recognise the portrayal of women in film because the women I know run marathons, climb mountains, start businesses and exist beyond their relationships with men. Some of them do extraordinary things, but all of them also just get on with the very ordinary business of living, and film-makers ignore them too.
It is for this reason, that HBO offerings Orange is the New Black (OITNB) and Girls have been such a refreshing breath of fresh air. I can honestly say that OITNB features one of the few representations of butch lesbianism that I have ever seen on the telly and it is brilliant in its diversity. Both shows are concerned with what it means to be a woman and neither is afraid to pull punches. It turns out that women don’t just stand around looking beautiful but they are funny and clever and devious and disgusting too. A bit like men in fact, and a bit like the women I know in real life.