The Bechdel Test for Your Faith July 31, 2010

The Bechdel Test for Your Faith

You may have heard of the Bechdel Test for Women in Movies — it measures the “active presence of female characters in Hollywood films and just how well rounded and complete those roles are.”

For a movie to pass this test, it has to have:

(1) two or more female characters;
(2) who talk to each other;
(3) about something other than a man.

Many movies don’t pass this test. If it does, it doesn’t mean it’s a “feminist” movie, but it’s one way to measure underlying sexism in the industry.

Of course, when you think of sexism, you also think of religion.

Adam Lee has come up with the Bechdel Test for Religion:

… I think it’s worth creating a similar test for religion, to help believers notice sexism in their churches they might not have noticed. My suggestion is as follows. For a religion to pass this test, it has to have:

(1) at least one woman in a position of authority;
(2) who plays a formal, recognized role in shaping doctrine or practice;
(3) that is binding on male members of that religion.

If a religion categorically excludes women from all positions of authority, it fails. If it gives women positions of authority, but only so that they can teach and pass on doctrine created by men, it fails. If it permits women to create doctrine, but doctrine that’s only applicable to other women, it fails.

As with the Bechdel test, the mere fact that a religion passes this test doesn’t mean that it’s a feminist or egalitarian religion. It could still be appallingly sexist. It could still have rules that treat women as inferior to men. And it could still be harmful in any number of other ways. But I would argue that this test is the bare minimum — the first necessary, but not sufficient, step for any religion to genuinely treat women as equals.

I think we can even loosen those restrictions about shaping doctrine and let it apply to individual churches, too.

Would your (former) church pass this test?

How about your entire (former) faith?

How about your current atheist group, if you are part of one?

Or are they all boys-only clubs?


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  • jemand

    well, as far as I know, I can’t think of an atheist group which has 1) an authoritative member who 2) shapes doctrine and practice which 3) is binding in *any* way on *any* other member of the group lol.

    So perhaps we need a different measure for that.

  • As a former Catholic, excuse me for a moment while I:

    AAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…ha…ha…ha…

    Thank you.

  • hn

    apart from the fact that patriarchy really doesn’t need religion to persist — why bother? being sexist is really the least of religion’s problems…

  • The United Church of Canada, where I am currently attending, is definitely not an all-boys club. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are the only denomination, at least in Canada, that has a female majority in its leadership though (I don’t know the numbers but I bet it does from my experience), so I really like this test. Of course churches whose doctrine says that women are not allowed to lead wouldn’t bother listening to it, but I may find this useful to those which are claiming egalitarianism but still have a lot of sexism going on in practice.

  • Deiloh

    My atheist groups are online. I have equal opportunity to contribute to the comments, participate in male and female blogs, can set up my own blog if I really want to. I guess that is a pass for the atheist internets.

    As far as my previous church and religion. FAIL. A woman cannot be a leader unless in an all female group or with children. Even then there are restrictions.

  • Well I’m not a part of any atheist groups at the moment, but my former faith (Mormonism) certainly fails spectacularly.

  • Dave B.

    Catholicism would pass, if nuns running a classroom full of boys at a Catholic school count.

  • littlejohn

    Say buh-bye, Catholics, Mormoms and Muslims. You all fail.

  • <3 & Muah ^_^

  • Jim

    How about the Atheism Test: When watching a movie, ask yourself:

    a) Are there two or more atheists?
    b) Do they talk to each other?
    c) About more than atheism/religion?

    I bet a huge percentage of movies fail this test.

  • @Jim: The problem with that test is twofold: First of all, atheists are a minority of the population, unlike women who are in fact a slim majority. Secondly, you can’t always tell for sure whether someone is an atheist within a movie. If you don’t know the religion of two people who talk to each, you can’t know for sure whether it passes or not.

  • Vas

    So… does this video pass the test? It’s hard for me to tell as all I heard was some nameless disgruntled chick saying, “quack quack quack”.
    Maybe instead of complaining she should think about making a movie or at least a video where the chick has a name and does not spend most of the video talking about dudes.

    But seriously Bechdel’s cartoons pass my test of good comicbook art…

    1) Is it created by a single person?

    2) Does it have something to say?

    3) Does it lack the comic code authority seal?

    I am tempted to also ask if it lacks super heros, but that would eliminate Wonder Warthog and we can’t discount the Hog of Steel!
    Quack quack quack.

  • Mr Z

    Wait, wut? There are atheist groups? Seriously? I became and remain an atheist on my own. If there was a local group I could socialize with I’d welcome women being active and cornerstone components of such a social group.

    I don’t need a religion, but it is always nice to socialize with folk who are not going to ‘head-asplode’ if you mention you don’t believe in magic sky daddies. I’ve had that happen and it’s not only embarrassing, but downright upsetting.

    I’d really like to find a like-minded group to socialize with, and if it has women all the better. I’m kind of lazy. I like to help out, but if there are women that want to organize and do ‘stuff’ … well, I’m in. Don’t get me wrong, if there are ‘people’ that want to organize and do ‘stuff’ I’m in, I don’t really care what their sex or sexual orientation is.

    I guess I live in an atheist desert of some sort. If there are any women or men in N.Texas that want a new member for their “group” let me know.

  • Greg

    ::wonders if 101 Dalmatians passes the Bechdel Test::

    I haven’t got much time, I’m afraid, for blanket claims about ‘omissions’ like this.

    Take for example some of the films that don’t pass the ‘Bechdel Test’. You know. Action films. With very few conversations, full stop. And with many more men than women starring simply because the physical characteristics of each gender lend more men than women to the roles in reality just as much as in the film. You can’t seriously call them sexist as a result!

    Incidentally – Pride and Prejudice, the Jane Austen book, and the T.V. series that have been made from it probably wouldn’t pass a reverse Bechdel Test. (I’m not counting the film because there were so many changes I didn’t want to see it)(And yes, I’m a guy and I like Jane Austen books, don’t look at me like that.) But it’s not because they are sexist against men, it’s because the story could not be told in such a manner that they would.

    The problem with this sort of ‘test’ is that they really only have any kind of use when applied to statistical analysis of large groups of films (or churches). Applied to solitary items they are meaningless, because there are too many perfectly reasonable excuses that can be given.

    As an example of churches – is it a church’s fault if the most suitable people to fill hierarchical positions all happen to be the same gender? Simple statistics will dictate that that will happen somewhere, and probably not all that rarely. Now, if you take a large number of churches you’ll get some valid info.

    It’s like flipping a coin twice and noting the results, and flipping it a thousand times.

  • Shannon

    “Action films. . . And with many more men than women starring simply because the physical characteristics of each gender lend more men than women to the roles in reality just as much as in the film. You can’t seriously call them sexist as a result!”

    Action films are not reality. Even the ones based on real stories, let alone the sci-fi and action adventure ones. We all know the actors are not really doing what we see. The stuntmen (and women) aren’t even doing it all. They are doing one stunt at a time with long breaks in between shooting, edited together to look like they are olympic gods or something. There is no reason whatsoever that you need men to do these movies over women. Yet, for some reason, almost all of the women in action films are there for eye candy and for the man to rescue. Yes, it’s sexist.

  • john locke

    Jim, I can’t think of any movies that fail that. All the shows I know with 2 or more open atheists have them talk about more than just religion, IE House and Firefly,.

  • Greg

    Action films are not reality. Even the ones based on real stories, let alone the sci-fi and action adventure ones. We all know the actors are not really doing what we see. The stuntmen (and women) aren’t even doing it all. They are doing one stunt at a time with long breaks in between shooting, edited together to look like they are olympic gods or something. There is no reason whatsoever that you need men to do these movies over women. Yet, for some reason, almost all of the women in action films are there for eye candy and for the man to rescue. Yes, it’s sexist.

    First, of course the action films aren’t reality. Nor are romance films for that matter. But that is utterly irrelevant. In order to tell a story you have to make it as realistic as possible (and that includes the medium of books, and the genre of fantasy/sci fi). It’s basic story telling – you can’t draw someone into your tale if they can’t believe what is happening. What you claim is unnecessary is actually the most important thing of all!

    You don’t get a huge number of action heroines (although you certainly get some – and these films would still fail the test) because they are less believable, and as a result, they don’t grasp the audience’s interest. It really is as simple as that. As for the comment on the woman being saved by the man – has it ever struck you just how often it is the hero’s spouse in danger? But also, most action films tend to be about saving the world rather than saving a woman. I can’t actually think of all that many which involve saving the woman. A couple of the Die Hard films – perhaps, but it wouldn’t have worked any way.

    I’m all for equality when it comes to any subject I can think of – it’s a major part of how I get my morals, actually, but what things should be has no bearing on what actually is. And what actually is, is the most important thing when trying to tell a story.

    (And if you compare professional athletes of both gender, you will find that men are stronger and faster than woman, so if you wish equality, then in fields that require those attributes men should be of a greater proportion than women. That way they are being chosen on ability rather than sexism. In a similar note, I think there would be a far better argument for sexism if there weren’t a majority of action heroes compared to action heroines. Positive discrimination is still discrimination.)

    It’s not sexist – just like the Pride and Prejudice example I mentioned above isn’t sexist. Just like Sex in the City, or any other films I consider to be trash (:P) aren’t sexist just because they centre around a female. It’s only sexist when it is an unfair reflection on reality.

    Speaking of Pride and Prejudice – do you consider it racist because the stars are all white Caucasians? No? Good. It’s very similar reasoning.

    (And if anyone tries to call me sexist on the basis of what I have just written, then I’m going to ask you to reread it. Or if I’m feeling grumpy just call strawman.)

  • Claudia

    I think I read somewhere that the two women had to have names. Otherwise, lots of films with wives speaking to eachother about kids before actually cutting to the “real” characters would pass.

    I’ve gone through a fair number of movies in my head and am becoming increasingly irritated by how few movies pass muster.

    There are some interesting stats here. Encouragingly, the number of movies passing the test is going up sharply. However I think we need to see the data on the reverse test, with named men who talk to eachother about something other than women. I’m guessing that its damned close to 100%

  • Nordog

    Yeah, but for an atheist, any church is a “fail” regardless of the role of women.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    In order to tell a story you have to make it as realistic as possible

    Not really. There are a lot of breaks from reality that audiences are willing to accept, especially in action movies: showy martial arts moves, protagonists who are practically made of iron, explosions that don’t bust the eardrums of the people standing near them, etc. Genre conventions allow for suspension of disbelief, especially if it makes for a more exciting spectacle on screen.

    You don’t get a huge number of action heroines (although you certainly get some – and these films would still fail the test) because they are less believable

    That depends a lot on the style of heroine. A martial arts heroine doesn’t need to rely on brute strength, and that goes double in, say, a wire-fu flick. About the same goes for an action movie that is heavy on gunplay rather than fist fights. Come to think of it, action movies in general hardly need to rely on brute strength at all.

    About the only other thing I can think of that would make an action heroine less believable than an action hero is the idea that women are mentally less aggressive than men, but that idea is itself fairly dodgy.

  • Grimalkin

    My former church? No. I was a Quaker, so we had no formally recognized leaders. We had a Meeting House caretaker who was male, but he had no authority beyond “I think the roof needs to be re-shingled this year.” We also had elders, but they were just the old people of the congregation – male and female – and that was more of an advisory position than a leadership one.

    In my Atheist organization, we do pass! Not with flying colours, but we do pass. Out of ten people on the board, only two are women – but one of those women is the president. We’ve talked about sexism in the atheist movement at some of our meetings and most women I’ve talked to have agreed that:

    1) This group is better than any religious group we’ve previously been a part of…
    2) But still not perfect.
    3) We resisted coming to a meeting for a long time for fear that the group would be as sexist and male-dominated as many Atheist online communities are.
    4) We were pleasantly surprised…
    5) But still don’t feel totally at ease.
    6) This is mainly because we are still hugely out-numbered at meetings (see point 3), and often feel that male members talk over us or shout us down when we disagree.

    I think it’s telling that when some males joined the conversation and we explained what we had been talking about, we were told that we were being “silly” because there are many women in the group, the president is a woman, and the group actively advocates feminism.

    Yes, that’s right – we were told that our experiences as women were “silly”… by men… who obviously knew much better than we did… which is proof that sexism is absent from the group…

    I wasn’t entirely pleased.

  • Hitch

    Grimalkin, that’s a great point. Definitely a lot of listening to be had.

  • Robin

    Thinking of Jane Austen books made into movies, there are many male characters, with relationships to each other, who talk, and not necessarily about women. They talk about hunting, money, horses, manners, business. . . It depends on the book in question, but you’ll find it in all of them. Actually, you find it in most romances, because a male character is not attractive unless you portray him as high-status, and that requires showing his relationships with other men. Hmmmm.

  • Dan W

    Somehow I suspect that, just like most movies fail the original Bechdel Test, most religions will fail the Bechdel Test for Religion.

  • Erp

    For the test for the religion it might matter whether it applies to the local group or to a denomination.

    In the US, I would guess Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, United Church of Christ (UCC), Episcopal (but with some holdout dioceses), Reform Judaism, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Methodists, American Baptists, African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) fit the requirements in that women are allowed, I think, in all roles. Both the UCC, AME, and the Episcopal Church have had women heading the denomination.[1] However individual churches or synagogues may act differently and the feel of a given denomination may not yet be egalitarian.

    [1] Episcopal – Katharine Jefferts Schori, elected in 2006 for a 9 year term
    AME – Vashti Murphy McKenzie – served in 2005 (head rotates annually among bishops)

  • Rob

    I attended a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation in my childhood. The denomination passes the test. I’m happy to hear that the PC is going to start giving homosexuals the same treatment as well.

    I guess I’m one of those odd atheists who actually grew up with a mostly positive impression of Christianity. I still regard the PC fondly for its support of social justice and public education. My split was strictly over theism–I just couldn’t stand the cognitive dissonance caused by believing in the supernatural.

  • Aj

    The Bechtal Test doesn’t measure sexism. This isn’t “feminism” it’s chauvinism (watch the other videos by this woman). A few times Hemant has wrongly suggested that proportional representation is equivalent to equality. That’s uniformity not equality. Equality is about freedom and rights. It’s stuff like this that makes people associate feminism with stupidity and delusion. Adam Lee’s test actually involves looking at sexism.

    There are a few reasons I can think of for why so few movies pass the test:

    1. The vast majority of screenwriters are men (at least for the hundreds of movies I’ve seen), they write from a male perspective because they’re lazy and they’re better at it.
    2. Movies reflect history and experience.
    3. Movie production is run by males, they pick movies they like.
    4. There’s a film making culture that was created and continued by males.

    All these reasons are not sexism, they may have resulted from sexism, but they’re not sexist in themselves. I’m not even saying there isn’t plenty of sexist sentiment in movies. Are these four reasons problems that have to be dealt with? No. If other areas of culture were dominated by women would I think it was a problem? No, because I’m not a chauvinist. I think barriers to women creating their own film making culture and being represented in the industry is not further understood by this test, which says nothing about sexism, or problems.

    This test is interesting though. 40% of my top 199 favourite movies pass the test, and I didn’t even notice. Quite a few of my favourite movies have female main protagonists (many title characters), and surprisingly many fail the test. Although I didn’t notice when the reverse was true either. I wonder about other mediums. I don’t watch much drama on television. I have 12 favourite shows, most are cancelled now, 5 out of them have females as the main protagonists, 9 of them would pass the test in most episodes, although the casts are still dominated by men.

  • Ah Greg, you big mansplainer you.

    *Pats you on the back*

    http://scienceblogs.com/thusspakezuska/2010/01/you_may_be_a_mansplainer_if.php

    And yes, it IS sexist, no matter how hard you try and splain it away, just as the church hierarchy is sexist and in many (most?) cases misogynistic too. Doesn’t matter how many times you try and explain it to the vag-bearers, it doesn’t change the nature of reality hun.

  • Greg

    ::rolls his eyes at Her Idealisticness::

    I’m tempted not to bother saying anything, but I will just say this:

    It must be easy when if someone disagrees with you you can just call them names and ignore what they say.

    Hang on, I will say a bit more on the subject – you know what really bugs me about that?

    It’s that I am not saying there is no sexism in films/books/tv/whatever. What I am saying is that there are certain genres of films where it really is not fair to apply this test to, and also that it only works when you take large sample sizes, because there are valid reasons that individual films might fail the test and yet it would still be ridiculous to call them sexist.

    That is the problem when you are trying to judge someone or something by what they don’t do, rather than what they do do.

    Is it truly that hard to understand that someone is capable of holding a position, and yet is willing to call foul when an argument supporting that position doesn’t work?

    Anyway, turning to those people who are willing to actually discuss the subject rather than just name call…

    J. J. Ramsey,

    Not really. There are a lot of breaks from reality that audiences are willing to accept, especially in action movies: showy martial arts moves, protagonists who are practically made of iron, explosions that don’t bust the eardrums of the people standing near them, etc. Genre conventions allow for suspension of disbelief, especially if it makes for a more exciting spectacle on screen.

    Perhaps I didn’t explain myself well enough. I’m not saying that there can be no breaks with reality. What I am saying is that the audience must be able to accept the general premises as believable – once you have fulfilled certain criteria (that, for example, the protagonist is incredibly athletic) you can stretch believability a bit, because they are willing to run with it (e.g. the protagonist jumping on top of a moving vehicle, hanging on, and then kicking through the passenger window).

    Just to illustrate what I am saying away from anything to do with gender. Would a skinny, wimpy kid with glasses, acne, etc. work as well as a bodybuilder in the prime of his life when it comes to an action hero. The answer is a resounding no. Why? Because the audience do not associate the former with being (capable of being) an action hero. For them, it is less believable. It truly is as simple as that.

    By the way, if you want to change that belief that audiences have, you don’t do it by alterations in the films, you do it with alterations in real life. It’s like killing the roots of weeds, rather than just the leaves.

    Robin,

    Thinking of Jane Austen books made into movies, there are many male characters, with relationships to each other, who talk, and not necessarily about women. They talk about hunting, money, horses, manners, business. . . It depends on the book in question, but you’ll find it in all of them. Actually, you find it in most romances, because a male character is not attractive unless you portray him as high-status, and that requires showing his relationships with other men. Hmmmm.

    What you have to remember is that Jane Austen books as a rule are all told from the point of view of the female lead. Pride and Prejudice – apart from a very few chapters at the beginning involving Mr and Mrs Bennett talking – is entirely told from the point of view of Elizabeth. Emma is almost entirely told from the point of view of Emma Woodhouse. As a result, the male characters aren’t just talking to each other. To take P&P again, there are plenty of examples of conversation in Netherfield between Elizabeth Bennett, Mr Bingley, and Mr Darcy, that develop the male characters, but they aren’t conversations between just men.
    Now it strikes me that perhaps I am wrongly taking the word ‘conversation’ as meaning more than a couple of sentences, and talking to each other as meaning a conversation between just the two of them (rather than Elizabeth, Mr Darcy, and Mr Bingley for example), but I do that because otherwise I doubt you’d find many films at all that fail to pass it. (At least, apart from films like Sleuth which have just 2 characters, or action films which have virtually no dialogue)

    I mean, unless you demand the conversation to have some length and meaning, even Die Hard 2 – one of the archetypical action films – would not fail the test, because of the conversations in the aeroplane as regarding why they aren’t landing.

    Incidentally, I agree with AJ.

  • Nerdette

    My local Secular Humanists chapter passes! We have a woman leading the group that many men turn to for advice and confirmation on facts.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Greg:

    Would a skinny, wimpy kid with glasses, acne, etc. work as well as a bodybuilder in the prime of his life when it comes to an action hero. The answer is a resounding no.

    But comparing a “wimpy kid” to a woman is unfair, especially since we do have examples of women being badass on-screen in action movies.

  • Robin

    It is true that, in Austen’s books, we are often only told about the conversations that male characters are having. We may be told that Darcy and Mr. Gardiner are discussing fishing (for example) although the conversation is not spelled out. When the books are made into movies, conversations do take place. So this may not count. Does only being aware that characters are having conversations, and knowing the topic count?

  • Robin

    Also, the films wouldn’t have to have just more than two characters. They would have to have more one female character who participated in a conversation with the other female character and the male characters. Actually, I don’t know if it meets the criteria, but I would count that. And I bet you would still have many films fail.

  • Greg

    J. J. Ramsey

    But comparing a “wimpy kid” to a woman is unfair, especially since we do have examples of women being badass on-screen in action movies.

    You’ve completely and utterly missed the point I was making.

    I wasn’t comparing a wimpy kid to a woman – I was attempting to explain why it is important that the audience believes that the main character can do the things the main character does.

    The reason why the audience doesn’t believe (in the wimp or the woman) is wholly unimportant – all that is important is that there is a difficulty in believing.

    Now, you can say that it is wrong that an audience holds this belief if you like, but right or wrong that has nothing to do with what I am saying. My argument isn’t concerned with what should be, but rather what is the case. It isn’t sexist to write for the needs of your audience.

    Anyway, when you look at proportions of male and female police officers, say, or army recruits, and the afore mentioned examples of male and female athletes, you can’t say that it isn’t the case in reality that men are more likely to fill these roles. Once you admit that, you can’t in good conscience complain when authors/script writers in fact cast a man in this role.

    If you like, put what I’m saying like this:

    If it is far more likely for one gender to fill any given vocation in reality, then it is not sexist to have someone of that gender filling the role in a story about that vocation.

    Incidentally, given that one of the points (rather central to what I am saying, too) I made originally has gone utterly ignored by people replying to me, I’d like to restate it a bit more clearly, so that there is a fair representation of my position.

    The criteria for the Bechdel Test do not apply equally to all genres of film. Given that conversation is vital to two of the three criteria, any genre in which conversation is common (e.g. romance or comedy) is far more likely to meet the criteria than one in which conversation is not common (e.g. action or horror). Hence, the Bechdel Test is not a fair test for films as a whole. (i.e. it favours one type of film to another)

  • Greg

    Robin, Re: the referral to conversations. As far as I can make sense of the Bechdel Test referrals couldn’t count – otherwise suddenly even the slightest comment would have to count. (E.g. woman A was at the house of woman B earlier in the day. Or even… woman A was at work earlier in the day.)

    When it comes to the series adaptations of P&P at least, I would be willing to bet that in the 6(?) hours of it any male – male conversation are virtually nil (although I can think of some in reference to a woman(!!)). There’s the occasional moment like the 10 – 15 second interaction between Darcy and Bingley about whether or not he should rent Netherfield, but calling it a conversation would be a stretch to say the least. (I happen to be one of those people who likes re-watching films and rereading books – call it comfort fare! ;))

    I’m not entirely sure what you mean with the second message. If it’s in reference to a film that only has two characters, then when I mentioned Sleuth, all I meant was that as there were only two characters in it, it seems to be rather trivial that it fails the Bechdel test, and that that fact alone does not allow one to claim that it is sexist.

    (Along the same lines, I’m guessing that these animal films where a few or more dogs/cats/whatever travel from one end of the country to another also fail the Bechdel test (and the ‘inverse’ Bechdel Test!! :D) ;))

  • Nordog

    A movie written by a woman, with an all woman cast talking about the men they love would fail this test.

    Seem the Bechdel Test for film is less a test about feminist compliance in film than about lesbian compliance. Well, unless Bechdel considers lesbianism a requirement for feminism (some feminists do).

  • Shannon

    Greg I’ve read all your comments and I’m still finding myself disagreeing with you. I think the reason we have more films with men is because Hollywood in general is skewed toward straight (the character at least – they don’t care if the actor is or not) white men. That’s just the way it is. It has nothing to do with whether or not a female action adventure hero is believable or not. AJ says that’s not sexist but I think inherent sexism is still sexism.

    Your skinny kid example immediately made me think of Spiderman. And there are also plenty of average men (like Indiana Jones) who do unbelievable stunts that the average man simply could not do. We believe Spiderman because of the backstory. We believe Indiana Jones because . . . I don’t know. It’s not believable, and there’s no backstory as to why he should be able to do what he does, but but we (audiences in general) go with it anyway.

    (By the way, I’m not knocking Indy in any way! Just using him as an example.)

    How about the Aliens trilogy? No way would I (or your average man or average woman) be able to survive what she did, but despite that and despite her being a woman, the movies seem to have done pretty good.

    For whatever reason, tv seems to be better when it comes to female action adventure heroes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, Firefly. Mostly sci-fi. But why can’t that translate to the big screen?

    I’m rambling now, sorry. I just don’t agree that action heroes have to be realistic (they rarely are) to sell. And I also don’t think it’s realistic to think the average man could do most of what they do. So if you have to come up with some sort of backstory for the man to be so adept, why can’t a backstory work for a woman? I guess that’s my point and that’s why I think it’s just sexism at work.

    For Pride & Prejudice by the way, I haven’t seen the recent movie, but have seen the BBC miniseries and read the book. There were a number of times when men talked to each other about something other than a woman. Finances, where to live, fishing (Mr. Darcy and the uncle), how to find Mr. Wickham and save Lydia (which was about honor, not romance). I guess it does depend on what you mean by “conversation” but I would certainly count a few lines as long as it was more than “please pass the sugar” or something equally insignificant.

    It also depends on what you mean by #3 in the test. I took it to mean “a man” as in romance and love. Correct me if you think I’m wrong in that, but I don’t think it meant that if the two women were planning to (for example) rescue a male hostage from terrorists, they are now off the Bechdel list. So in that regard, I think talking about finding Lydia would count but if you don’t agree, just strike that one.

    As to whether I think P&P is racist – here’s my opinion. No, if you’re looking at it in a bubble, no it’s not. But if the only movies that get filmed are ones like P&P that have entirely white casts then yes, there is racism going on. The film studios say that straight white men sell. They say that black men don’t, white women don’t, lesbian Chinese women don’t. And yes, I do think there’s something wrong in there.

  • Greg

    Shannon – thanks for the thoughtful response! 🙂

    By the way…

    I’m rambling now, sorry.

    I think I’m one of the last people you would have to make that apology to! 😀 I keep thinking of ways I think might help explain my point of view, and end up going on far longer than I should do. :-$ Apologies in advance, btw. 😉

    Hopefully I can at least make my position a bit clearer here, I guess I’ll try not to post again unless I have anything more to add.

    First off, to make sure everyone knows what I am and am not saying – I am not saying that there is no sexism in films. I am not saying there is no sexism in real life. I am not saying that woman should not be in action films. I am not saying that woman are incapable of doing the same things a man can. I am not saying anything like that whatsoever.

    What I am saying is that I do not consider the Bechdel Test to have anything useful to say about individual films, although it may have something to say about large numbers of films. I am also saying that I do not consider it to be a fair test to apply to all genres of films. And, finally, I am saying that if the cast for a film mimics the gender make-up of a similar setting in real life, that it is wrong to claim it is sexist (although not necessarily that real life situation).

    I think people are getting bogged down with the word ‘realism’, here. When I used it, I meant little more than being relevant to real life, or giving the audience a common frame of reference. Once you’ve done that you can ask the audience to suspend disbelief, and, as long as you don’t do anything too ridiculous, you’ll generally be okay. You mentioned Spiderman – that is exactly the kind of thing I mean here, through the radioactive bite, you’ve given them a reason to accept something they might not otherwise believe. (And, as an aside, superhero films and comics (at least the ones that involve mutation etc) tend to have a pretty good proportion of heroines, which kind of backs up my point – you’ve given them a reason to suspend disbelief.)

    The Alien trilogy, also, used techniques to aid you in suspending your belief – again the fact that it is fantasy/sci fi really helps here, because the audience is already inclined to believe what you tell them. I would be willing to bet everything I own that there are more heroines in sci fi and fantasy percentage-wise than there are in contemporary action films (war films/police thrillers etc.). This isn’t because science fiction or fantasy writers are less sexist, it’s because it is easier to sell it to the audience. (Incidentally, I know plenty of men that drool over sexy action heroines in tight clothing, so it’s not as if there isn’t a market there… Is that sexist? ;))

    You can call it laziness when an action film introduces a muscle bound hero if you like, but bear in mind that it might take an extra 20 minutes or more of screen time to introduce a similar heroine if it is meant to be set in present day, and there’s no fantasy elements (like radioactive insects!) which do the job nice and swiftly. Think of the heroine action films that are around, and you’ll notice that that kind of long introduction often happens, even in the comic book based ones.

    Incidentally, I think we believe Indy mainly because the film doesn’t take itself seriously – at times it pretty much says: “Yeah, I know this is ridiculous, just run with it for a moment”. (A little like the heroine – whose name escapes me – in the second Mummy film). But Indy is actually a good example of a type of film where a heroine would have been hard to accept – the setting of the day just wouldn’t lend itself to it.

    And I also don’t think it’s realistic to think the average man could do most of what they do. So if you have to come up with some sort of backstory for the man to be so adept, why can’t a backstory work for a woman? I guess that’s my point and that’s why I think it’s just sexism at work.

    Oh yeah, completely, and those films and those backstories exist. But I’m not saying they shouldn’t exist – I think they should, and they do. What you’re saying is that they should exist to an equal degree otherwise it is sexist, and that I can’t agree with. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I think if you look at your fantasy, you’ll see a vastly higher amount of heroines than in other action films, and these are the kind of ‘average’ people that need a backstory.

    However, when you come to your – I don’t know – James Bond secret agent films, or Arnie Schwarzenegger films, you are no longer talking about average guys, you’re talking about freakish physical specimens. I am then saying that as men are generally accepted as being more suited for this type of role (in real life), that it is not unreasonable for a man to have the role.

    Having said all this, there is perhaps another thing we are neglecting here, and that is the quality and availability of actresses to play these parts. If that is the case, it is a very real problem with no particular quick fix solution that I can see.

    As for the P&P bit, yeah, it quite likely does depend upon how you define conversation. I think it probably depends upon the conversations in the rest of the film/book, and the way it is presented. (For example in the mini series (and book), when Mr Darcy and Mr Gardner are talking in London about Lydia, then it is actually Mrs Gardner doing most of the talking, and referring to the two men having had a conversation. I wouldn’t consider that a conversation between two men. Similarly, the fishing conversation between Mr Gardner and Mr Darcy is literally a couple of lines and the occasional reference to it taking place, compared to pages of conversation between Lizzy and Jane.) Also, many of the conversations are between two men and 1/2/3/X amount of women. Is that really a conversation between two men? (In a hypothetical police thriller, would it count as a conversation if there are two women on a mainly male team, and they are all discussing how to track down a suspect? My answer would be no.)

    As to whether I think P&P is racist – here’s my opinion. No, if you’re looking at it in a bubble, no it’s not. But if the only movies that get filmed are ones like P&P that have entirely white casts then yes, there is racism going on.

    That’s basically much of what I was getting at. This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been trying to say at times in this thread – it can only ever be useful when taking large groups of films, and not individual ones! 🙂

    (The other thing I was getting at, of course, is that in a period drama like that, you wouldn’t get the multiculturalism that exists today, with different skin colour – indeed, at that precise period in time sun tans were considered bad – and thus you have a perfectly good non-racist reason not to have non white Caucasians in it.)

    The film studios say that straight white men sell. They say that black men don’t, white women don’t, lesbian Chinese women don’t. And yes, I do think there’s something wrong in there.

    Here’s the thing – assuming that this is the view of the film studios – they might very well be right. It may very well be that straight white lead characters do sell. That still doesn’t make them sexist – maybe pragmatists, but not sexist.

    But even were I to drop my claim that it is not sexist if the casting mimics the make up of real life, and you’re right and something is wrong there – it’s still not something wrong with the film makers, it’s something wrong with society. Forcing film makers to change their casting or scripts doesn’t change what sells. The way you change what sells is by persuading the audience to like something else.

  • Hitch

    I’m not sure if film makers really have properly explored what sells. More likely they are just sticking with what they know to be working.

    Film makers are part of society and the industry itself is skewed. It’s largely male executives, male producers and male directors.

    The first ever female directing Oscar last year does say more than enough I think. Incidentally there were almost no females in that movie.

    I agree we shouldn’t make it too simple and accept simple tests as describing it all, but that there are still very significant imbalances, stereotypes and so forth is, I think, really beyond discussion.

  • Aj

    Shannon,

    I think the reason we have more films with men is because Hollywood in general is skewed toward straight (the character at least – they don’t care if the actor is or not) white men. That’s just the way it is. It has nothing to do with whether or not a female action adventure hero is believable or not. AJ says that’s not sexist but I think inherent sexism is still sexism.

    I don’t buy Greg’s argument that female action heroes are less believable, although I agree with a lot of what he has written. I think there maybe some truth in there, as perhaps society reacts differently to female heroes as they react differently to female characters who are smart or sexual, but that’s sexism of society, not the industry. That’s not about believability in their ability to be a hero, I think one of the many reasons is that females are believed to have a different temperament in terms of aggression, will, and reaction to violence. Also female action heroes go against gender roles, something society reacts negatively against.

    I am interested to know why you think the reasons for films being made from a male perspective, with typically masculine themes and desires, is inherently sexist. It seems to me that men making films through their preferences and what’s easier for them is not sexist at all but that’s what gets criticized. Hollywood is full of males, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sexist. Is it wrong for these males to follow their preferences in what movies they create? I guess this suggests women should not follow their preferences.

    Almost all my favourite music artists are women (over 85%) and they sing from a woman’s perspective, often their own but also from characters they create, they also sing a lot about women in many contexts, but only about men as a love interest with a few exceptions. There is absolutely nothing wrong with them expressing themselves in ways they wish, no feminist ever criticizes them for this. If they choose to sing about women or themselves because it’s their preference and it’s easier, there’s nothing sexist in that.

    I dont’ think the Bechdel test measures sexism at all. There’s not one reason why there aren’t many movies that pass, there’s multiple reasons for that including historical and cultural, some of which is a result of sexism (of society or of the past), some of which is sexism in the industry, and other times it’s not about sexism at all. How much is actual sexism from the industry? The Bechdel can’t tell you, but it’s useful for chauvinists who want uniformity under the banner of “diversity”. From “feminists” who complain about anyone expressing themselves in ways different to them or a manner they don’t like. It’s a mockery to suggest identity politics and group-think should be called “diversity”, as they shun freethinking and individuality.

  • billybobbibb

    Atheists don’t fare too well in mainstream movies, either.

    In “Contact”, our atheist protagonist is subjected to fierce interrogation and made to look like a fool for not believing in something “out there”, and ultimately is transported to a sort of “heaven”.

    In “There Will Be Blood”, Daniel Day Lewis’ character turns into a villain in the end after bludgeoning his nemesis, the town preacher, with a bowling pin.

    Can anyone think of a mainstream movie where the atheist actually prevails?

  • Gwenny

    It could still be appallingly sexist.

    :nods: Dianic Wicca comes to mind. 😀

  • Laura

    United Methodists pass. They have women in leadership at all levels, from “bishops to local pastors”.

    http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=1021

  • NorDog

    “Can anyone think of a mainstream movie where the atheist actually prevails?”

    Possibly Burt Monro in “The World’s Fastest Indian”.