Wordless “conversations” and the Bechdel test

There was a link the other day (from a non-public Facebook post) to a blog post about Pacific Rim and visual storytelling. (Btw, that post contains spoilers for the movie, which I haven't seen yet. My post here doesn't contain spoilers for any of the movies I'm mentioning, but some of the things I'm linking to do contain spoilers.) One of the things the article suggests is that the character development for one of the female characters “is actually almost entirely visual in nature” (as opposed to her having a lot of lines of dialogue); it also says “Counting the number of lines a character gets is... well, kind of a bizarre standard, because it utterly divorces the actual content of those lines from their quantity.”

I'm not sure what the author intended with that latter line, but I took it as (among other things) a complaint about the Bechdel test. And a different blogger wrote more directly about why Pacific Rim is worth seeing despite not passing the Bechdel test.

I'll grant that there are movies in which characters are delineated clearly in nonverbal ways; for example, in a phone conversation about this, Mary Anne mentioned “strong, silent” male characters. It's been a while since I've seen a Clint Eastwood or John Wayne Western, but I suspect a lot of their character development was nonverbal.

So I think the idea is an interesting one. But I don't think that it substantially undermines the Bechdel test (note: nobody said it did; I'm just musing here), because in most movies that fail that test, superb nonverbal character development is not what's going on.

But of course, as many people have said, the Bechdel test is not The Perfect Test For Feminism. It's a rough rule of thumb; it's a handy shorthand; it's a useful reminder. It's also a pretty low standard, which makes it all the more remarkable that so few movies pass it. That doesn't mean that all movies that pass it are feminist and/or good, nor that all movies that fail it are sexist and/or bad. It's a starting point for discussion and analysis, not the final word.

The second abovelinked blogger covers all that in their followup post; I agree with them, and I don't think there's anything wrong with saying (I'm paraphrasing) “the Bechdel test is a useful tool in looking at movies in general, but this particular movie, which unfortunately fails that test, has a lot of good feminist stuff going for it.”

(For more on a similar theme, though not about Pacific Rim, see Hypothetical movie scenes that would not pass the Bechdel test as written.)

Anyway, the Pacific Rim discussions seemed relevant (or at least semi-relevant) to a few other things I've run into recently:

1. I recently saw Man of Steel, and although it had huge flaws, one of the things I really liked about it was how many women featured prominently—something like six or eight of them, most of them with names and spoken dialogue. And yet, it either barely passes or doesn't pass, depending on your interpretation. Here again, I'm absolutely not saying we should therefore ignore the Bechdel test; I'm saying that I wish the movie had taken that one little further step (it just would've taken one line of dialogue in this case) to have a clear pass, and I wish it had then taken a few other little steps to be more feminist in various ways. But the reason I'm bringing this up in this post is that I found Faora to be one of the most potentially interesting women in the movie, and yet she didn't get much dialogue and we didn't find out much about her motivations or backstory. Which I found disappointing.

(Edited to add: I forgot to say the main relevant thing I meant to say about this movie, which is that Faora has a couple of nonverbal or partly-nonverbal interactions with Lois, which don't pass because they're not talking, but that are nonetheless interesting.)

2. I recently saw The Dark Knight Rises, and it too either barely passes or doesn't pass the Bechdel test, depending on whether Selina's sidekick Jen is named in the movie. (And btw, apparently the character Jen is based on, Holly Robinson, is an out lesbian in the comics; she certainly seemed mighty snuggly with Selina in the movie in that one scene.) (I was surprised they changed her name, but since to me the name “Holly Robinson” refers primarily to the actress from 21 Jump Street, I suppose it was just as well.)

Anyway, Dark Knight Rises had only two major female characters, but they were both really prominent, and Selina was my favorite character in the movie. And I liked that there were a couple of women mixed in with the men in the background, specifically that there were at least two female cops in the big crowd of cops. I mean, that's a ridiculously low standard too—wait, there were three thousand cops, and only two of them were female?—but, y'know, this is Hollywood, I have low standards for this kind of thing. Baby steps.

3. I recently saw Red Tails (been seeing a lot of movies lately). It had three female characters, but one of them was only a voice on the radio (Axis Mary). The other two were an Italian woman (her name is Sofia, but it might as well be The Love Interest) and her mother. And what I found interesting about it is that they speak to other only in Italian, and the movie doesn't provide translations, and I couldn't find translations online. So I think the only way to determine whether this movie strictly passes the Bechdel test is to understand spoken Italian, which I don't. It's been pointed out that in the test variant in which the characters in question have to be named, it fails, because the mother is listed in the credits as “Sofia's mother.” But for all I know, she calls her mother by name in Italian.

But that's all just an interesting intellectual exercise, because (a) from a non-Italian-speaker perspective, the movie is a clear Bechdel-test fail, and (b) even if it does turn out to be a technical pass in Italian, the movie is overwhelmingly male-focused in every other way.

4. I saw a trailer for the forthcoming Smurfs 2 movie. It looked terrible (though I was momentarily charmed by the presence of Neil Patrick Harris), and I have no interest in Smurfs; I won't be seeing the movie. But not only does it pass the Bechdel test, it does so in the trailer. Twice. Which is a whole lot more than I can say for most movies.

(Various people responded to my tweeting and Facebooking that by pointing out that there's only one female Smurf. True, but in the new movie, apparently the bad guy has created (?) a new group of non-blue quasi-Smurfs, and one of them is female, and she and Smurfette interact. Also, there appears to be a human woman in the movie.)

Doesn't mean we should all rush out and see Smurfs 2. But maybe we can say to Hollywood things like “Yo, Hollywood! If even THE SMURFS can pass the Bechdel test, maybe you should get on the ball and have that happen in more of your movies!”

5. Last night, Kam and I rewatched an early episode of Alias. It introduced a new character, a female enemy agent named Anna, played by Gina Torres (who's excellent as always). I spent a while in the first third of the episode (while Sydney has a long conversation with her best female friend, in which they talk entirely about the friend's boyfriend, the friend's father, and Sydney's father), thinking fondly of Nikita, which has a head start on passing the test because it includes several major female characters who are in the same line of work. But then there were two scenes in which Sydney and Anna fight each other. And the Pacific Rim thing came to mind—those two fight scenes did not pass the Bechdel test, and that's unfortunate, but it was nonetheless an interesting interaction between two tough super-competent women, just a nonverbal interaction. Is a fight a kind of communication?

Later on, the episode did achieve a technical pass, with a couple of lines of dialogue between Sydney and Anna. And once again, I'm absolutely not saying “We should loosen up the Bechdel test to make it even easier to pass, 'cause it's not already a low enough bar!” But I do think (as do many others; this obviously isn't original to me) that it's interesting to look at some of the variations, and especially to look at ways that female characters can be developed without dialogue. And, of course, at ways in which choosing to develop female characters without dialogue, while giving dialogue to the male characters, can reinforce the problems.

(PS: It's worth mentioning that there are several different interpretations of what exactly the Bechdel test says. In my interpretation of the original test, the women don't have to be alone in a room without any men when they talk with each other, and they don't have to have names; but there are plenty of other valid interpretations.)

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