It’s not really a secret that there’s a huge problem with women in film. That is to say, the way women are represented, both in front of and behind the scenes of the film industry. I’ll openly admit, I’m one of those people who can watch a film, and not take too much notice of this. I can easily enjoy a film like Transformers: Age of Extinction, despite the fact that the two main female characters are a whining teenage girl, who’s obsessed with an older man (the kind of stereotype that would be more at home in a 90’s sitcom), and a Chinese business owner who does nothing, than beats a bunch of people up in a lift with the kind of martial arts skills she obviously has because… you know… she’s Chinese. Ooooh, that sentence started to well, but quickly descended into an offensive stereotype.
In 2014 alone, the most recent of all the years, there have been some films that have portrayed women in such an antiquated way, that it’s hard to believe they’re coming out in the 21st century. Let’s look at the worst example. The Expendables 3. I will fully confess that once again, I enjoyed this film. The whole point of this franchise is for a bunch of action stars who are past their prime, to get together and blow loads of stuff up. Sounds great! It’s not exactly going to get feminist backing, but it still has its place. Now why couldn’t they just stop there? So, they’re adding a bunch of young actors into the mix? That’s fine. Stop there. One of them is a woman? Great, now please Stallone, stop there. She’s going to be played by Ronda Rousey, Olympic Judo Gold Medalist and pound for pound the number one female MMA fighter in the world? Fantastic choice, this my friend would be a great place to stop. Have her introduction be her beating up a group of men in a nightclub, followed by her saying, in playful way, ‘men’, while she rolls her eyes, only to then repeat the line later on in the film, AND have not one, but two of the films male characters drool over her? Well done, you went too far.
To see that in a film in the year 2014 was shocking, and completely distracted me. Ronda Rousey is a real life badass, who could beat up most of the Expendables cast. Why not show her like that? I am all for getting a more diverse cast in big franchises like the Expendables, but doing it wrong is WORSE than not doing it at all. Making a big deal about the fact that she’s a woman, and not a man, makes it seem like she shouldn’t be on the same level as the rest of the cast, and presents the fact that she is as a novelty.
Let’s have a few more examples. Hercules! Not only did it anger every classicist in existence, but it’s one major female character spent the whole time with her legs, stomach and chest on show, despite the fact that she was in battle for most of the film. I’m no expert, but surely some sort of protection against swords is better than nothing? Once again, not including a female character would’ve been far less offensive than having one represented like this.
What about Maleficent? Whoa! A story about a strong, independent fairy (that’s what she’s called in the opening), who is wronged by a man and takes her revenge? A story about female empowerment? Where do I begin with this one… The female characters are all terrible stereotypes. Maleficent is a ‘strong, independent woman’, who falls so blindly in love after about three days, that when she’s hurt by the man she loves, and has ONE BAD DAY, she becomes the most evil being imaginable. She turns on all of her friends (the woodland creature things), making them bow down and do her bidding, and she puts an irreversible curse on an innocent child. The three fairy characters that raise Aurora are bumbling idiots, incapable of looking after themselves, and Aurora herself is a grinning idiot who falls in love quicker than Maleficent, and has literally no character development apart from that.
The only female character in the whole film that isn’t stupid, falling in love ridiculously fast, or having a tantrum over a man is the queen (Aurora’s mother, whose name I can’t remember being mentioned), who has a baby that’s cursed, and then presumably dies off-screen so we won’t feel bad when Maleficent becomes the surrogate mother to Aurora. What makes Maleficent even worse in the sexism stakes, is that it fails The Bechdel Test. For those that don’t know, The Bechdel Test was designed to support films that represent women well, and call out those that don’t. It has three criteria. 1: the film must have at least two, named, female characters. 2: They must at some point talk to one another. 3: Their conversation must be about something other than a man. But how could Maleficent possibly fail this test? At no point do two named MALE characters talk to each other about anything other than a woman. So just like the Expendables 3, I’m going to call out Maleficent, because doing gender equality wrong is worse than doing it right.
So, The Bechdel Test. What a pile of crap. I appreciate what it’s trying to do, but let’s face it, checking those three boxes isn’t what makes a film equal or even good on a gender equality level. You could have a film about pick up artists ranking women on their appearance, but if it had a scene where Candi and Cyndi talk about makeup, it would pass the test. And what about historical films? Through a lot of periods in history, women didn’t play a big part in major events. That’s not to say that they don’t have interesting stories to be told, but there are entire genres that will struggle to pass The Bechdel Test. War films like Fury (a film about tank operators during World War Two) are always going to have a tough time. I would be surprised to find out that there were any female tank operators during the second World War. What about biopics like Get On Up? A film about James Brown’s life probably isn’t going to have many scenes that don’t feature him, or people talking about him. Or what about a film that focuses almost entirely on one person, like ’71? Even if this person is a woman, minimal conversations mean minimal chance of conversation.
There’s another, bigger reason that The Bechdel Test is flawed. Let’s have a look at some of the films this year that passed it, and some that didn’t. Pass: Transformers: Age of Extinction, I could stop there really. If I Stay, a film about a girl who decides not to die because it would be bad for her boyfriend. Maps to the Stars, a film that features exclusively crazy women. Barbie: The Pearl Princess, I haven’t seen this one, but I looked at its page on The Bechdel Test website and the conversation topics it listed the female characters as having included: going to the palace, magic, and hairdressing. One person also pointed out that this film doesn’t have two named male characters, and therefore shouldn’t have passed. Brick Mansions, I don’t even remember there being any women in this film. Sabotage, where the one female member of the DEA task force is a sex crazed lunatic, and the female police officer is easily seduced by an aged Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And what about some films that didn’t pass? X-men: Days of Future Past, a film with a number of fully realised female characters, and a film that many people on the Bechdel Test’s page pointed out did in fact pass all of these criteria. Edge of Tomorrow, which features a brilliant performance from Emily Blunt who plays a war hero. How to Train Your Dragon 2, a film with two female characters who do what their male counterparts can’t, without falling into parody. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, who’s two main female characters are a scientist and a medical professional, both of which Spider-man relies on heavily for help throughout the film.
The fact is, The Bechdel Test is not really a good indicator of whether a film represents women well or not. Really, we should be able to tell just by watching. For example, look at The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Yes, it has a female lead, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The President leading the rebellion is female. There’s also a female director, something Hollywood doesn’t have enough of. The mother and sister of main character both work as ‘Healers’. But it’s not how much of a role characters play, or what they do that’s so important, it’s the fact that it’s never mentioned that they’re female.
That’s really the only way this problem is going to go away. People need to stop looking at films and asking how much of a role women play, and criticising films that don’t check certain boxes, because that can only lead to shoehorning characters in for the sake of having a woman in there. People need to stop looking at an action film with a female lead and saying ‘isn’t that progressive’, because it’s that thought that turns equality in film into novelty. When it was announced that there was going to be a ‘Women-led Ghostbusters reboot’, any potential positive that could have come from a blockbuster film with an all female cast was lost. By announcing it that way, they presented it as a gimmick. Only when people stop noticing, and quite frankly stop caring which role has gone to who is the problem going to start solving itself.
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