Eithne Shortall is chief arts writer for Sunday Times Ireland. If you missed them, take a look at the Femme Fatigue Archives for more on her methodology and archive of monthly round-ups of female representations on screen for Spooool.ie.
To pass the Bechdel Test: A film must feature two named female characters having a conversation (even a brief exchange) about something other than a man and without a man being present.
Films seen at the cinema in the past month: 9 (including one not-applicable documentary)
Those that passed the Bechdel Test: 4
Bechdel is a brutal game. The odds are never in your favour, and the small victories bittersweet. Boyhood, Some Like It Hot (re-released at the IFI), Guardians of the Galaxy and Joe; those were the four films that passed this month, and in that order. Let’s work our way backwards, shall we? I gave a tick to Joe – the film in which Nicolas Cage tries to ‘do a McConaughey’ by making a film that falls between two of his peer’s recent credibility-redeeming flicks (Killer Joe and Mud) – but with a rueful shake of the head. A film with terribly drawn, rarely vocal female characters (one is literally mute), the scene that allows it to pass features a Madam telling a strung out prostitute to get off the brothel floor and stop pretending to be a dog. Sigh.
Guardians of the Galaxy comes with a qualifier; pass but ass. This is a rating secured by several comic book movies – although the ‘ass’ is more common than the ‘pass’. The Marvel movie passed because two named sisters, played by Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan, discuss betrayal and family ties. However, this glimmer of light was eclipsed on at least 11 occasions by gratuitous shots of Saldana’s leather clad arse. Any scene in which they could have her ‘observing’ was taken advantage of. For the men, we’ll shoot from behind their backs; for the women, lets drop the camera a few inches. It was the same story with Scarlett Johannsson in the recent Captain America film. Sigh, sigh.
There was little victory in Some Like It Hot, which featured a quick two line exchange about a party. Released in 1959, it only served as a reminder for how little has changed, and if anything it’s getting worse. It brought to mind Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”, a book written a decade earlier and which laments the pathetic state of gender equality – another work that unfortunately has not dated. The book came to mind particularly in relation to Boyhood, and I wrote about it recently in the Sunday Times.
Boyhood passes the Bechdel Test for an exchange between Samantha, Lorelei Linklater’s sister character, and her named friend. However, the film reminded me of de Beauvoir’s assertion that the female is always “the other”. While the male encapsulates us all – hence Boyhood doesn’t sound too far from the more universal title of ‘Childhood’ – a film called ‘Girlhood’ would have been deemed a feminist feature, alienating an already niche audience.
On a whole, those that passed the test weren’t any more satisfying than those that failed; Begin Again, Chef, The Rover, The Inbetweeners 2. Finding Vivian Maier was the non-applicable documentary. Most of the failures came as no surprise but Begin Again was a disappointment, in terms of the Bechdel and as a film in general. It is as much about a female character (Kiera Knightley) as a male one (Mark Ruffalo), yet the only time it even threatened to pass the test was when Knightley advises a teenage girl on how to dress…. in order to snare the school dreamboat. Sigh, sigh, sigh.