This column by Eithne Shortall was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland last month. It is being reproduced here as an introduction to a new monthly series where Eithne will look at the representation of women on the big screen. The first “Femme Fatigue” will be published on Spooool.ie next week.
Too regularly, the consumption of art is accompanied by a niggling disheartenment with being female. My earliest awareness of this was as a teenager. Delighted with my discovery of Joan Miró, I was distraught to hear the artist referred to — after I’d bought postcards and merchandise — as “he”. Blinded by an Irish accent, I had read the name as “Joan” as in Joan Collins. Turns out it was “Joan” as in Don Juan, another man who built up women’s hopes only to decimate them. “Finally,” I had thought, “a woman who can stand alongside Picasso, Braque and Matisse.”
But no, Joan being male meant he took his place in my gender-homogeneous postcard collection.
This year, I am keeping a list of films that pass the Bechdel test. Devised in the 1980s, a film passes this test if it features two named female characters having a conversation about something other than a man, without a man being present. Of the 19 films I’ve seen so far, only two managed this feat. People have argued American Hustle should get the all-clear, but I’m not willing to pass a brief “conversation” about nail varnish that is riddled with sexual undertones, and for which two men are in earshot.
The films that passed were August: Osage County and Nymphomaniac. More interesting are those that failed. They tackle racism, homophobia and relationship taboos, yet none bothered to address the gender imbalance. Not one frontrunner for this year’s best film Oscar managed to include a legitimate conversation between two women. Art-house movies were guilty, too, with Inside Llewyn Davis failing miserably. Native movies do no better. The Stag, Calvary, Out of Here — none features a worthwhile chat between women.
Theatre has a higher pass rate for the Bechdel test, although the downtrodden-woman character prevails. Perhaps it’s because so much of our theatre is historical, but the plethora of burdened mothers, lovely girls and trapped women would dampen the driest of feminist wit. I see it in the books I love too — a maxim prevails that women always carry the responsibility. Perhaps it’s the honesty that makes these works appeal, so the problem is with society. Yet we know society is changing, and art should be addressing that.
There was a lot riding on “Girls”, the HBO drama best described as a more realistic Sex and the City for the next generation. It went swimmingly for the first two seasons, with awkward sex scenes and a range of female bodies being proudly displayed. The current season has gone off course in one direction, and made no progress in the other. The only characters with any redeemable traits are male. The women are all self-obsessed, shallow, horrible people. Surely gender balance extends to the distribution of flaws? It’s not enough for Lena Dunham, the show’s creator and star, to wear an unflattering bikini. I want her to do something for women’s intellectual worth, not just their bodies. An entreaty I’d extend to all.