Eithne Shortall is chief arts writer for Sunday Times Ireland. If you missed it, take a look at Femme Fatigue (An Introduction) for more on her monthly round-up 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: 8
Those that passed the Bechdel Test: 2
A lot of commentators have declared Under The Skin a “feminist movie”. They must have left the cinema halfway through. For those who haven’t seen the latest Jonathan Glazer movie, it features Scarlett Johnasson as an alien-esque character who drives around Scotland, picking up men. She then lures them into a place where they think they’re going to have sex, and kills them in an alien-esque manner. Those who regard it as feminist argue that this woman is turning the tables; once only an object of sexual desire, she has gone from predator to prey.
I’m not even going to debate how ‘equal opportunist’ that really is, because to do so would be to dismiss the overall narrative of the film. Yes, Johansson’s character is the hunter, the one in charge, but only because she has denied her humanity. When she meets a man for whom she begins to fall, she immediately becomes the victim of sexual and physical abuse. Being vulnerable is one thing, but once this character becomes human – once she embraces her femininity – she is a victim. Interestingly, Glazer said there were scenes where Johansson makes a female friend, but he decided to take them out. A good film yes, but hardly a triumph for the girls.
Johansson appears again in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This time the focus has narrowed from her overall sexuality to her arse. An embarrassing amount of shots see the action occurring with her leather-coated behind just in view. The two lads behind me at the cinema were obviously more offended than me; they were verbally counting the number of times this sexist framing occurred, getting more worked up each time.
I loved Starred Up – the British film starring the wonderful Jack O’Connell as a young offender. It’s my favourite film to go on release so far this year. This judgement has nothing to do with women or the Bechdel test. It fails miserably. But then, a film set in a male prison was never in the running. For what it’s worth, there is a female prison boss.
Frank, the Lenny Abrahamson film that goes on release next month, is excellent too. Its Bechdel rating was even more shameful. The film centres on a band, comprising of four male and two female musicians; the two women are the only ones who never have their own interaction. Nevertheless it is a five star knockout of a movie. And while no film has to take on any responsibility, it does a lot for the portrayal of mental health.
Even of the two films I saw this month that passed the Bechdel Test – Run & Jump, The Sea – none did so with much above a pass mark. Yet it wasn’t necessarily a month for despair. While the Bechdel test gives us a general overview, it is not perfect. In some films, women talk but it’s all bitching about each other. In others, they say nothing to each other but still manage to make themselves heard. I look on Bechdel as I do the Body Mass Index (BMI) test; someone like Brian O’Driscoll will inaccurately be declared obese, but most of us get a fair idea of where our weight stands. It’s got some flaws, but it makes it harder to ignore the bigger problem.