Tuesday, 23 July 2013

There aren’t any women here, are there?

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Next time you go to the movies, take a break from inhaling choc tops and snogging the person next to you, and take a look at what the women on screen are doing. Usually, it's bugger all.

Hello there, glorious readers! I was just wondering, have you heard of ‘movies’? They are sometimes referred to as ‘moving pictures’, ‘films’ or, if you are talking to my nanna, ‘fillums’. In any case, I have previously written about the severe underrepresentation of GBLTQI characters in these moving pictures. Shockingly, Hollywood took no notice of my blog posts, so that is obviously still the case. I know. I’m as surprised as you. In any case, while sitting in the cinema watching the newly released (very funny) Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy comedy The Heat, something struck me: how can I possibly expect the film industry to have a plethora of developed, well-rounded, accurate portrayals of queer people (enough to even match the percentage of queer people watching), when they are still nowhere near doing this for over half of the population? That’s right, I’m talking about WOMEN. Have you heard of women? If you have been getting most of your ideas about the world from cinema, it wouldn’t surprise me if you haven’t.

Going into The Heat (not to be confused with going into heat), I was excited to be purchasing a ticket at a major cinema to see a mainstream movie (especially a comedy) with female leads (also I was excited about getting a choc-top). Think about that for a second. I was excited to be seeing a movie with leading ladies in a conventional multiplex because it happens so rarely. In the year 2013. And yet, when movies like The Heat, Pitch Perfect or Bridesmaids are made—all with majority women casts—people of both sexes go to see them (and eat delicious choc-tops), and they are generally successful. Inevitably, the industry seems surprised that people would actually leave their houses to watch a bunch of women do things on screen, that it must be an anomaly, so we wait another six or twelve months to see another one. I assume they think they are being Punk’d each and every time, and they refuse to fall for it, Ashton (if that is your real name). However, this article isn’t even about wanting more movies with majority women casts (which I do). Instead, I decided to analyse the top 100 films of 2012 by US box office results (according to IMDB.com) and try to find out how many of them pass the Bechdel Test. This simple tool for evaluating gender representation in film first appeared in a 1985 comic strip by Alison Bechdel and has evolved to become a yardstick for judging female roles in cinema. The criteria that a film has to meet in order to pass the test are:

  • The film has two named women in it,
  • Who talk to each other,
  • About something besides a man.

Simple right? It should be noted that the test shouldn’t be used to determine if a specific film is a good feminist movie or not—for example, the completely awful Twilight movies pass—or if the female character is anything but a sexualised airhead; it simply is about gauging the representation of women and meaningful female roles in the broader industry. With such a low bar set, surely most movies pass. JUST KIDDING YOU NAÏVE DUMMY! Firstly, I had to discount seven of the movies because I could not determine if they passed without watching the whole thing, and I love you people but I am not sitting through Madea’s Witness Protection for anyone. Of the remaining 93 movies, 47 immediately fail the Bechdel Test. So that means 46 pass—almost half —which is already depressing enough to send me into full feminazi flight mode. But it gets worse: fourteen of those are classed as ‘dubious’, meaning there is debate about whether two women actually had something resembling a conversation, or that they were actually named characters, or were in fact talking about a man. And if you were to apply a newer caveat that the women have to talk to each other for more than 60 seconds in the entire movie, a huge amount more would fail, as a lot of movies pass with a one or two line exchange. When you watch movies from now on, try to notice how many women you see in relation to men, how they interact with each other and if they could be replaced with a sexy blow up doll or maybe even a thin hatstand.

Women make up roughly 50% of the population, but there is still a huge disparity in the amount of screen time given to them in comparison to men. The solution to this is not to arbitrarily ram a scene with two peripheral women having a 61-second conversation into your movie in order to pass the test. It is about making well-developed central female characters necessary to your movie. Make them something other than side characters that are only there to advance the story of the men; women who aren’t only identified by how they relate to men. When a movie like the recent Pacific Rim (insert hilarious and original anus joke here) is released, and it is not based on a source material that restricts the amount of women that could be included (unlike Joss Whedon’s The Avengers), and there is one main woman character amongst a huge cast of men who all have speaking parts, it isn’t enough. Of course it’s great if that that one character is well developed and strong and awesome, but it is not enough. It actually makes me as furious as Tony Abbott being asked questions about … oh anything, really. I almost get to the point where I could literally have steam coming out of my ears. Actually, that might be handy. I could probably start a steam-cleaning business or something so I guess ignore me and keep doing what you are doing Hollywood.

But in reality, we need to see more women involved in creating films and getting to the point where they can tell their own stories. According to the US-based Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women comprised only NINE per cent of directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2012. This was an increase of four per cent from 2011, and even with the percentage from back in 1998. I am the first to admit that the nineties were probably the best time in history, but some things from then need to change (unlike my still happening taste in ‘90s music). Women are more involved in the production of independent and documentary films, but still have very limited involvement in bigger-budget movies. Perhaps to make a systemic change in the amount and quality of roles for women we see on the big screen, we have to start supporting women in the other creative endeavours behind the camera. In the meantime, please enjoy Grown Ups 2, which has very strong and/or hilarious actresses in it, including Salma Hayek, Maria Bello AND Maya Rudolph, but still fails the Bechdel Test and apparently fails all other tests of good humour and good ideas. If that isn’t to your taste, I’m sure Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson have ten movies in the pipeline about two rascals acting like assholes in different scenarios.

Rebecca Shaw

Rebecca is primary caregiver and confidant to Tippi, the best cat in the world. She also likes writing bad jokes on twitter @brocklesnitch

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