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Beyond the Bechdel test: here’s how films can really make us love female characters

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There’s no one-size-fits-all quality test for movies featuring women, but here are some guidelines for greatness

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Any time someone brings up the Bechdel Test in an open internet forum, you can count the seconds until someone complains that actually, it isn’t a reliable indicator of a film’s quality. Never mind that no one — including cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who accidentally created the test in a 1985 comic strip — claims a Bechdel-test pass proves a given film is feminist, well-written, or even entertaining. The test itself is just a conversation piece because it’s such a low bar (do two women in the film talk to each other about anything other than a man?) and yet an astonishingly high ratio of films can’t pass it.

But because it’s such a simple, limited question, and because the internet loves rules, rubrics, and memes, a variety of other tests have sprung up around it recently. There’s Tumblr’s Mako Mori Test, Manohla Dargis’ DuVernay Test, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test, Twitter’s incendiary Furiosa Test, and more. They’re all meant to make people think and talk about representation, but not one of them are designed to tell us whether a film is “feminist.” There is no one-size-fits-all feminism test, because that’s an increasingly diffuse and subjective word that means radically different things to different people. No one agrees what a “feminist film” looks like. Cultural critics regularly use the term to mean everything from it “has a functional female character in it somewhere” to it “remakes a male-centric story but adds women” to it “revolves around women’s rights or equality as a fundamental theme.” It’s impossible to design one test that can prove the presence or absence of any or all of these things.

And it’s equally impossible to design a test to determine whether a given film will make the women in the audience feel engaged, respected, empowered, or even just happy. That’s a subjective, diffuse feeling, and a complicated conversation. And that’s what makes it worth having. There are no easy pass / fail grades on this one. There’s just a broad question with a cheerfully wide range of answers: What films make you feel good about female characters, and why?

Kaitlyn Tiffany: I should probably talk about a monumental artwork or a watershed moment, or something remotely well-written. But the movie that makes me feel the best about being a woman is Raja Gosnell’s 1999 rom-com Never Been Kissed. I’ve mentioned it on this website before. It’s dumb and bad, and many of the characters might as well be cardboard, and it’s hard to imagine why John C. Reilly agreed to be in it.

20th Century Fox

But it’s also Drew Barrymore — the lovable weirdo who made Donnie Darko happen and rose to Jessica Lange’s level in Grey Gardens in spite of scads of vocal doubters — at her strange, charming finest. She plays a 20-something copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times who has, yeah, never been kissed, and the attention the script gives this plot point is obnoxious. Her first trial assignment as a reporter is to go undercover at her old high school and get “in” with the cool kids, which basically means making herself over into the hot teen she never was, leading to regressive jokes.

Still, this was one of the four VHS tapes my grandmother owned, so I’ve probably watched it more than any other movie, and it did vital work redoing the hardwired damage from films like Harriet the Spy and the Disney Channel film Read it and Weep, which assert that writing about the people in your life is the foulest thing a girl can do. In Never Been Kissed, Drew Barrymore’s character turns the fallout of her life into a personal essay, and gets it published in a major newspaper. I love it, and I love Drew.

Tasha Robinson: I can’t emphasize enough that no one film is a model for How To Write Women Right. But one of my favorite approaches is in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, an action movie that feels entirely gender-neutral in its scripting. The film was written for MMA star Gina Carano, but it doesn’t come with the usual “she isn’t a woman unless she’s vulnerable” tropes. Carano’s character doesn’t have to be sexualized or emotionally broken. Her enemies threaten her physically, but the threats aren’t leering and rapey. She doesn’t give an awful speech about how she’s a monster because she can’t have babies. She gets to fight without apology or regrets, and no one pulls their punches because she’s a lady. It’s the John Wick of its time — a simple, stylish fight movie with minimal plot and a lot of beautifully choreographed throwdowns. It works for me because it’s so stripped down. There’s nothing embarrassing or awkward in Carano’s role to take me out of the fun. Her character is not nuanced — she gets to be a pure badass, and I love it. I wouldn’t want every movie about women to be like Haywire, any more than I’d want every movie about men to be John Wick. But Haywire is proof that women in film don’t have to be written radically differently from men to make a story work.

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Adi Robertson: While Haywire never clicked with me for some reason, I totally agree with you, Tasha. I love films with female characters whose most obvious distinguishing trait isn't "sexy" or "female," particularly when that's because there are lots of women in the script. Fury Road is great, for example, because it's not just Furiosa being the one exceptional lady badass around a bunch of men.

I'm a little conflicted about saying I want characters whose gender is irrelevant, because sometimes it slips into treating stereotypically masculine traits as neutral, and feminine ones as artificial. And for all its flaws, I thought the Ghostbusters remake managed to avoid that very well — you've got four archetypal women who couldn't be replaced outright with male actors, but are still primarily defined by gender-neutral passions and personality quirks. The Hunger Games is another particularly dramatic example: it’s a movie series where the primary means of resisting an authoritarian regime are a) brutal killing sprees and b) awesome fashion design.

Tasha: And it’s worth noting that the female lead is in charge of the brutal killing sprees, and a talented, principled guy is in charge of the fashion design.

Adi: Really, this conversation is making me remember how underrepresented or poorly represented women are in my favorite movies, which is kind of depressing — the curse of liking 20th century genre films, I guess. I grew up identifying almost exclusively with male characters' cool female sidekicks (Trinity, you could have had it so much better) or adding my own Mary Sue self-inserts, who were invariably weird antiheroes with improbable weaponry.

Tasha: That does basically describe Imperator Furiosa in Fury Road, and Rey in The Force Awakens, and Kate McKinnon as Holtzmann in Ghostbusters. All of which makes me hope for a new generation of female heroes written in part by other people who grew up imagining their own badass heroes with improbable weaponry — and unlikely skills. I should add, though, that not all of my favorite women in film can take a punch and give two in return. I still love the sneaky, sexy, sly femme fatale types from classic noir and neo-noir, from Double Indemnity to The Last Seduction. Even if they’re only winning by treachery and by weaponizing sexuality, it’s nice to see women on-screen with agendas, personalities, and the ability to escape becoming trophies.

Kaitlyn: Since my mom always picked the movie in my house, I was raised with three sisters, and I was a complete non-dater in high school, I did not often have to suffer through boring bro action movies. (So Furiosa is one of my first action heroes, really.) I also didn’t suffer through male-led movies of any kind, for the most part, except the early unbearable Harry Potter films. It wasn’t until I had to start going backward in college — you know, the phase of your life when everyone expects you to want to talk about Pulp Fiction for hours at a time — that I started realizing how little there was for me in cinema at large.

Miramax

On top of that, a lot of the characters I would want to gravitate toward had already been claimed by boys. Beatrix Kiddo is co-opted by boy culture every time she’s reduced to that yellow tracksuit with its three inches of visible stomach skin (a sexy Halloween costume ad infinitum), and the cult around Tarantino is strictly No Girls Allowed. So the movies that give me the best feelings are the ones that signal a disdain for that tone. Whoever wants to call me a misandrist for that can go ahead, but the best action movie I can think of is Thelma & Louise, directed by a dude (Ridley Scott), but written by a woman (Callie Khouri) who left absolutely nothing up to interpretation, and had her characters say, more or less, “We’re both going to die because the world is unjust and the world is unjust because of men.” Dudes can enjoy the movie, because it’s a classic American road film and a crime thriller and an outlaws-runnin’-for-the-border story. But they don’t get to love it more than me.

Adi: Ultimately, one of the things that determines the way I feel isn't whether characters are “strong,” but whether their world seems to zero in on women as uniquely natural victims. I'm not sure if that's overly escapist, because lots of real-life women are victimized in gendered ways. But I like characters like Ripley in Aliens, because they're made vulnerable in ways that seem universal. We’re not supposed to think she's in danger because she’s female. It’s because she's a normal human up against an equal-opportunity killing machine.

Liz Lopatto: These are all great movies, but I also want to call out Magic Mike XXL. I know, it’s a road-trip movie about a bunch of hot dudes. Still, I have never felt so fully catered to by a movie! Every scene is an exercise in the female gaze. Even subtle things in the script — calling the women “queens,” never making fun of a woman for her weight, playing a gay bar without any comment — is meant to make viewers feel happy and welcomed. The movie itself is the story of men who make viewers happy, professionally. Jada Pinkett Smith and Elizabeth Banks are the gatekeepers, and it’s only because they are willing to sign on to the men’s ambitions that the men perform at all. Watching that movie was an experience, not least because all the women around me in the theater were screaming during the strip club scenes. (Surround sound at its finest.) I left the theater beaming. It was a giant piece of cotton candy, friends, and since the studios will never stop making junk food, I want to see more fun summer movies that know I’m a member of the audience, and cater to me that explicitly.

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Tasha: Magic Mike XXL tickles me, because it’s such a blatantly shameless, over-the-top fantasy. It’s not my fantasy — I still think the film’s dedication to spraying women with fluids and hefting them around like parade batons is mighty damn weird — but I love that it exists, and that it did well, and that it came across as such a conversation-starter about women’s sexuality and women’s box office power.

Personally, though, I tend to be happier with films where the focus isn’t so consciously and loudly on gender dynamics, and where the story is more important than the sexes of anyone on-screen. So for instance, Frances McDormand in the Coen brothers’ Fargo is a thrill because she’s middle-aged, pregnant, and Midwestern, but the movie isn’t about any of those things. Who she is in that movie feels revolutionary, but the movie is still primarily about what she does. It’s a film about murder and blackmail and detective work and grim Coen black comedy, and the fact that McDormand is an unusual hero is left to the background. It doesn’t need to be tediously explained, it can just be an enjoyable, subversive factor.

And then there are films about ordinary women facing everyday problems, not in big, Oscar-baity heroic ways, but in believable and approachable ones. Short Term 12, Stories We Tell, Wadjda, and The Queen Of Katwe all struck me that way. All of them are aware of gender dynamics, particularly as barriers for the protagonists to overcome. These stories aren’t blind to reality. But they don’t wallow in it exclusively, as though films about women can only be about the roughness of being women. All these movies are about personal, specific stories.

Kaitlyn: I take back what I said about not seeing action movies until college! Marge Gunderson was my first action hero. What an icon, and what a hat! She’s also the character who tries to pick apart the slimy, black heart of the movie and its villains in Fargo’s final minutes. She’s never really the driver of the plot, but she’s the only one who understands it. And it’s still so rare to see that, a woman being the voice of the audience and the brains of the operation. You don’t get that in Thelma & Louise, which is wrapped up by Harvey Keitel’s character, who is oh so sorry.

Adi: All these movies get at bits and pieces of the whole that would really thrill me, which is a film industry where we don’t need to focus on women’s gender because women are the default gender. Even when we say things like “War movies explore masculinity,” that usually doesn't imply that they're niche or gender-obsessed, because we more or less accept that men's issues are important, relatable human issues. I'd love to live in the fantasy world where, say, pregnancy is a universally applicable shorthand for humanity's fears and hopes for the future, not either a mandatory female plot point or a scary exotic ordeal. I'm honestly not even sure what that world would look like, and the rational, level-headed part of me doesn’t want what amounts to a Hollywood matriarchy. But it feels like we’re at least slowly making progress toward something that’s more balanced, even if we’re very much not there yet.