Thursday, 29 August 2013

Rant about Brains in Hollywood

I love movies.  I mean, who doesn’t?  While I have some friends that go for the “artsy” types shown in little independent movie theatres, I’m an unapologetic Hollywood girl.  My favourite movie is the Lord of the Rings.  Next in the list are the Usual Suspects, Shawshank Redemption and Madagascar.  A powerful Kiwi movie called Once Were Warriors probably makes it to the Top 5, but that’s about it, as far as non-blockbusters are concerned.

The problem with movies is that if you go to see them for “pure” entertainment and diversion, you must be able to switch your brain off.  I’ve recently been struggling with that, and the biggest culprit is a comic artist called Alison Bechdel.  In her 1985 Dykes to Watch Out For she introduced a test to see whether a movie had THE BARE MINIMUM in terms of women’s presence and storyline.  The test, which has become colloquially known as the “Bechdel test” is composed of three very simple criteria.  The movie must:

(1) have at least two named women in it, 
(2) who talk to each other,
(3)  about something besides a man.

Knowing how often in real life women talk to other women (err... all the time) and how often those conversations don’t concern men (err... all the time), you’d think the test would be a walk in the park for most movies, right?


Trying the test out in action, here are the movies that I’ve seen in the past couple of months:
  1. Monsters University;
  2. Now I see You;
  3. Hair;
  4. Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest;
  5. Indiana Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark;
  6. Iron Man;
  7. Silver Linings Playbook; and
  8. Viva Riva.

Guess how many passed the Bechdel test?  Three.  Guess how many of those three were Hollywood?  One.  Silver Linings Playbook scrapes by with a single dinner conversation between the sisters played by Jennifer Lawrence and Julia Stiles.  Ironically enough,* along with the one Swedish movie on my list, passing the test with flying colours, the other one that does is the Congolese one.  And before anyone gets to say anything like “obviously action movies like Indiana Jones and Iron Man will not pass it, chicks don’t do action”, I can inform you that Viva Riva is a violent crime thriller.  But what do you know, apparently in Congo women can get a piece of the action too, and might even have a conversation or two with each other while they’re at it!

The problem with the Bechdel test is not just that it irks the feminist in me.  It is that once I became aware of it, and started applying it to the movies I saw, and liked, I began being also aware of the numerous other failings in them.  Apparently there is an ethnic diversity version of the Bechdel test as well: 

(1) Are there at least two named non-white characters in the movie,
(2)    who talk to each other,
(3)    about something besides a white character?

Most Hollywood movies fail again...

Is it really that only the stories of white heterosexual men are interesting enough to be told?  Why do other characters in movies only exist in relation to the storyline of the main white dude, as if they have no interesting stories of their own?

So basically the Bechdel test has ruined movies for me.  Because once I have it in my head, I can’t help but notice how shallow and stereotypical all Hollywood movies are.  My top 5 of all times listed at the top?  Yeah, you guessed it, they all fail, apart from the Kiwi one.  Thanks a bunch, Alison Bechdel.

PS. Going back to the feminist in me that gets irked, I will give a big thumbs up to the first person to think of a movie that would fail a “reverse Bechdel” test.  I doubt it has been made.

*I say “ironically enough” because we in the North have this tendency of thinking that we’re the most progressive people on the planet.  On everything.


  1. Who would have thought that I would be praising Sweden? But they have clearly read my rant (haha), and decided to begin rating movies based on whether they pass the Bechdel test or not:

    Hooray to our worthy neighbours and thanks to S for drawing my attention to this development.

  2. Your rants seem to be working as my first thought after reading the article was ''i should tell Laura''. Your whole rant got stuck in my head ever since reading it - and ruining every movie i have seen since...

    1. Don't say I didn't warn you -- I stated very clearly that this knowledge ruins movies ;) But you'd rather it was me than the Swedes, right?