You Must Be This Feminist To Ride This Movie

8 Jun

My name is Beth.

I am a feminist filmmaker.

(hi Beth)

The thing is, I’ve never not been a feminist.   I was raised to believe that women deserve equal pay for equal work, in all its many iterations.  That reproductive health is a right, not a privilege.  That women are not victims and should not be victimized.  And that I could do whatever I wanted.

So I want to do what I do and I don’t want the fact that I have girl parts to be a part of the dialogue.

But it always will be.

See, the assumption is that because I have female parts I have some sort of special sense of what makes women tick.  I’m “writing what I know” which is exactly what every 11th grade English teacher implores you to do.  I should be writing from a place of authority.

And this is just one of the reasons the Bechdel test rubs me the wrong way.  In case you haven’t heard of it, go here, read this.

Now John is making a great point and an interesting observation about his own writing.  And about the obligation writers may have to presenting women as something other than craven lovers of product and penis (hi, SATC2!)

And still, the whole thing rubs me the wrong way.  For a few reasons.  First, I think that trying to balance romantic love and personal fulfillment is one of the great dilemmas of the third-wave feminist world.  Secondly, it concerns me that this is a random bar that doesn’t create equality.  And third, no movie I have written would have passed the Bechdel test.

Let me say that again.  I do not pass this test.  And my feminist credentials are tattooed next to my Bikini Kill tattoo.

Why don’t I pass the test?  Because the things I am writing about – sex, culture, the idea of who we are as women and as people – all these things require girls and women to discuss stuff like sex and relationships exclusively.  Normal Adolescent Behavior is exclusively about sex, love and identity.   I went back into AVM and thought about rewriting a scene to pass the test.  I felt awful.  I was subjecting the script to an arbitrary line in the sand.  Someone wanted to be the boss of me.  Isn’t feminism supposed to do away with the bosses of me?

And more importantly, shouldn’t the development of well rounded female characters be about the full inclusion of the various elements involved in being a well rounded female?  If two women, with names, discuss how they aren’t skinny enough to feel good about themselves, are they somehow better than the women who discuss wanting to get married to a guy who doesn’t make them feel like shit?  When a character spends an entire movie debating the health of her marriage and going to comical and pathetic ends to prove herself right or wrong – is she somehow damaging the progress of women?

There are real problems for real and imagined women.  I’m not sure this is one of them.  I don’t think that women need to discuss one thing or another to be more or less real or inspiring or ground breaking.

I think the Bechdel test is an imperfect gauge for an entirely different problem – women in films who are not fully developed and who are written in such a way that “wanting a man” becomes shorthand for “having a character arc.”  Show me three dimensional fictional characters whose problems are huge, seemingly insurmountable and I will forget any sort of “you must be this feminist to ride this movie” test.  I’ll go with you to the ends of the earth.

ps – John August’s comment is a really good one:

I don’t think Dogma95 proves anything either, or that a director whose movie meets some published standard is somehow more real and worthy. What struck me as odd about the Bechdel test is that it seems like such an unbelievably low bar to clear, but it isn’t. Adding a scene just to pass the test is unnatural. Asking “what would change if” is natural, and generally useful. A good half of story development is this process of shifting things around. If Tom were Tara, what would that do the plot? It might not be anything good. But if the Bechdel test got you thinking about it, that’s positive, just the way Dogma95 arguably got filmmakers thinking about the crutches they were relying on.

The crutches go both ways.  Relying on a single matrix may be as much of a crutch as relying on previous archetypes.  Asking the hard questions about characters will always bring out the best in a script.  Asking the hard questions about feminism will hopefully always bring about more change.   It’s the dialogue that I think counts the most.  Inside the script, and out in the world.

3 Responses to “You Must Be This Feminist To Ride This Movie”

  1. CleverTitania June 8, 2010 at 4:59 am #

    If you changed a line of “Adolescent Behavior” it would hurt those of us who love it too.

    I like the term third-wave feminist. It does feel like where we are. We had to fight past just being treated as equal citizens and able to fend for ourselves. We had to fight past arguments that we couldn’t do some jobs, or some things were a “man’s domain,” and that we belonged at home taking care of the kids.

    Now it feels like I have to fight for the right to be romantic and care about sex, relationships, love, and family. Now I’m not saying I want my life to be entirely one of domesticity, but does a fervent desire for a partner in life really make me a traitor to my gender? I think not.

    What we need to embrace in this new wave is that we don’t all have to agree as some collective body for any of us to be happy. Just because someone views being true to the forward movement of our gender one way doesn’t mean it’s the only way. There are feminists who believe that legalizing prostitution will save and protect millions of women, and there are those who believe it will lead to more women being abused and taken advantage of. And neither position makes one a false feminist.

    As a slight tangent; of the handful of erotic fiction stories I’ve written, the most popular (both among women and men) are the most romantic ones. Kind of makes a point, in my opinion.

    And almost nothing I’ve ever written passes the Bechdel test (socio-political articles aside of course). But then again, most of my heroines deal with similar third-wave feminism issues, because I do write some of what I know. 🙂

  2. John August June 8, 2010 at 5:21 am #

    I don’t think Dogma95 proves anything either, or that a director whose movie meets some published standard is somehow more real and worthy. What struck me as odd about the Bechdel test is that it seems like such an unbelievably low bar to clear, but it isn’t.

    Adding a scene just to pass the test is unnatural. Asking “what would change if” is natural, and generally useful. A good half of story development is this process of shifting things around. If Tom were Tara, what would that do the plot? It might not be anything good. But if the Bechdel test got you thinking about it, that’s positive, just the way Dogma95 arguably got filmmakers thinking about the crutches they were relying on.

  3. Benjamin June 9, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    AVM absolutely contains scenes of women talking to one another not about a man. As I understand it, the Bechdel test asks whether the two women are talking about “a man.” Talking about “a man” is different from talking about “men.” Moreover, talking about “sex” is not the same as talking about “a man” or “men,” regardless of whether the characters are talking about sex with men. Beyond that, a conversation between your two lead girls discussing drama club springs to mind. Unless I am remembering scenes that got lost in an old draft …

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