Tag Archives: Bechdel Test

A Rey of Sunshine

rey

Be forewarned.  Star Wars spoilers ahead.

Again, in all caps, just so you’re clear.  MAJOR STAR WARS SPOILERS INSIDE.  ABANDON ALL HOPE OF REMAINING UNSPOILT, YE WHO VENTURE PAST THIS POINT.

One more time for those just joining us.  THIS POST WILL CONTAIN STAR WARS SPOILERS.

*hold music hums while you decide*

We all good?  Okay.  By reading on, you hereby agree to hold the author of this site harmless for any potential Star Wars-ruining experience that may occur, in perpetuity until the heat death of the universe.

I saw The Force Awakens yesterday afternoon.  When you hit your fifth decade of life, and you’ve seen so many movies in those forty years that the tropes and cliches of cinematic storytelling have embedded themselves in your neural pathways to the point where your response to them becomes almost Pavlovian, you tend to approach any new theatrical venture, particularly one that has been so excessively hyped, with an unavoidable sense of cynicism.  Here we are now, you say warily, paraphrasing Kurt Cobain, entertain us.  And how often do you walk away feeling satisfied, or surprised?  Rather infrequently, I have to admit.  I enjoy the movies for what they are, but I always see the seams at the edges.  And I went into The Force Awakens with a healthy distrust of its director, J.J. Abrams, a man whose storytelling style relies primarily on frustratingly circular references to the movies he grew up watching, rather than any particular unique vision.

J.J., you sly, sly dog you.

Granted, one does not walk into the seventh installment of a 40-year-old movie franchise expecting mind-blowing originality (I certainly don’t expect it from Bond, my other great cinema love).  I did receive the anticipated reprises of old favorite characters and the homages and tributes to everything that has made the world love Star Wars all these years.  But what I also got, and what made me walk out of the theater with a broad, dumb smile on my face, was something that I’d been longing to see realized on screen for ages, and finding it in a Star Wars movie of all places was like the surprise toy inside the chocolate egg.  I knew too, that as happy as I was to discover this, there were millions of girls and women to whom it would mean so much more.  I’m happy for them most of all.

To wit:  the absolutely compelling character of Rey, played by English actress Daisy Ridley, is the center of the movie.  The “awakening” referred to in the title is hers.  She is brave, skilled, resourceful, determined, and over the course of the story, as her connection to the Force deepens, grows immensely powerful.  She has a past that is not spelled out for us but rather left as a tantalizing mystery.  She is no one’s love interest, and is not defined by her relationships with or unrequited longings for any particular man.  And she kicks tremendous ass, whether it’s outrunning TIE Fighters in a rusty old Millennium Falcon or confronting and defeating Dark Side villain Kylo Ren and saving Finn, the male character whom the movie’s poster and trailers would have you presume is the new Jedi of this trilogy.  (Abrams’ controversial “mystery box” promotion style has worked very well here, which is why again, I hope you’ve already seen the movie as you’re reading this.)  And Rey achieves all of these things without descending into sassy or sexualized caricature, or a neon sign flashing above her head reading “LOOK AT THIS AUDACIOUS, ENLIGHTENED STATEMENT OF FEMINISM WE MALE FILMMAKERS ARE MAKING.”

Rey just is who she is, and frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve always found the term “empowered women” a bit troubling, as it suggests that women on their own are somehow without power.  Rather, it is better to say that a woman is powerful by her very nature as a woman.  Goes with the territory, folks.  And yet in science fiction and fantasy this is too often the exception and not the rule.  Looking back, there has never really been a good reason why in genre movies, women have not been able to take the forefront of the story, other than the increasingly outdated notion that the young boys who make up the presumed primary target demographic for this genre somehow won’t be interested in seeing girls buckle their swash, or that somehow casting a female lead means you have to turn the story into a pedestrian rom-com with true love as the object of the quest.

Instead, women are usually relegated to the secondary roles of eye candy, love interests or over-the-top man-hating villainesses, their characterizations as sketchy as the anatomically impossible poses in which they are often rendered in comic books.  Why have we had eighteen Marvel movies without a female lead?  Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to stem largely from writers, producers and directors (and executives) unable to arrive at what feels like, in the light of The Force Awakens, should be a very obvious conclusion:  that women with power and agency won’t, in fact, scare men away from fantasy and science fiction movies.  They belong there, as much as the boys do, and audiences will thank you for it.  And yes, the dudes will love these characters too.

Thankfully, there have been huge exceptions of late that may be at last, softening this attitude.  Frozen was a story in the fantasy genre about the bond between two sisters (one with tremendous magical powers), with male characters shunted to the background, and it only became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time.  As I write this The Force Awakens has already become the fastest movie to hit $300 million at the box office, and I’ll wager here and now that it will eventually blast past Avatar and take its place on top of the all-time list.  Because audiences love Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, but it’s Rey’s story they are going to want to see again and again.

There has been some criticism of her, centering largely on the speed with which she acquires her Force abilities in the movie without any training, and suggesting that this pushes her into Mary Sue territory.  I would suggest that there are two responses to this, one “in-universe” and another examining the broader question.  The in-universe explanation is found in a line from the very first movie, where Luke and Ben are discussing the Force and noting that while it obeys your commands, it also controls your actions.  The Force is sentient and has an awareness of when people’s greed and lust for power has pushed it out of balance, so it creates what it needs to set the universe right again.  Rey’s awakening is in response to the rising threat represented by dark-sider Kylo Ren and his mysterious master Snoke, and the speed at which it happens is perhaps a reflection of the urgency with which it is needed.  (And it also makes for the movie’s best scene in which Rey tries the Jedi Mind Trick on a Stormtrooper played by a very famous actor in disguise…)

You could also suggest that Rey is just that damn gifted, which is where the Mary Sue question comes in, and my answer to that is, so effing what?  In how many movies across how many genres have we seen preternaturally skilled guys?  How many times have we seen a young male screw-up transformed into an unstoppable fighting machine in the space of a five-minute training montage?  Why is this somehow more valid storytelling technique than seeing it happen to a woman?  Yes, Rey may be in some ways an expression of wish fulfillment for fangirls, but thanks to some great writing (by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) and Daisy Ridley’s magnetic performance she doesn’t come off like that, and even if she does, I fail to see why this is a bad thing.  We gents have plenty of examples on our side to choose from.  I’d love to see more women like Rey in genre films, treated with all the maturity and complexity that those characters deserve, and I’m glad that the gauntlet has been thrown down.  All those involved with her creation deserve accolades.  (It should also be noted that The Force Awakens passes the Bechdel Test too.)

I’ve come to know a fair number of women through social media who are big genre fans, and I’m excited to read what they thought of Rey.  I imagine they’ll be able to articulate what Rey means to girls and women far better than I possibly could, so I’ll sign off for the time being and let them take the stage and enjoy their well-deserved moment.  And I will wait with bated breath for Episode VIII and the joy of discovering where Rey’s story takes her next, my faith in the ability of the movies, and genre movies in particular, to surprise me renewed, and hungry for more.

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Unfreezing creativity

You can emerge from a great movie in any number of frames of mind:  stirred to action, moved to tears, smiling ear to ear or even enraged beyond words.  And then there are those movies that have a different and in some ways, more profound effect.  They come along at just the right moment, when you’re a bit discouraged by a recent course of events, when the well is drying out and replenishing itself with doubt instead.  Movies that embrace your simmering creativity and stoke your desire to tell stories, because they remind you of the possibilities inherent in the blank canvas by pushing the limits of what can be done with it.  They disarm and enchant the cynic and turn him into a dreamer again, fingers twitching to fill hard drives with a wealth of new words.  Frozen, Disney’s magnificent animated retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, did that for me.

The story of a bond of sisterhood tested by fate, magic, misunderstanding and a heck of a lot of snow and ice, Frozen is visually sumptuous, befitting the pedigree of its studio, and uncommonly emotionally profound.  The two princesses of the vaguely Nordic realm of Arendelle are the playful young Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and her elder sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who possesses the power to create ice and snow.  They are inseparable until Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her magic, at which point their well-meaning royal parents decide that the two would be better off kept apart, for their own safety, and Anna’s memory altered to remove her awareness of her sister’s abilities.  Years later, after the girls have been orphaned, Elsa is poised to be named Queen of Arendelle until a confrontation with Anna over a rash decision to marry a handsome prince she’s just met results in Elsa’s long-suppressed powers bursting forth and blanketing Arendelle in eternal winter.  Shunned by her people, Elsa flees to the distant mountains, pursued by Anna who has faith that her sister can be convinced to bring summer back to the realm.  I’d prefer not to say more at the risk of being spoilery, but despite some red herrings dropped early on that suggest you’re in for the typical schmaltz about princesses in towers and the conveniently available square-jaws they always fall for, and despite the prominence in advertising of the goofy living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the story goes in a much more mature and welcome direction, keeping the relationship between the sisters as the emotional linchpin – while dazzling your eyes with some breathtaking animation work, especially in any scene involving Elsa’s magic.

Given what I’ve discussed at length here before in terms of the onscreen portrayal of women, how refreshing indeed to find a story that both passes the Bechdel test and gives depth and complexity to a female character with supernatural powers!  The clip I’ve linked above is my absolute favorite moment in the movie, because not only is it a terrific song belted out by a sublimely talented Broadway veteran at the top of her game (even calling back a little to her famous interpretation of Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”), but it’s a scene of a young woman embracing everything about who she truly is and reveling in the wonders of what she can do with her amazing gifts.  A triumphant coming out of a sorceress, if you will, and a scene of unbridled joy.  We don’t get to see that very often, if ever.  Women with powers in movies are usually punished for them – they have to give them up to attain the life they really want, or, they choose to use them for evil and must therefore be destroyed (usually by… sigh, a virtuous man).  While Elsa does cause some inadvertent mayhem that must be undone, the resolution of the story thankfully doesn’t require her to abandon what makes her unique.  She adds to her life instead of taking something away.

As a man writing a novel in first-person from a woman’s point of view (a fantasy about a woman with magical powers, no less), those issues are always top of mind for me.  It’s too easy to venture down the well-trodden, familiar path at the end of which lies the execrable Mary Sue; the collection of cliches guaranteed to please no one, least of all the author.  Experiencing Frozen, though, shows me that it can be done, and done extremely well, and the positive response to the movie by both audiences and critics proves that these kinds of characters can touch hearts.  Magic has always had a lingering visceral appeal, and too often literature and cinema adhere to the conservative religious view that there is something fundamentally wrong about it, forever at odds with how the world is supposed to function.  Yet it’s something that we all still seem to want in our lives – in the first encounter with a new love, in the twinkle in the eye of a child waiting for Santa, in the wish made on the shooting star.  Why can’t the world be magical?  Why can’t we make it that way?

Writers have our own magic to offer.  We have these crazy ideas and wild emotions that we are somehow able to transmogrify into a collection of permutations of 26 letters that cast spells upon those who read them, with the very effects I mentioned off the top.  When we’ve suppressed that nature for too long, because day jobs and other obligations have gotten in the way, or we’ve just been too downright lazy to keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we risk not a catastrophic explosion like Elsa, but a gradual withering away of our spirit.  We get mopey and find little to be happy about in what should be fulfilling lives.  What we need to do is have a “Let It Go” moment instead and revel in what we love and what we know we’re meant to be.  Sometimes it takes a reminder; a movie like Frozen that assures you that storytellers are capable of some wondrous things.  And then you want to get back to your own fictional universes and start pushing your own limits again, typing until your fingers fall off and you’ve created magical palaces of skyscraping prose.  Hoping somewhere in the back of your mind that one day your story will have the same impact on somebody else – and the cycle of creativity will continue, forever unfrozen.

Failing the Bechdel Test

HBO
HBO

The Bechdel Test, while not, admittedly, without its detractors, should be in the back of mind of any men who write female characters.  I first became aware of it about a year or so ago and it is quite amazing how many fictional works don’t live up to its very simple requirements.  The cartoonist Alison Bechdel who created it in 1985 describes it as follows:  the creative enterprise (film, play, novel, what-have-you) has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Watching this week’s The Newsroom last night I found myself thinking of the Bechdel Test and how the episode (“The Genoa Tip”) failed it.  There were at least four scenes involving two women speaking to one another, but on each occasion the subject was a man or men in general – even dropped into conversations that ostensibly had nothing to do with dudes.  Sloan and Maggie, Maggie and Lisa, Maggie and Mac – men hovered invisibly between them as both sub- and super-text.  You couldn’t help but shrug, especially since the show keeps replaying the clip of Maggie teeing off on Sex and the City (in the form of an embarrassing YouTube video) for its depiction of women who have nothing better to do than talk about men.

It’s important to remember that the Bechdel Test is not an absolute for judging whether something is worthy of your time.  For example, The King’s Speech fails the Bechdel Test because the plot focuses on the bond between two men and the only conversation between two female characters in the movie is also about them.  Perfectly serviceable material nonetheless, and the theme of the story transcends gender.  But it’s disappointing when a television series in particular that features ostensibly strong, professional female characters can’t get them talking about anything other than guys they’re dating/want to date/love from afar/can’t stand the sight of.  Most women I know define themselves and the scope of their lives far beyond the parameters of their romantic relationships, or lack thereof as the case may be.  They are people of greater substance than the boy-crazy constructs our screens and e-readers tend to be littered with.  The problem is that success, as defined by (largely male-driven, let’s be honest) popular culture, means very different things for the sexes.  The man wins the big game, scores the important account, kicks the villain off the precipice to his doom.  The woman gets Prince Charming and the happily ever after.

The key to starting off any story is figuring out what the character wants.  What’s interesting is that for most male characters, “getting the girl” is almost always the secondary goal.  In any James Bond movie that consideration comes only after the cat-stroking baddie’s plan to blow up the world has been thwarted.  By contrast, “getting the guy” is usually the primary goal for a female protagonist, and her professional goals (if there are any) are depicted as less important in the face of the possibility of true love.  (In stories where getting the girl is the man’s primary goal, said “getting” often means “getting between the sheets with” and an apple pie’s honor gets besmirched in the process.)  It therefore follows, given this premise, that conversations between characters, whether the same gender or not, would be oriented exclusively towards the pursuit of the primary goal.  In the case of two women speaking to one another, this means the subject will be a man and/or men, and thus, bzzzzt!  Bechdel Test fail.

No one is suggesting that we should stop writing love stories, or, more to the point, stories where love is all you – man or woman – need, or want.  Love is so indelibly part of the human experience that to expect otherwise is unrealistic.  It behooves us though, particularly male authors, to consider the Bechdel Test as we craft the interactions of our characters.  It’s a premise as simple as the old advice about avoiding clichés.  Instead of writing lazily that something is “as black as night” or comparing the blackness of said object to coal or ravens, force yourself away from those hoary old examples toward something new.  Likewise, if you’re writing a conversation between two women, say to yourself from the outset that the subject of men is verboten and see where the words take you instead, once you manhandle them (pun intended) onto a different path.  Yes, a large portion of “The Genoa Tip” was devoted to the aftermath of Maggie’s breakup with Don, the implosion of her friendship with her roommate over her now-very-public feelings for Jim and so on, but did a perfectly reasonable and professional discussion between Maggie and Mac over whether or not Maggie could go to Uganda on assignment have to be spoiled by Mac’s unnecessary comment about Will’s doucheyness?  I may be picking nits a little, but when the episode (and indeed, much of the series to date) had already ventured so deeply into Bechdel-fail territory it was just one tiptoe too far.

Ultimately, the lesson of the Bechdel Test, and why I consider it useful in approaching fiction (and even non-fiction opinion pieces such as this one) is this:  there is far more to a woman, and to women, than the men they fall in or out of love with, and our stories about them should reflect that.