Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Bechdel Rule

The Bechdel Rule is a rule about a comic strip character (see below) who explained that she only viewed films that met three criteria:

1. Two of the characters had to be women --
2. Who talked with each other --
3. About something other than a man.

It is really freaking hard to do.

Jette Kernion (Cinematical) wrote a really interesting piece on how difficult it was for her to generate some titles and that there seemed to be a improportionate amount of teen movies in those that successfully met the criteria. Turns out, female teens talk about more things than just boys. Kernion states
"Sure, the young women talk about their love lives, but also about families, careers and of course those magical pants. When looking for films that met the criteria, I noticed that many of them were young-girl or teen-girl films, from Mean Girls to Bend It Like Beckham."

Three of her top five featured teen protagonists in Juno, Bring It On and Hairspray. Go figure.

Perhaps it is due to our teen years being so much about our peers. In film, it's okay to be hanging out with a bunch of girls talking boys or college or parents or any host of other things. Once a female graduates we usually only see her in a group men or talking trash another because of a male. Screenwriters are taught to not meet The Bechdel Rule in film school because writers need to
"...understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads."
Excuse me while I throw up in my mouth.

In an article for The Hathor Legacy, Jennifer Kesler discusses her professor advising her on a script that featured multiple women (with names) that discussed subjects other than men. She was told, after pushing the issue, that
"The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”

And that people is how we end up with Valentine's Day!

Kim Voynar wrote a post about Great Movies for Smart Girls that shares films that can be identified as films meeting The Bechdel Rule. It's when you start thinking outside the kid and teen realm that you start experiencing issues. Those that came immediately to mind? Nothing. Silence....until Lady Gaga gatecrashed the quiet. Seriously though, the only movie that came to mind was Boys on the Side. Maybe this is cheating as Whoopi Goldberg plays a lesbian and as such might not want to talk about men but that's a great movie about chicks on the road. A League of Their Own was fantastic. If I were to think again... Whip It (adaptation of Shauna Cross' YA title, Derby Girl) but that falls in the teen genre. (Before you start spouting the Sex and the City movie as evidence of the rule...let me shush you. There will be no talk of that abysmal film on this blog. You can read the problems with that argument here.)

Woman are currently the biggest, growing demographic in film audiences. The box office success of Mamma Mia, Dear John, Valentine's Day and even the aforementioned SATC movie are proof of this. But none of these movies feature more than one woman speaking to another about anything other than men. Monika Bartyzel (Cinematical) goes into more depth about the concept that a female audience will forgive a lack of realistic themes and characterisations in order to have a "fun" experience. (I conceed that I have been known to do this frequently.)

What movies do meet the litmus test of this Rule? Whip It. Juno. Princess Diaries...the relationship between Mia and Lilly is proof of this (adapted from YA). The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 1 and 2 (a YA adaptation of Ann Brashares work) features boy talk but a lot of other subject matter too. Nancy Drew. If it weren't for YA, the Hollywood machine would have nada.

What is even more depressing is that some of my favourite strong female characters don't fall within the Rule's film parameters. Princess Leia, turns out, doesn't talk to chicks all that much...not even about boys. Kate in The Cutting Edge might really want a gold at the Olympics but she doesn't have time to talk to those of her gender. Up in the Air, which is a splendid movie and resulted in both female stars (Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga) being nominated for Oscars, speak once about the former's boyfriend. What about Sarah Connor? Nope, she was too busy boinking Kyle Reece or running from a Terminator to speak to a woman. It's depressing to think that most movies don't even feature women speaking to one another.

Some of my favourite teen movies fail The Rule. John Hughes' work in Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles don't do anything to help themselves. Claire and Allison may speak to one another in the former but only when buffered by the guys or (and I call this an exception) when one of them is getting prettified for the purpose of smooch-age. Princess Bride is a favourite but Buttercup only talks to herself, a masked man/farm boy or Prince Humperdink. Dazed and Confused offers little to support itself, as does Empire Records or Mallrats. My favourite films failed me.

Television saves me. But I shall not go into it. Film should be able to stand alone as proof that women talk about more than men, and do in fact speak to one another when we are not related. Television also has the benefit of considerable more time to build relationships and a world for its characters. If you want to see some quality television female interactions that aren't man-centric think The West Wing (two words, CJ Cregg), Gilmore Girls (it's there, believe me), Veronica Mars (Veronica and Mac, it might be computer talk but it counts) or Sex and the City (it's a different beast.)

Until women stop forgiving condescending movies. Until more women are hired to write screenplays and direct movies. Until all screenwriters, and the film industry itself, view women as more than a bitchtastic male-centric time...The Bechdel Rule will be hard to meet. Let's hope upcoming films do more to dispell the notion that woman can be seen in numbers more than one on screen, and can in fact talk about a multitude of topics.

The scariest thing about The Rule? It was written twenty-three years ago and nothing has changed in the film industry...yet. Thank goodness for YA!

What are your thoughts?


Lenore Appelhans said...

The characters in Kill Bill are mostly women and talk to each other about killing each other ;)

Adele said...

Excellent example! And they have mad fighting skills too. PLUS awesome hair.

April (BooksandWine) said...

Adele, this was completely fascinating. I've never heard of the Bechdel Rule. Of course, I think it's messed up how little films have women talking about something other than men, like men always have to take center stage even when they aren't in the film like in the movie The Women, there are no men in the film at all, yet the movie is ALL about a man. Tell me that's not messed up.

I know I'd like to see a film where it follows the Bechdel Rule (I loved Mean Girls), so why is it film makers are still catering to patriarchy when women definitely spend way more than men.

Lenore Appelhans said...

They do have great hair!

La Coccinelle said...

How far are we supposed to take this rule, though? You'd miss out on an awful lot of good movies if you decided not to see anything that met these requirements.

Men comprise half of the population on this planet, so it seems only natural that women would talk about them. Women talk to each other more, and about relationships especially. The only way you wouldn't have them talking about men would be if they were lesbians (and I have a feeling that that would violate the rule, too... it seems that the spirit of the rule is to not talk about relationships, rather than just men -- but if the rule is as old as you say it is, then I can understand why it makes assumptions and just talks about men).

Miss Cackle said...

In Spice World The Movie, they talk about LOTS of stuff (including Manta Rays) ;o)

in which a girl reads said...

Wow, super interesting post! I'd never heard of the Bechdel rule before, but you definitely pointed out some things about films I hadn't noticed before. Very eye-opening :)

Lynn M said...

In Little Women the Marsh girls talk about stuff other than men, especially before Laurie comes along.

Um...that's all I can think of off the top of my head.

Cecelia said...

This is absolutely fascinating! I hadn't realized that it was the case, but now that you've brought the rule to my attention, I'm having a hard time coming up with any titles...

Wow. Great post!