The Reel Story Behind Media Representation
Think of your favorite movie. If you don’t have one, think of the last one you saw. Keep it in your head for a second while I explain something that might bring you the frustration I experienced.
Growing up, my dad and I watched action movies, such as Westerns, 007, and crime films. I didn’t think much of their plotlines then, but when I look back at them now, I notice a common trend: they all have the same story where a big muscle man saves the day. The girls in the movie only serve to make the man look better, or, worse yet, to sit and just be attractive. For example, let’s look at James Bond films. The Bond girls rarely have names (“Bond girl” alone implies they have no identifying features other than their relationships with 007), they serve only to make James Bond look like a player, and they rarely, if ever, talk to any other female characters with names. If they do, their conversations are almost always about men. In another example, we see the manic pixie dream girl, an archetype of a “mystery girl” whose main purpose is wooing a man or serving as his muse. Women are amazing, strong individuals, so why doesn’t the media portray them as such?
Okay, now think back to that movie I told you to picture. Ask yourself three questions that should all easily have affirmative answers:
Are there two or more women who have names?
If yes, do they talk to each other?
If yes, do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
The list of movies that cannot answer “yes” to these questions is never-ending; even Gravity, centered on a woman, fails the test. These questions belong to the Bechdel Test. What is the Bechdel Test and where did it come from? You might not have ever thought to ask yourself this, which is exactly the problem. Essentially, in 1985, a woman named Alison Bechdel wrote in her comic “Dykes To Watch Out For” about a rule for movies to follow. The comic names the three questions above. The test does have its flaws, but it is not a measure of the movie’s feminist quality––only whether or not it has a female presence. So why does Hollywood need the Bechdel Test? Shouldn’t we have gotten to the point by now where female characters can easily talk about literally anything other than men? For all we care, the conversation could even be about walking their dogs. I tried putting many of my favorite movies to the test, and I was shocked by the results; deciding to research the test further, I checked out bechdeltest.com. I found that only 88 movies passed the test so far in all of 2016; what’s more, out of a sample of 2,500 movies, less than half actually pass the Bechdel Test.
Plenty of stigma surrounds the Bechdel Test, considering that some sexist films do pass it. The Bechdel test is not a permanent solution, but it has spurred discussion, which is a crucial starting point in fairer female representation in film. Authors and directors are taking inspiration from the Bechdel Test to derive new tests. One such test was proposed by comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick originally to evaluate comic books, but it works for all sorts of media. Commonly referred to as the “sexy lamp test,” her rule of thumb reads: “If you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.” Geena Davis, a famous Hollywood actress, in response to why representation matters, replied that “If [girls] can’t see it, they can’t be it,” which is exactly why getting more women into the film industry has such a massive impact. I’m just as much of a movie buff as the next person; imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that in 2009, Kathryn Bigelow became the first and only female director to win an Academy Award. Let me truthbomb you even further: women make up a mere 13% of writers in the media, and female directors make up no more than 7%!
Who are we gonna call for the next movie? Ghostbusters? This time, the classic remake has a full-fledged cast of hilarious female comedians, an addition which created so much stigma over the internet that Leslie Jones, one of its kick butt lady stars was harassed by a racist, sexist hater on Twitter. But really, shouldn’t we give girls this one? I’d like to respond to every hater saying a female cast ruins their childhood: get over it. The Ghostbusters team is full of laughs, in addition to being amazing and intelligent. One character is a physics professor at an Ivy League school. Movies like these allow little girls to see women involved in science, math, or just being strong figures in general. One of my favorite parts of the movie was the fact that Chris Hemsworth played the attractive, dim-witted secretary usually portrayed by a woman: another welcome role reversal! I could not stop cracking up when I went to see this movie. These women are hilarious, and not in the “let’s only make jokes about our guy problems” way. Another crazy thought: Can we try a movie like this with a crazy good group of people of all genders that are all equally hilarious and kick butt? Your move, Hollywood.
Women can hold as much power and responsibility as men, and these two movies help show that reality to a whole new generation of butt-kicking, strong females. YAY GIRLS!
Recently, a Hollywood director directly addressed the lack of representation on and off-screen. Ever seen the movie Guardians of The Galaxy? It’s a space action comedy where a cast of misfits go on an adventure. Director James Gunn recently stated via Facebook that he’s planning on making Guardians of The Galaxy 2. He notices that great male characters often have so many dimensions and flaws, but he never sees that depth in female characters. Bringing up his personal dilemma as a writer, he said “As a person I am a man; as a writer, I need to be everyone.” Yes, he is still a male movie writer, but he acknowledges the bias that exists in Hollywood, and he plans to represent everyone to the best of his ability. In reference to his upcoming sequel, he says the movie “will not only pass the Bechdel Test, but run over it and back up over it again and again in an eighteen-wheeler truck” He wants to make a space in film where “[women’s] stories and the men’s stories don’t come at the expense of each other, but are interwoven in a way to strengthen and optimize all of them.”
In an interview for the documentary film Miss Representation, the activist and comedienne Margaret Cho said “The media treats women like shit.” Yes, it is a documentary, but bear with me because it is pretty darn amazing and eye-opening, as well as covering misrepresentation of women holding power in media. I was almost hesitant to watch it at first, since it did appear to be a formidable subject to take on, but because of its documentary status, we can verify that it was created by real women who have stories and experiences waiting to be shared. The media portrays women to show that their appearance is their most important aspect. One high school student states that “It’s all about the body and not about the brain.” Print advertising, commercials, and cinematography all portray women to show that it is their appearance that matters. If beauty and perfection is the message sent out, how can women focus on changing the world? Miss Representation rips off the beautified Band-Aid of female stereotypes in film and TV to reveal just how limiting such portrayals can be to women in power. Teenage girls, female politicians, journalists, activists, and entertainers all put in their own two cents. The documentary will leave you shocked, but knowing that it is possible to take down the stereotypes will hopefully change the way that we perceive powerful women in our society. Only one click away on Netflix, Miss Representation is not to be missed!
I challenge you to ask yourself the Bechdel Test’s three questions next time you go to the movies. You might be surprised by your results. It’s my hope that eventually there will be so many gender-equal movies that these tests aren’t needed anymore; one day, girls will know that the media needs people of all genders to have their voices be heard! Despite the gigantic strides made in female media representation thus far, we have a long way to go.