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Friday 19 September 2014

The best Bechdel movies: embracing some girl power

Ben Keenan's pick of the best films that pass the (admittedly flawed) gender equality test. Girl Power! or something ...

Ben Keenan

Published 10/07/2014 | 02:30

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Lindsay Lohan leads the cast of Mean Girls
Lindsay Lohan leads the cast of Mean Girls
Disney’s latest animated blockbuster Frozen
Disney’s latest animated blockbuster Frozen
Natalie Portman in the Oscar winning ballet drama Black Swan
Natalie Portman in the Oscar winning ballet drama Black Swan

In Ireland today, women can order a pint in a pub, sit on a jury, keep a government job if she gets married, buy contraceptives and demand equal pay – none of which was legally permitted by the State even 40 years ago. Scandalous, right? As progressive as our country (and indeed the world) is slowly becoming, the scale of the work remaining is no clearer than in the issue of gender bias in pop culture.

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The Bechdel test has been gathering momentum in the last five years or so, being regularly referred to in film criticism, and even becoming an informal part of Sweden's ratings board, so citizens can determine a movie's bias before going to see it. Flawed, yes, but intriguing nonetheless.

Follow us down this list of films that would pass with an A+ rating.

Frozen (2013)

Of course you saw this coming, but Disney's latest animated film is more than deeply watchable fare with a good gender balance in the cast – a wonderful thing in its own right – it's hilariously funny, genuinely moving and its sisterly leads are compelling characters with relatable arcs, whether you're male or female. Oh yeah, and 'Let It Go' rules.

The box office receipts are also a resounding response to the distributors, producers and marketers who say that films with female characters don't succeed financially, and will hopefully be the forefront of a sea-change in children's films for years to come.

Maleficent (2014)

Disney's recently-released entertaining retelling of their classic Sleeping Beauty (1959) may not be particularly deep or serious, but the titular fairy queen spends most of the film speaking with other female characters, and almost never about a man. In fact, her story centres on her bonding with other women as a way to lose the rage she feels after being wronged by one of the film's few male characters.

Perhaps tellingly released after Frozen, the denouement would have seemed like a risky move even two years ago, but now feels perfectly-pitched.

Bridesmaids (2011)

A film that alerted the Hollywood mainstream to the fact that, yes, women are funny too (gasp!), not only passes the Bechdel test, but even fails the "reverse" Bechdel test – none of the male characters talk to one another, and the best bit about it is that the film is so good, so sharp and so much fun that you'd never notice either way. Unfairly compared to the Hangover movies, Bridesmaids reaches higher for its laughs with well-written characters, without being afraid to get down and dirty.

Mean Girls (2004)

Ten years ago, Tina Fey's enduring comedy quietly entered and exited the stage, not even entering the box office Top 10, but it has grown in popularity in subsequent years, and not just as a relic of Lindsay Lohan's pre-implosion past, but as a whip-smart critique of American High School clique culture. Don't worry, Tina, we'll never stop trying to make fetch happen.

The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire (2013)

Seen as the film industry's follow-up to Twilight (which also, bizarrely, passes the Bechdel test), The Hunger Games wins out thanks to Katniss, its awesome central character. Unlike the vampire movies' Bella, Katniss Everdeen is strong, self-sufficient, emotionally resilient and entirely admirable in a very relatable way. Sci-fi with a streak of fantasy – the tech is so advanced it may as well be magical – it's a desperately urgent thriller, more exciting and gripping than the first film in the series and featuring powerful women too busy surviving and kicking ass to talk about boys.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

A version of Shakespeare's The Taming of The Shrew, it's known by some as the film where The Joker (Heath Ledger) and Robin (Joseph Gordon Levitt) go to school together, but thankfully there's a lot more going on. While Heath and Joseph are great, most of the humour and heart come from Julia Styles and Larisa Oleynik. Charming and funny, if a little dated in places, it's still worth a watch.

Alien (1979)

Since almost nobody talks to anybody else for vast stretches of this tense classic, it's all the more impressive that two female characters converse at all. There is some debate on whether it qualifies as passing the Bechdel test since their conversations are all about the eponymous alien, but most agree that the alien is asexual, albeit quite phallic.

There is little debate on Ellen Ripley as a brilliant protagonist, however, as she is generally considered one of the greatest female characters in the history of film. This may have something to do with the fact that the role was cast gender-blind, seeing both women and men for the part. It's a vindication of Sigourney Weaver's talent and skill that she was the best person for the job.

Black Swan (2010)

Definitively about female relationships, the story is almost entirely devoid of male characters, with the exception of the predatory dance company director. Natalie Portman is stunning as Nina Sayers, the increasingly brittle and volatile star ballet dancer who teeters on the edge of sanity, bristling against Mila Kunis in lithe, purring form. Winona Ryder's jealous Beth lurks in the wings, feeding an air of menace throughout, but looming large over the central relationship more than anybody else is Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother, a horrifying font of cruelty and emotional violence. Intense from start to finish.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

It's fair to expect that a film about being a famous male actor is going to be a little male-centric, but with all of the complex relationships present, it's worth a head-scratching mention.

Cameron Diaz's Lotte maintains a sexual relationship with Maxine, played with cold glee by Katherine Keener. The twist on the relationship is that it only works when Lotte is in the body of John Malkovich which acts as a temporary conduit for many of its central characters.

Sex and the City 2 (2010)

The Bechdel test was originally conceived as a joke, and though it turned out to be alarmingly difficult for most films to pass, it shouldn't be taken as an indicator of feminist values on its own. It doesn't address what the women do talk to each other about, only that they don't talk about a man. Because of that ambiguity, abhorrent films like Sex and The City 2 pass with flying colours, while arguably doing a lot of damage to the cause of advancing gender equality, destroying the legacy of the TV series, and reducing its characters to shallow consumerists.

The IFI's Beyond The Bechdel is now booking. See ifi.ie/bechdel

What is the Bechdel test?

First appearing in Alison Bechdel’s cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985, The Bechdel test has become a litmus test for the gender bias of a film by asking three simple questions:

● Are there at least two named female characters?

● Do they speak to one another at any point?

● Is their conversation about anything other than a man?

Movies that fail the test

It sounds basic, but you might be surprised how few films pass with flying colours.

Though the test passes films that it probably shouldn't, it also fails films that have strong feminist values, or that at least are deserving of praise in its handling of female characters.

The Avengers (2012)

Writer and director Joss Whedon has a well-earned reputation of writing strong, deep and entertaining female roles. His stint handling Marvel's crowning achievement in franchise-bolstering is no different, with Cobie Smulders' Agent Maria Hill and Scarlett Johansen's Black Widow (aka Agent Romanoff) featuring prominently in the story, the film passes the first line of the test easily. However, since the female leads never speak to one another, it fails parts two and three.

Joss could possibly be forgiven, he was handed a comic property that dates back to 1963, and with characters like Captain America that date back to 1941, he could only do so much to modernise and equalise the massive cast of characters.

Gravity (2013)

A towering achievement for any actor, Sandra Bullock spends most of Gravity's running time completely alone, showing vulnerability and resolution, fighting for her life against huge odds and more than earning her Best Actress nomination at the Oscars. Unfortunately, since there's only one female character, the Bechdel test is a bust. This isn't said to denigrate the test, but it should be used with caution as an indicator of gender bias in the casting and script, not of the movie's values or feminist worth.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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