Something about film has been bothering me for a while. Admittedly I am not a cinematic connoisseur; my ‘Top 10’ list is dominated by bizarre comedies and features of less than two hours. (I have an unreasonably short attention span in this area.) But I’ve sat through a fair few, and read many more reviews and synopses, and one thing is frequently apparent: that there are painfully few decent, interesting, well-rounded parts for female characters.
My annoyance was recently piqued by a Guardian feature on Kerry Washington, who currently has a starring role in *television* drama Scandal, which listed her most notable film parts as such, without any comment on their common qualifier:
“…she played Idi Amin’s wife in The Last King of Scotland, Ray Charles’ wife in the biopic Ray and Broomhilda, wife of the slave Django, in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.”
The brief description of each role makes it clear that in every instance her purpose on screen is restricted to her relationship with a male character. I have only seen Django Unchained out of the films quoted, and from my viewing I understood Broomhilda ultimately as a plot device around which Django’s character and journey could be built. As for the other films, the clue is in the titles. The men are the subjects, and I guess that makes women objects, available to be manipulated in the manner that suits the story best: acting as a catalyst; a symbol for downfall or redemption; and/or to highlight and provide explanation for the flaws/strengths of a male character.
Literature in the past has not been kind to women, either. Up until an embarrassingly recent century, the idea/ideals of woman were always a male construct. I spent much of the three years of my English degree getting wound up over the dichotomy between reality and expectation of female appearance, ambition, sexuality… As Virginia Woolf said, “It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex”. Thankfully, there have since been countless brilliant female writers that have portrayed women in an honest and interesting way – though let’s willfully forget the horrors that are the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sagas, which set back these developments by about two hundred years. In film, the ratio of female to male screenwriters is worryingly askew. Hollywood mirrors many other industries with its dearth of women in powerful and decisive roles. Yet here it poses a particular problem, as the film industry is responsible for the output of influential visual representations of society. Yes, yes, yes, it’s largely fiction, I know that the chances of a dashingly blonde Norse god running around with a hammer are, in reality, slim, but even so, why is Natalie Portman reduced to a boring earth-bound role with the main purpose of showing that, for all his muscles, Thor can be sensitive? If you’re going to make this stuff up, at least make the attempt to suggest that women have a bigger part to play in intergalactic battles than simply a sounding board for male characters’ emotions. (NB: I am aware that Thor was originally a comic, a medium with all its own inherent controversies regarding sexism and diversity.)
The Bechdel Test was devised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel to ‘measure’ women’s interaction with each other on screen, and whether the extent of their interaction went beyond discussing men/male characters. In 2013, women are still represented as a minority group in film, despite making up over half of the cinema-going audience. Consider the films you have seen recently in relation the criteria below, and see how many come up trumps:
The Bechdel Test
1) The film has at least two (named) female characters…
2) …These women actually talk to each other…
3) …About something other than a man.
The last film that I watched was Lawless, which I greatly enjoyed and would definitely recommend. But it doesn’t pass Bechdel’s test. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska have the rather obvious function of providing some testosterone relief to this Western themed cock fight, which the opening and closing credits make sure that we are aware is based on a True Story. All the more problematic – the women in this film have little else to do than, respectively, serve up refreshments and act the dutiful daughter. While the Bondurant brothers live a life fueled by adrenaline, acting on the wrong side of the law and taking revenge (and certain parts of male anatomy) into their own hands, their lady loves sit at home peeling potatoes and feeding goats. Is the reality of being a woman really so boring?! Movie statistics show that in order for a female character to get some decent action and more than a word in edge ways onscreen, there needs to be a woman behind the camera. Otherwise she is a veritable mute, likely to be a lover or female relative. The sitcom title Two and a Half Men also happens to be the average ratio of men to every woman on the silver screen.
After some research to help me write this post, I have discovered that there is a lot of discussion surrounding this and similar subjects online, and that there plenty of statistics to more than prove the point. But I’ve also realised that my frustration has been misplaced. It has always irked me when a talented female actor has taken a ‘bit part’ in a film, no matter how critically acclaimed or successful it is, or when some seem content to take the same backseat roles in different pictures. The real problem here lies higher up in the film food chain, with a severe lack of women in key positions such as script writing and directorial. There is an obvious solution, sadly easier said than done; so, until the balance is redressed, I guess I’ll just have to keep vigil at my Bridesmaids shrine.