What do women talk about when they’re alone? (Or how the Bechdel Test terrifies me)

The Bechdel test, which is probably familiar to quite a lot of you, especially those who actively fight against sexism in media, is a simple test that is terrifying in its results. It can be used to evaluate all fiction, but is most readily used to analyse films as that was the original joke in the comic strip it originated in. The test is as follows:

Does your film have:

  • More than one woman?
  • If so do these women talk to each other?
  • And do they talk about anything other than the male characters in the film?

It originally appeared in the comic included below.

The-Rule.
Dykes to Watch out For, Alison Bechdel, 1985

 

If your answer to any of the above is no, congratulations! Your film has officially failed the Bechdel test and, theoretically, is at least a little sexist. Now, to people who are reading about this test for the first time, look over your favourite films and try to figure out whether they pass this test, because there’s a pretty good chance they don’t. I’ll give you some of my favourites which don’t.

  • All of the original Star Wars trilogy
  • The Whole Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • Almost every Marvel film
  • The Godfather
  • Schindler’s List
  • One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • E.T.
  • Jaws
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This rule points out a very real, and very important, problem in the film industry. Women simply don’t have enough representation as major characters in stories, and when they are included are included for the purposes of either moving the plot forward or as an object of desire for ‘more important characters’. This simply isn’t healthy for society, especially a society so saturated with entertainment of this nature. Over 50% of the population is women, and these are fully realised, 3-D people with ambitions, likes, dislikes, fears and dreams, and too few films show this.

Out of the list above, the fact that none of my favourite trilogies have any real female interaction, and that some don’t even have female characters with depth (I’m looking at you Mary Jane, Pepper Pots, that girl in Thor and pretty much all the marvel girls) scares me. What scares me the most is that I don’t understand why. I don’t understand why superheroes, who are all about looking as average, nerdy or weak as you can be, or alternatively as strong, suave and impressive as you can, but having hidden powers inside, relegates women to almost purely romantic roles. These are films where it would be really easy to have an equitable number of female characters, as the fact that many of the characters are male has absolutely no connection to the plot.

For example, let’s take The Avengers as our starting point. Let’s see about changing the gender of some of the characters. You can’t change Thor, because he’s a mythological figure. You know, apart from the fact that he’s supposed to have red hair. Okay. How about Captain America? Admittedly his character comes from a time when women weren’t really allowed in the military, so let’s leave him alone too. However, there is no problem with switching Iron Man’s gender,there’s no reason he can’t be a genius, playgirl, philanthropist with a kickass robot suit. It’s the same deal with the Hulk and Hawkeye since neither of their powers (being a bad scientist and archery) are inherently male qualities. Finally let’s decide to keep Hulk male because he’s losing his shirt a whole lot, and we want kids to watch this film. We now have 3 male superheroes and 3 female superheroes. Now, after changing the genders, don’t change any lines in the film. Is it the same film? You’re damn right it is. Well no, it’s more representative, and finally passes the Bechdel Test, but the plot hasn’t taken any hits, no changes have had to be made, and the story is just as believable.

However, this isn’t to say that the Bechdel Test is completely fair, accurate, or that it definitely should be passed. In fact, it shouldn’t be a priority for any filmmaker. It should simply be the natural conclusion of having female characters in a story that should have female characters. Furthermore, films that don’t pass it should not be blindly judged for this. For example, one of my favourite films of all time, and one that is guaranteed to make me tear up, is Shawshank Redemption, a brilliant example of how a film can be timelessly great to watch for anyone. Completely fails the Bechdel test though. There’s one female character in it, and she has about one line directed at a male character. This doesn’t make this particular film sexist though. There is absolutely no reason to include two female characters talking in a film entirely focused on the male prison system. Gravity also fails the Bechdel Test, though the main character is female, and this is because the film is about isolation in space, not because it doesn’t respect its female character.

In fact, in my opinion the most important part of the Bechdel Test is the third question: ‘Do they talk about anything other than the male characters?’. This is so important, because if this happens in a film, it displays such a lazy approach to writing female characters, and one of the most offensive ways to write female characters, as plot devices with no real depth or personality. If two female characters only talk about the male characters in a film, it means the only reason for that scene is to move the plot forwards while showing how interested the female characters are in the male characters. It also falls into the common trap of writing women in a plot first manner. This means to include a female character to affect the plot, and write their personality as an almost secondary consideration, so that the main feature of the female character is that they’re female, not anything else about their personality. So many screenwriters write female characters from the perspective of the main character, as ancillary features in that character’s adventure, which means they can only ever be shallow  creations, with no real depth, because they aren’t fully realised characters. They rely on the main character to give them their meaning, their purpose, and the describe their personality, which is just bad writing. Any writer should aim to create characters with more than one dimension, and by making the most important part of a female character their relationship with a male character it becomes very hard to do this.

To sum this up, I feel that female characters tend to be written with the idea that male viewers will be watching, so what will impress those viewers is the most important consideration, which leads to weak characters. I think the Bechdel Test shows this because I think, more than anything, writers feel that men want women to talk about them while they’re away, rather than actually thinking it’s what that character would talk about.

I guess what I’m trying to say, albeit in a long and convoluted way, is that I want to see an attitudinal shift in movies, where including women isn’t necessary to make a film, but if you do include a female character, you do it right. It should not be done so a film merely has a ‘token woman’, so that there is something for male viewers to fantasise about, but so that a film has a good cast of diverse characters for people to relate to. If two females characters are left alone in a room to talk, they should have enough depth to their characters that there should be something for them to talk to relevant to the plot other than who they fancy, and why they do. Even in Rom-Coms. Especially in Rom-Coms.

To anyone making films out there, I leave you with a question. Does your film pass the Bechdel Test? If not, ask yourself whether it should, it shouldn’t take long to have an answer.

I wrote this while listening to: World Music by Goat

The Graduate (Or how the length of a single shot can change an entire film)

Welcome to the Ynos Blog, where all things creative will be talked about. We hope you enjoy. Our first post is about the length of shots in movies, and how particularly long shots can change entire films.

One of the first things I was told when I started filming and editing was ‘don’t let a shot go on for more than five seconds’. That advice is obviously wrong, but there is an inkling of truth in it, and every filmmaker is taught a version of it. There are a few rules to adhere to when filming, and by adhere I mean ‘break them occasionally for bigger effect’, and this is one of them. Don’t let a shot go on for too long, because if you do you’ll lose the viewer’s attention. A shot is an unbroken clip from one camera angle, when the angle changes the shot ends. The fundamental idea is that changing the angle means that the brain wakes up and takes focus as what it is seeing has rapidly changed. There are obviously many more reasons for changing shots, to bring focus to a particular part of the scene, to change the shot in time to the music etc. etc., but the main reason for changing a shot quickly is not to lose the viewers’ attention.

Of course, as with most rules, this is effectively an arbitrary choice displayed as a rule that is taught to filmmakers early. I mean, you only have to look at the differences in average shot length between directors to see that everyone makes their own stylistic choice in how long they let shots go on for. Christopher Nolan’s average shot length (ASL) is 3.1 seconds while Woody Allen’s ASL is 17.5 seconds, and I’ve enjoyed both their work immensely. As a rule of thumb, shorter shots lead to punchier, more action filled movies, while longer shots lead to more tense, cerebral experiences, as the viewer is left to look at a shot longer and focus their attention on it.

I hate rules. I think putting too many rules on any art form can lead to stagnancy. Just looking at current Hollywood mainstream releases shows how teaching too many people the same methods and rules leads to everything eventually looking the same. I watched ‘Out of the Furnace’ last week with Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, and despite containing two of my favourite actors, I could not tell it apart from 90% of action thrillers released by Hollywood.

Fortunately, the side effect of putting so many rules on an art form is that when someone finally does break the rules in an interesting way (no ‘The Room’, I’m not looking at you), it really does stand out. With regards to shot length, this means there are some incredible long shots in cinematic memory that have indelibly etched themselves into film history. My personal favourite example of this (though there are dozens) is the final scene of ‘The Graduate’. Released in 1967, and starring Dustin Hoffman at his best, this film is already a great comedic drama, funny and heart wrenching in equal parts. It is a genuinely great romance film that I can watch time and time again. However, it is the final scene that remains in my mind whenever I think about how much a long shot can change the entire feeling of a film.

To put it in context, Dustin Hoffman is trying to prevent the wedding of the girl he loves and her family-approved husband. He breaks into the church, rescues her and they elope. They get on a bus, the passengers look at them with some confusion, he looks like a mess and she is in a wedding dress, and it cuts to them smiling and, ‘boom’, the credits roll after an average storyline of love and redemption with a happy ending.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahFARm2j38c&w=560&h=315]

Except it doesn’t. That final shot continues for an incredible 40 seconds. And we, the viewers, see their smiles fade as they realise the enormity of their decision, the rashness of their actions, and their lack of a plan for their future ahead. While this happens it goes from a deathly silence to playing ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Simon and Garfunkel. It is only after this painful, awkward shot, with neither of the two main characters meeting each other’s eyes,  that the film finally ends. With 40 seconds to watch this shot, the viewer has enough time to take in every small detail, every single change in the characters’ expressions. With one single shot, the entire ending, and indeed the entire feel of the film, changes. It goes from happy to bittersweet in just one shot.

Breaking the generally accepted ‘rules’ of how long a shot should be is what has led to some of the greatest film moments in history, and displays how rules really are there to be broken, at least when done by people who know what they’re doing and when it also relates to filmmaking specifically and, you know,…not the law and stuff.

Have any favourite long shots you want to share? Put them in the comments below! (Except Russian Ark. That doesn’t count)

I wrote this while listening to: The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel