Mr. Treehorn treats objects like women, man!

If any of you are Metafilter-readers or regular NPR listeners, you’ve probably heard about the Bechdel rule this week.  If you haven’t heard of the Bechdel rule, here it is, as written in Bechdel’s comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.”

I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements: One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about three, something besides a man.

When I read this, I thought four things:

  1. Boy, lots of cool people are named Alison with one L.
  2. I bet that every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows the Bechdel rule.
  3. But Dr. Horrible definitely doesn’t.
  4. And I bet a lot of my favorite movies fail, too.

It should be noted here that I don’t think that the Bechdel rule should be seen as a hard-and-fast rule–rather, it’s something to make one think about how movies are made, and for what audience.  After all, there are quite a few very good movies that don’t follow this rule, and I’m sure there are some bad ones that do.  It just now occurred to me that a lot of hard-core porn films probably follow the Bechdel rule: the parts at the beginning where they talk about how the cable needs to be fixed, or the refrigerator just broke, or whatever.

Anyway.  Because I find this Bechdel rule very interesting, I’m going to test all the movies on my shelf at home:

The Big Lebowski: Fail.  Two women, Bunny Lebowski and Maude Lebowski, who never speak.

Election: Pass.  Tracy Flick and her mother talk about the election, and Tammy Metzler talks to her sort-of-girlfriend Lisa, though it doesn’t go very well.

Adaptation: Fail. Susan Orlean and Charlie and Donald’s respective love interests don’t talk to each other.

Far From Heaven: Pass.  Cathy and Eleanor talk about the party they host together.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Fail.  Clementine and Mary never meet.

High Fidelity: Uber-Fail.  It’s got lots of women, but they never talk to each other.  This movie fails for a lot of reasons.

Wayne’s World: Fail. Obviously.

The Royal Tenenbaums: Pass.  Margot and Etheline talk about Margot’s depression.

Donnie Darko: Pass. Sometimes Kitty doubts Mrs. Darko’s committment to Sparkle Motion.

Being John Malkovich: Pass-ish.  Lotte and Maxine talk to each other, but they talk about sleeping together while Lotte’s in John Malkovich, so I’m not sure it counts.  That movie’s hard to classify.

Shakespeare in Love: Pass.  Viola and her nurse talk about theatre.

Roxanne: Fail.  Roxanne and Dixie talk, but they talk about men.

Sideways: Fail.  We never see Stephanie and Maya talk to each other.

About Schmidt: Fail. Warren’s daughter and future mother-in-law never have a conversation.

Punch-Drunk Love: Fail. Barry’s sister and Lena talk, but they talk about Barry.

The Man Who Wasn’t There: Fail.  Doris Crane, Ann Nirdlinger, and Birdy never speak to each other.

Pollock: I never watch this movie because it’s too depressing, but I suspect a fail.

So that’s a 64% failure rate.  The point of this, of course, is to illustrate the fact that all too often, women in movies are seen through the eyes of men, or else they’re used as props to illustrate what the central male character is going through.  Rarely are they shown dealing with their own issues that are unrelated to men.

That’s why High Fidelity gets an uber-fail.  All the women in it are props for Rob Gordon to lean against or react to or use to deal with his own issues.  The girls he dumped are happy to see him and talk to him years later, and even when Laura’s dad dies, she chooses to deal with it by having sex with Rob, a plot point that always rang false for me.  I know that the way Rob relates to women is the central point of the movie, but the women in question could really use some help with their self-esteems.

Now that I think about it, the television shows I like follow the Bechdel rule much more often, sometimes even on an episode-by-episode basis.  Buffy, pass.  Veronica Mars, pass.  The Office, pass.  Gilmore Girls, pass.  Lost, pass.  30 Rock, pass.  Granted, most of these are shows with large ensemble casts, and with central issues unrelated to male-female relationships, so it’s easier for them to pass.  But neither Veronica nor Buffy nor the other female characters on those shows could be called props by any stretch.

I’m not sure that this indicates that television is better at fleshing out its female characters, but maybe it does.  Or maybe it’s just that my taste in TV shows runs toward those with female main characters, while my taste in movies runs toward those written and directed by quirky men (Anderson, Kaufman, the other Anderson, Payne, Coens, etc.) who usually write about male protagonists.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m more familiar with television than film.

But it does seem like television has more female writers, directors and show runners than movies have female writers and directors, doesn’t it?

11 thoughts on “Mr. Treehorn treats objects like women, man!

  1. Looking over what I have on my shelf, I think film-wise only The Incredibles passes, and not because of Elasti-Girl talking to Edna (which is mostly about the missing Mr. Incredible) but rather because of Elasti-Girl talking to Violet about growing up and being strong. However, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine all have lots of conversations between women that don’t center around men.

  2. Is it just one conversation that can give it a pass? I kind of wish it was more than that. For instance, what about TV wise, if in an entire episode two women never talk about men? I’m currently watching Buffy, and though I’m only at season 3, so far I don’t think it would work with that because too often Willow’s just there to ask what romantic thing Angel’s done. Veronica Mars would pass, because Mac and Veronica have lots of computer conversations (btw, more talk on the movie being made). Bones and 24 would, too, although I think that’s because they’re both set in the work environment, which lends itself to work conversations. Shows that are about people who aren’t working–say, students–almost always turn to romance, just like in real life with bored kids.

    In spite of the likeliness of two girls never talking about men together in an episode, none of these work for one woman talking about a relationship. If V and Mac don’t talk, V and Logan do. If Buffy and Willow don’t, Buffy and Angel do. If Bones and Angela don’t, Bones and Booth CERTAINLY do. Not that I’m complaining as a TV watcher–not enough romance in an episode will drive me up a wall for the whole week–but it’s interesting at the least. I bet it’s really hard to write a whole episode that’s both engaging and the women don’t talk about/to men.

  3. The thing that I think people are missing about the Bechdel test is that it shouldn’t (necessarily) worry us when an individual movie fails, because there’s nothing wrong with a movie having no real female characters. Some stories just don’t have them. What should worry us is how few movies pass the test. There is something very wrong with most movies having no real female characters.

    What I mean by some stories don’t require real female characters: As a thought experiment, broaden the Bechdel test to require that a film feature conversations about something other than the (female or male) characters’ preferred gender for romantic involvement. That is, the characters have to be talking about something other than love, dating, sex, how men/women are strange, etc. How many movies pass now?

    This is not to say that movies aren’t male-centered as hell–and your point about women directors being far more prevalent in TV than film is true and telling–but often failing the Bechdel test is an indication of shallowness (or narrow focus–many great films only have one or two developed characters because that is whom the story is about) rather than sexism. If your movie is a movie about men doing man things, like being shallow about women, then it’s not likely to feature strong female characters. If your movie is about women doing women things, like being shallow about men, then it’s not likely (though more likely, which is a function both of women generally being more empathic than men and most movies being made or paid for by men) to feature strong male characters. (Slums of Beverly Hills pretty well fails the anti-Bechdel test if my memory of it is accurate. And there’s no reason it shouldn’t.)

    P.S. For extra fun, try it with black people!

  4. Brittanie: Yes! The manic pixie dream girl is often just a prop. I like how it’s turned on its head a bit in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when Clementine essentially tells Joel she’s NOT going to be his manic pixie dream girl.

    Shaun: I agree that the Bechdel rule is sometimes more indicative of bad character development than of sexism, and that films that don’t follow it aren’t necessarily guilty of either. Sideways is a movie about men doing man things, and the lack of conversation between women does not cause the story to suffer, particularly since Maya is a relatively well-developed character with her own motives and ideas.

    Additionally, Election follows the letter of the Bechdel rule but not necessarily the spirit: The two conversations between women in that movie are somewhat brief, and if Tammy Metzler liked boys instead of girls, the second conversation wouldn’t even count. But both Tammy and Tracy are still fascinating characters, and Election’s story doesn’t suffer, either.

    Good point about Slums of Beverly Hills, too. I really ought to have that on DVD.

  5. I don’t know why they have to talk. My favorite people and characters are often loners.

    I knew a girl in college who wrote an undergrad thesis on how Billy Budd was sexist. She was insane.

    I don’t think I agree about High Fidelity. The folk singer, the professional hip girl, and Laura–I think they are all strong characters with no self-esteem problems, other than those of normal people. They are certainly all stronger than Rob, whose lack of self-esteem is the plot driver. (“You broke up with *me*, Rob.”)

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  7. What surprises me is how rarely women talk to other women in movies. I can think of many examples of strong female characters who talk to male characters about things other than men. But I can think of very few examples when women talk to women at all. I don’t own too many movies, but I still want to play the game. The only ones that pass the test in my collection are:

    The Wizard of Oz — Dorothy is a young girl so this may not count, but she does talk to lots of women about things other than men. Even if you exclude Dorothy, her aunt talks to the neighbor and the witches talk to each other.

    Gone With The Wind — Many conversations between different combinations of women about many things.

    But like I said, I don’t own that many movies. I’d like to apply this test to my Netflix queue and see what happens.

    In thinking about all kinds of movies, I came up with a few basic plotlines that involve women talking about things other than men.

    1. Movies about supportive women groups such as Steel Magnolias.

    2. Movies that revolve around families including the matriarch and her daughters or daughter-in-laws like The Family Stone.

    3. Movies that spend at least a little time exploring the relationship between a mentor woman and a younger woman like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

    4. Movies in which one woman teaches another how to be a survivor like The Color Purple.

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  9. i, too, arrived here from mightygirl. i really enjoyed the depression post, since it’s something i’ve struggled with most of my life, in addition to my mom (who attempted) and my uncle (who “was” a successful) suicide. no one i’ve ever dated has been able to understand the depths, so i think maybe i’ll show my honey this next time i need to talk about it.
    also: everyone i’ve talked to this week has had such strong feelings about david foster wallace, and i’ve never heard of him. i must read something.
    AND: omg let’s be best friends; you love buffy and veronica mars too! and you listen to NPR! :)

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