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:
- Boy, lots of cool people are named Alison with one L.
- I bet that every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows the Bechdel rule.
- But Dr. Horrible definitely doesn’t.
- 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?