Essay: Baby…

Last week, Steve Duin, columnist for the Oregonian, lamented the misogynistic, graphic, abuse of women—or in this case woman—as seen in the David Fincher version of the movie The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He wondered what his 21 year old daughter made of the violence and compared the different message given by another movie of the holiday season—Hugo.

Well, I’m not related to Steve Duin, and I am not 21 any longer, but I am a woman and I do have something to say about women and movies. While the “business-as-usual” depiction of violence against women is, and continues to be disturbing, my feeling is that it part of an even bigger problem. To twist a line from the band Cake, when it comes to women appearing in movies, “baby, we’re never there.”

In comparison to men, women’s stories are rarely told on screen. If we appear at all, it’s usually in one of two ways: as the biblically approved “helpmate” to further the male protagonist’s story; or the jezebel role keeping the male protagonist from something. Let’s take other movie Duin mentions, Hugo. The man character is a twelve year old boy. The secondary character is an aging toy seller. Both of these characters have female companions to help them along their journey: the toy seller has a supportive wife and the boy has a friend, the granddaughter of the toy seller, who might hold the key to solving one of the movie’s mysteries. Don’t get me wrong, Hugo is a good movie, well acted, well directed, beautiful to watch and I recommend it (although it is a tad slow.) But if you are looking for a story about women—their thoughts, their feelings, their journey, their growth—this is not your film.

And neither are most other films. I didn’t believe this myself until I started keeping track one year. I put each movie through the Bechdel Test. In order to pass the test, a movie must answer in the affirmative to the following three questions:

  1. It includes two women
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man.

I didn’t expect a large number of movies to meet this guideline, but I watch a range of movies, from big, dumb blockbusters, to mainstream fare to independent and foreign films. Given such breadth, women would be somewhat represented in these films right?

Wrong. To my dismay, the vast majority of the films I watched that year did not even meet the first criteria, either having no women at all, or one woman (the wife/girlfriend role.) Sporadically I would view a film with two women in it, but when they did interact, they—yep—talked about a man.

This is a problem. It’s part of the blatant and pervasive sexism that seeps through every part of American culture. Women make up half of the population, but our stories–at least the ones that have something to do with a topic other than finding love–are not told. We don’t see ourselves on the big screen. The fact that we are rarely, if ever, on screen tells a bigger tale about our place in society than any movie made about the subject.

What to do? Let’s get some more women writing scripts and women directing and producing, heading major studios. Perhaps men could also take an interest in movies that tell women’s stories. We’ve got stories to tell and not just about how we landed our man.

2 thoughts on “Essay: Baby…”

  1. Well put. I never thought about it before you shared about the Bechdel Test. Now I have more of a view of such things. Shawn was thinking that The Help actually passes the test. It is a woman's tale and there is relatively little talk or even presence of men. I know that there are other issues that people see with the 'white savior' role and classism and racism at play, but the women in this movie are real. What do you think?

  2. I haven't seen the film yet, due to a movie viewing attempt that failed due to lack of sinage. (Long grumpy story.) But I read the book, so I can guess. I think the movie does indeed probably pass the test, so YAY! And I loved the book, and, at the same time, also felt weird about the 'white savior' role. But in the book there was good development of the white lady understanding, etc. I myself would feel pretty uncomfortable writing oppressed people, but since I don't write fiction, there isn't much chance of that.

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