There are Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers below. If you care about that sort of thing, there's a wookiee in it. If you don't, read on.
I am very happy with two blockbusters this year - Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I am happy not only because they were both awesome adrenaline rush stories that left me wanting more, but my love is multiplied by all the strong female characters. Not only Imperator Furiosa and Rey, but also General Leia Organa and the women-run motorcycle gang, as well as Captain Phasma and each of the brides.
Thing is, none of these characters were cookie-cutter. Each of them had a distinct personality backed up by amazing acting, a reason for being in the story, and all of them contributed to that story. And every single one was different from the other.
Another movie I loved from 2015? Trainwreck. Amy Schumer’s tale of female playboy getting it real with a guy she could fall for and change her one-night-stand ways was real. This is how some women live their lives, and it was so refreshing to see Amy do this with such honesty and humor. And the jokes had me reeling with laughter born from relief. I could laugh at this. This was happening. Someone finally said this in a movie.
Women should to be represented like this in all entertainment, different kinds of women. Women like Amy’s character in Trainwreck, both at the beginning of the movie, and going through that change. Women like the motorcycle gang in Fury Road, who belong to something greater because they have each other. Women like Rey in The Force Awakens, who are clinging to something they know they’ll never have, but then discover they have the capacity to give more to the Galaxy than they can by looking behind them.
But when my husband said, “Some countries are putting the Bechdel Test into their ratings system,” I groaned. A movie doesn't become feminist because a specific conversation was shoehorned in. Feminism runs deeper, stronger, and with more meaning than just that. The story has to have fully-formed female characters who impact the narrative by being in it. They have to affect the narrative, and their actions in it have to have consequences that carry through. The women in the story need to have agency. And for a long time in entertainment, they didn’t have or do any of that.
The women can’t be tools or devices, they can’t be plot points.
That conversation between them can’t be about shoes and suddenly the movie counts.
Writers can write an entire story with two female major characters, one of them the protagonist, but their conversations revolve around the villain, who is male. But their decisions do major things in the story, they make good or bad choices that have consequences. They do things, change the story. They have agency. They are well-developed and unique characters who stand out from one another. But somehow, just because the story (or movie) doesn’t pass a test, it doesn’t count as feminist.
Feminism in entertainment can't be decided by a test. What has it become? The American school system?
When I’m deciding whether something rates on my feminism scale as high or low, the Bechdel Test is last on my score of Feminist / Not Feminist. I’m looking for all the things I mentioned before:
Jane The Virgin rates high on my feminism scale because of the huge number of female characters on the show, and the amount of things they do that affect the story. Seriously, if you took 3 of the less-major female characters out like Petra's mom, Alba, and Jane's best friend, the first season would change. (Although the amount of times Jane doesn’t listen to Raphael kind of irks me a bit - relationships are partnerships).
Game of Thrones? Not so much. Yes, there are a lot of women on that show, but aside from Melissandra (the red priestess who hung out with Stannis), most of the female characters spend their time reacting rather than acting. Some people will have an issue with this, but I still like the show. I find the characters compelling and the story fascinating. It’s that I don’t think show is feminist.
What I’m afraid of, in these countries where the Bechdel Test is being considered in the ratings system, is that moviemakers will pander to the Test alone and consider that their hat-tip to feminism and feel they’re done. The optimist in me hopes after Fury Road and The Force Awakens this all changes, but sometimes the easy road is … well, easier. Why do all the work when all that’s needed is this one thing?
This all being said, I’m looking forward to a 2017 and 2018 filled with more Furiosas, Reys, and Amys. With more all-women motorcycle gangs and General Leia Organas. With more Captain Phasmas and all those brides. With more Janes and Petras. With more Albas and Xos. With women who want, who do, who fight, who love, who hate, and generally affect change in all the stories I know they can.