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Posts Tagged ‘Bechdel test’

by Julia

NOTE: When I watch SATC, I’m not trying to focus on the whiteness, thinness, richness, heterosexualness. That is all a given. So if you’re looking for that in a post, look elsewhere – there’s plenty on that. Or talk to me. Just don’t critique me for my hypocrisy. thanks 🙂

Last evening, I went to see Sex and the City 2 with my mom in Baltimore. Mom and I have shared Sex and the City as one of our girly guilty pleasure shows since I was in high school. Like Grey’s Anatomy, SATC always exists for me when I’m in the mood for semi-self reflection/semi-escapism from a television.  Naturally, the story lines within are familiar, and Mom and I were both interested to see where the lives of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha would go next. In that respect, I was pleasantly surprised (with one major exception). The characters’s modern-day and materialistic existences are clearly not fulfilling them, and it takes a week away with the girls – of course – to remind them of their individual voices and needs.

*Spoilers ahead*

The film begins – where else? – in Manhattan, with the girls reuniting at Bergdorf Goodman to shop the registry for Stanford and Anthony’s GAY wedding. Some critics said these first few scenes were the best in the film, but I’ve never been a big Liza Minnelli fan (nor of overtly gay generalizations), so I’ll leave it to y’all to see the extravagance for yourselves. What I did enjoy about the first half of the film was the peek inside the lives of these women.

Charlotte is still with Harry and her adorable daughters Rose and Lily are proving quite taxing on the couple. Obviously, they’ve hired a gorgeous Irish nanny, Erin, who helps Charlotte out but also raises fears that Harry might cheat with the nanny. DRAMA. Samantha is 52, single, and going through menopause. Fortunately, she has the help of 44 hormones and supplements to maintain her notorious libido. Carrie is entering her third year of marriage with Big, and she worries that they are settling into a “normal” couple routine of nights in with TV and carry out. She also worries that any semblance of asserting herself would render her a “bitch wife who nags,” so she usually acquiesces to Big.

That brings us to Miranda. Miranda has always been my favorite character – probably because she leads the most realistic romantic life, contributes snarky remarks to conversations, and boasts a successful (if tiring) balance between her position as a partner in a law firm and a mother. Miranda’s home life is going well – Brady’s in second grade! – but she is being literally silenced at work by the new senior partner. One boardroom scene reveals the dynamics – all board members are white males, except for one black man and Miranda, a white female. The senior partner, also a white male, consistently puts his hand up to Miranda’s face when she speaks. I was really interested to see where this story line went, and really hoped it wouldn’t turn out that Miranda would quit and become a stay at home mom to avoid losing her voice at work.

Enter Abu Dhabi. I’ll take a few lines from Andrew O’ Hehir’s brilliant (if cynical) review of SATC2 to explain the transition:

“Do you really want me to reconstruct how this movie gets from a gay wedding in Connecticut through the lugubrious scenes of Carrie and Big’s vampire-like existence and onward somehow to a girls-only, all-expenses-paid luxury getaway to Abu Dhabi? Because I can’t.”

So the girls end up in the United Arab Emirates. Suspend your doubts, stifle your cringes with Carrie’s Alaadin analogies, and just roll with it. To keep this post from being too long, I’ll give you my take on the relatively plotless movie: it took a trip to the Middle East to help the women rediscover themselves – the women that I came to know inside and out throughout the series. I think this film would have taken a different turn had the women escaped to, say, Dubai. In a parallel world of excess, it is unlikely that the opportunity for cinematic self-reflection would have manifested. However inaccurate the cultural portrayals were (and they were pretty egregious – more on that in a minute), the comparison between the niqabi women of the UAE and the silenced SATC women was too hard to ignore. Observing one veiled woman being sheltered by her husband in the presence of Samantha’s antics, the girls remark that these women symbolically lack voices, and it is in this revelatory moment that Miranda and Charlotte rediscover themselves.

Miranda quits the big firm and joins what appears to be a public interest firm with an incredibly diverse group of attorneys. Yay! Charlotte takes time to herself and frees herself from the daily mommy routine. Erin, the nanny, is a lesbian – phew, no threat to the marriage there! And Samantha remains fabulously sexually active. Woo! Carrie, on the other hand…ugh. Throughout the series and this movie, she had been the proponent “making your own rules” and disregarding dating scripts. Yet she ends up in the most oppressive relationship of the film. I can only chalk it up to mediocre writing on Michael Patrick King’s part. That, or, you know, hegemonic monogamy or something, but I told myself I’d stay away from that in this blog post…

Much more disturbing than Carrie’s story line was the portrayal of “the other” in this film. Sadly, this includes the women and men of Abu Dhabi. I do not claim to be an expert on orientalism,  but even a cursory analysis of the film unveils obvious mischaracterizations. Just as the film portrays the SATC women in a overly materialistic, immature, and shallow light, so MPK paints Muslim women as universally silenced by aggressive men and their religions. This type of cultural misunderstanding is painfully accurate of Western perspectives on Islam of late (see: Sarkozy.) Muslim culture is exploited by the film in order to liberate the oppressed women of SATC. As Salon’s Wajahat Ali notes, this only results in further isolation of Muslim women – they are cast as intriguing, mysterious, and…silent. Our girls could have engaged with local women – at one point, I thought they were going to lead a feminist uprising of sorts! But, alas, the only cultural immersion consists of Carrie purchasing shoes for all of the ladies from a local vendor. In this way, our Manhattan visitors repeat the time-honored tradition of exploiting the natives in order to liberate themselves. (Ali also notes that the SATC women never exchange a word with any veiled women. I propose the creation of a new cultural Bechdel test.)

A greater message could certainly have included an anti-materialistic spin. For certain, “the ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense.” It would seem that a materialistic existence in NYC hasn’t proven to be everything to everyone, but let’s not go too far, America. Could it be that MPK perhaps put feminism first, and in the next installment the girls will kick capitalism to the curb (with thrift store Louboutins!)? Nahh, probably not. Because, let’s be real, the clothes were fabulous. With the exception of  this film’s Ms. Exception, Carrie Bradshaw. Seriously, that skirt in the market? wtf.

No, what we’re left with is exactly what we expected: an escape into a world of material excess and personal strife. And, like all good “chick flicks,” this one made me pretty damn happy to be where I am.

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by Julia

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the incredible importance of fostering a sense of community based on common experiences. From campus activism to personal relationships, exposing commonalities (especially through the accessible application of theory) is perhaps the most effective means of transforming society. This realization also results in anger at the inane portrayals of so-called female commonalities in popular culture. Remember the Bechdel Test? In the real world, do women really “mediate their relationships through discussion of men”, as is portrayed in mainstream consumer media? Discussions of finding “the one” dictate female interaction in music, film, and television – think Sex and the City. Is realistic female interaction really Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha?

According to the Marxist-feminist philosopher Nina Power in her new book, One Dimensional Woman, “if all discussions with ‘friends’ are merely mediating stepping-stones in the eschatological fulfillment of romantic purpose [in popular media],” friendships in reality are bound to reflect that trend as well, especially if the dominant portrayal of female interaction is one centered around our relationships with men. I disagree with Power, and I think she gives the media too much credit (and also imposes some pretty ridiculous generalizations on the interactions of her fellow females). While it is true that some women (especially in Western societies) center their interactions over discussions of men, exposing this phenomenon, instead of indicting it, should be the cause of any feminist genuinely devoted to created an inclusive feminist movement. Assuming that your fellow woman is a vapid dude-obsessed, pink-clad, consumerist cog is not going to do our sex any favors. It is detrimental, it is elitist, and frankly, it is offensive.

Power writes a scathing critique of feminist writer Jessica Valenti, mostly because of Valenti’s effort to bring feminism to the masses. Power likens this effort to capitalism – rendering feminism yet another product du jour to be consumed by women. I’ve got my issues with capitalism, for sure, but if feminist theory is made most accessible through the identification of common experiences (working within the current capitalist reality of millions of women), then I see no problem. Also, for the record, Power only references Valenti’s Full-Frontal Feminism, a book explicitly written to expose for a skeptical young woman the commonalities of women in society – entry-level feminism. As Valenti writes, every woman, regardless of whether she’s read Butler or Foucault, should be able to relate to feminism. Because it does permeate society. And the adoption of a feminist lens is an incredibly important gateway towards comprehending greater feminist issues, and even – shocker of all shockers – the writing of theorists like Power. Valenti is not endorsing capitalist consumerism as a means of advancing feminism. She is using our commonalities (including our semi-indoctrinated desire for fashion and chocolate) to flip consciousnesses, with the ultimate goal being a feminist revolution.

This brings me to a fabulous piece published on Feministe about the importance of female friendships to the future of feminism. As much as society tells us that women only talk to one another about men and marriage, we all know this isn’t the case. Instead of seeking out healthy conversation with other women, however, many of us turn to men for companionship. I know I have been guilty of this association. I also attended an all-girls school for seven years, and have come to realize the incomparable value of intelligent conversation with other women. Female friendships create not only a sense of companionship unobtainable elsewhere, but, as Chally writes, they can also exist as an “immensely powerful feminist act.”

“It is a strengthening of bonds between women where patriarchy has sought to keep us apart, rivals, without coherent community. In forming such connections there’s a centring of women’s wishes and concerns. That is, it’s about women valuing women, a rare emotional space in which we aren’t considered less than (that is, if all parties are doing friendship right!) or centring men.”

When women are allowed to truly interact with one another, they will quickly dismantle what Audre Lorde deems the “only social power open to women” within the patriarchy: maternity. Shared common experiences – even those that include discussions of men (!!!) – will inevitably expose greater commonalities. Let me reiterate: the only way to successfully dismantle the patriarchy (and capitalism) is to foster the greatest sense of community. Taking from de Beauvoir, women cannot “expect our emancipation to come from the general revolution” – rather, we have to create our own. And inclusion is imperative in this transformation. My advice: give a female companion a copy of Full Frontal Feminism. Talk to her about it, let her see the misogyny in the products she consumes, the media she worships. Invite her to a Women’s Collective meeting. For god’s sake, don’t be elitist, recognizing that we all come to feminist realizations from different places. Allow her to recognize the value of the genuine feminist analysis that only other women can provide. Then, and only then, can an inclusive discussion of theory take place. Anything else is exclusionary and counter-productive to a collective revolution.

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by Julia

It’s one of those feminist revelations that occurs following a shift in consciousness. Once the switch is flipped, you can never look at a certain aspect of human interaction or culture in the same way. In this instance, I’m talking about film.

One would think it wouldn’t be so much to ask for to have a more than one woman in a film. And yea, those two women should probably interact. And hey, it would seem obvious that they should discuss subjects other than men, right? Wrong.

In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel drew “The Rule,” as part of her comic strip, Dykes to Watch out For. In it, she lays out three simple rules by which to judge a film’s merit:

1) It must have at least two women

2) the women must talk to each other…

3) about something other than men.

In the 25 years since, hundreds of popular films (and TV shows, popular fiction, and other forms of popular culture) have been put to the “Bechdel Test.” The results may be shocking to some, but to those of us hyper-attuned to cultural sexism, they simply reinforce the incredible oppression women endemically experience.

A (small) sample of the films that did not fit the criteria:

Slumdog Millionaire, GI Joe, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, Transformers, Ghostbusters, The Big Lebowski, Ocean’s Twelve, Pirates of the Caribbean (all three), Austin Powers, Fight Club, Milk, The Wedding Singer, Reservoir Dogs, Lord of the Rings (all three), The Truman Show, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Trainspotting, The Gladiator, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and When Harry Met Sally (ughhhh).

As Feminist Frequency points out, passing the Bechdel test “does not mean that the movie is a feminist movie, or that it’s even a good movie. Rather, it shows that two women are engaging with each other about something other than men.” And look at all of the films that couldn’t even meet that “ideal”…how sad is that?

Perhaps even more upsetting was the prevalence of films marketed towards children and young adults on the list, including Shrek, Toy Story, and Home Alone. If kids are not exposed to women with agency at the young age, what message does this send to them as they grow towards adulthood? Is it really any wonder that sexism prevails in the workforce if the majority of popular films portray women as only capable of talking about men and babies?

The reasons behind this is clear: movie consumers do not want to watch women with agency (or people of color or other underrepresented groups, for that matter) when they go to the movies. A female film student at UCLA was told point-blank by her professor, “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.” Ouch. What the professor and many film consumers who write this off as a product of consumerism don’t understand is that the problem is societal. And consumer demand is shaped by perceived “societal norms,” just as film strives to portray “normal life.” Instead of writing more films without a strong female presence, filmmakers should use their incredibly industry power to upend the conventions, both in film and in society. Until that time, consider my presence at a movie contingent upon its passage of the Bechdel Test. Honestly, if a film cannot fit these incredibly lenient criteria for female agency, you should think twice before watching, as well.

Here are a few films that have passed.

And a link round-up for further reading on Bechdel and the film industry.

[Song of the day: Y-Control by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (also, a sweet Spike Jonze-directed video)]

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