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Link – Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not to Write Women With Agency

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    lawless

    At the risk of sounding one-note (as if I don’t already), and apropos of various threads regarding women in cinema and other media, including in Kurosawa’s films, I’m including a link to a Jennifer Kesler post from thehathorlegacy.com about why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test.

    A movie (or TV show or book) passes the Bechdel test if:

    1) there are at least two named female characters, who

    2) talk to each other about

    3) something other than a man.

    Personally, I have some problems with the test as applied to work situations; for example, I think two female characters — a cop and a forensic pathologist, for example — talking about a case involving a male murder victim screams female agency in a way that talking about a case involving a female murder victim doesn’t. (I just described the basic setup of the TV show Rizzoli and Isles.) But leaving that aside, the test — which was meant to highlight what didn’t pass, not what did — does a good job of pointing out how often women are used a props instead of characters in mainstream Hollywood movies.

    That aside, the point of the linked article is this explanation from an industry insider: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”

    Thoughts? Reactions? Critiques? I don’t like or agree with everything on thehathorlegacy.com, but I just about always am in agreement with Jennifer Kesler. (FYI, she’s the founder of the website.)

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    Ugetsu

    Well, I have to say I have a problem with that sort of ‘theory’, because, to put my science nerd hat on, it doesn’t have a control for comparison. Its easy to look at a set of films and say they fail the Bechdel test, but then again, you could apply that test to men and I suspect that you would find a surprising number of films would fail it too, and many that pass would fall into the category of work films whereby it is simply a reflection of a particular workplace dynamic (withing ‘dramatic’ settings such as the police, or hospitals). I did a mental search through my most recent film viewing, which is very unscientific as my viewing is hardly typical, and most of those films (except, obviously, Sex and the City II) failed it. But I have seen an unusual number of ‘bromance’ type films recently for no particular reason – the Kings Speech, Of Gods and Men, and Superbad to name three). But then again, I’ve also watched quite a few Ozu films, and they always pass that test. I also did a quick flick through this months schedule for my local art cinema, and indeed I would say about 2 out of three films would have predominantly male casts and so would almost certainly pass a male Bechdel Teset, although there are several there that are likely to pass the female test.

    I find the quote from the man who supposedly said that nobody is interested in seeing two women talking to be quite suspicious. I just don’t see anyone saying that who wasn’t being a little ironic (and it wouldn’t be the first time I heard of an ironic comment being thrown back at someone as if they had meant it). Its no news that the mainstream cinema audience is young males, so films predominantly aim for that demographic, and young men aren’t particularly curious about inter-female relationships (well, not of an intellectual type). And commercial films that attract mainly women (as opposed to date movies) include genres like horror, which don’t tend to have a lot of long conversations. The exception is the current trend towards films aimed at adolescent girls – like the Twilight films or Red Riding Hood.

    It does seem to me that in a commercial sense the cinema is male dominated, while TV is more female dominated. I don’t have a TV, one reason for which is that there is rarely anything on in the early evening I’m interested in. On this side of the Atlantic peak viewing time is dominated heavily by soap operas (for some reason, this seems to be less of a feature in the States I think). Most of them focus on families and female characters. And I honestly do not know one straight male of my acquaintance who admits to any interest in them. Much the same (judging by coffee time conversation at my workplace) can be said about reality TV shows.

    So while I am not suggesting that there is not a problem, much of that website comes across to me like ‘I want a job writing scripts for films, I can’t get one, since I am wonderful and brilliant the only possible reason is that I’m a woman‘. Well, maybe, or maybe not. It is undeniable that mainstream cinema is more interested in men than in women, but since more males go to the cinema than females, thats hardly surprising (of course, there could be a mix of cause and effect here). TV, on the other hand, seems to me to be heavily biased towards female tastes. If that doesn’t reflect itself in the Bechdel test, this may be because even TV shows made for women have a male bias, or it could be that the Bechdel test is testing the wrong variables.

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    Vili Maunula

    I don’t know about the “test” (sounds a bit silly to me), but I would certainly welcome having more interesting female lead characters.

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    Ugetsu

    Whatever its merits, that Bechdel test does stick in my mind. I don’t think I’ll be able to watch a film now without mulling that over in my head. I watched Rhapsody in August last night and there is a wonderful scene where Kane, the grandmother who survived the Nagasaki bombing, sits silently for an hour with an elderly female neighbour, neither of them saying a word. When her grandchildren ask why, she says you can have a conversation without words. Does this count? 😕

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    lawless

    I found the explanation as to why there aren’t more women in movies (and, by extension, TV) more interesting than the test. The test is just a vehicle. I probably quoted the wrong thing; I should have quoted

    I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) — as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

    The author was patted on the head and told to shut up and go along with the way things were always done so she could sneak interesting non-white, non-male characters in on the margins and influence things that way. (I have the benefit of reading some other posts of hers; I realize this doesn’t all show up in this particular one.) I don’t think leaving an industry not interested in the only kind of product she wanted to write was a cop-out; what would have been a cop-out was her staying and doing what was necessary to eke out a career. She was being asked accept writing inferior (i.e., non-diverse and non-creative) scripts and go aginst her personal beliefs.

    Some background on the test’s origins here and here. As the first link explains:

    For those who don’t know, the “test” comes from a comic in which one character cleverly gets out of going to the movies with another by saying she will only go to a movie that contains two [named] female characters having a conversation with each other about something other than men. That rules out every movie available because, well — think about all the movies you can think of.

    So the real point is how many movies don’t pass this arbitrary test, not to measure movies for feminism using it.

    Also, the comic (from Alison Bechdel’s series Dykes to Watch Out For), which you can see via the first link, doesn’t contain the requirement that the two women be named; that’s a later variation called the Mo Movie Measure after a character who hadn’t yet appeared in the series when that particular comic ran.

    Personally, I think the test as written doesn’t make sense as a test for feminism or female involvement in movies, TV, and books the way it’s been applied for the reasons given in my prior post. I would modify the test as follows:

    1) there are at least two female characters, who

    2) talk to each other about

    3) something that is not stereotypically feminine. By that, I mean romantic relationships, whether with a man or a woman; appearance (nails, hair, clothes, etc.). I would not include discussions of children because men can do that too; talking about your kids is not stereotypically feminine in my book.

    Extra points awarded the more central and important the characters in 1) are to the story, with points subtracted if they’re peripheral and only included for local color.

    This means, among other things, that two women talking about their work will automatically pass the test. Whether they’re talking about a man or a woman shouldn’t matter; in fact, as I point out, women solving a crime against a man or women lawyers or doctors with male clients or patients are better examples of female agency than if the victim, client, or patient were female.

    Even this doesn’t necessarily get at the underlying issue, which involves having women populate films, using female POV and not defaulting to male gaze (not that I want it out of film entirely, but that there should be more neutral or female gaze), and showing women with agency. Not every film can or should meet these requirements either, but certainly more films should. Films should be more diverse and less thoughtless in general.

    For “female,” substitute “person of color” or “non-heteronormative” as well and modify the third criteria appropriately.

    Ugestu – Even though a cut-and-dried test like this is a blunt instrument, I’m glad it got you thinking. Just FYI, here‘s an examination of how Sight & Sound’s list of the top ten films ever (sadly, no Kurosawa) fares under the test: better than you might expect. It makes me wonder if Seven Samurai passes; if it does, it would only be if Shino spoke to the old crone whose grandson was killed by the bandits and who in turn kills the captured bandit. I don’t think she did.

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    Ugetsu

    Hi Lawless – just to say your last link is broken.

    Sorry if I seemed a bit negative in my initial comments about it – I will follow up more of those links later. I do find it very thought provoking. On the subject of ‘persons of color’, I can’t find a link to it, but I did once read an economics analysis indicating that films aimed at African Americans actually did on average better at the box office than the average, and had done over many years, indicating that Hollywood and the film industry actually overlook the financial benefits of a broader perspective, essentially disproving the notion that if there is a demand for something, Hollywood will provide it.

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    lawless

    That’ll teach me to post without testing links. Here is the link to the examination of whether Sight & Sound top 10 movies of all time meet the test.

    A follow up post linked at the end discusses how Hollywood honchos treat every movie with female leads or which meet the Bechdel test, like Alien, as an aberration. I think that applies to other types of diversity as well.

    As for that research, it makes sense; African-Americans are an underserved, appreciative, and significant market. I suspect that once more films are marketed to them, the per capita gross will come down. Also, movies aimed at African Americans is a category that overlaps films with African American stars/characters, but they’re not completely congruent. Most, if not all, movies starring Denzel Washington, for example, are squarely aimed at everyone, or at least men, not just African-Americans or African-American men. Also, there are at least two different meanings of “aimed at”: one is who it’s marketed to and the other is for whom the movie was made. The first is controlled by the marketers at the studios and distributors; the second is controlled by the people who make the film: the director, producers, and actors.

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    lawless

    My immediately preceding post is a little incoherent. The follow up post linked at the end mentioned in the second paragraph is a follow up post to the original article answering the question of why Hollywood keeps women characters out of movies if it’s not profitable. There are more good links in the follow up article as well. As I said above, not everything on the site is worthwhile, but Jennifer Kesler’s posts are.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hooray for opening up a discussion of women in film! Nice!

    So, are there any moments in Japanese film, in Kurosawa, that make you cringe because they do not have a space for a woman as a full human being? Or, are we at a post-cultural appreciation of life?

    Would you be willing to say which films show women compromised by cultural values that are not allowed to be full human agents? Or, is this not important any more?

    Are we aware that our own lives are negotiated, brokered, limited and circumscribed by our own cultural limitations and our selves formed, like a soft tofu by the culure into which we have been left?

    Wow, I swear, I am not on drugs. Just wondering.

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    lawless

    Coco – I think the answers to your first question probably lie in the thread I started about the place of women in Kurosawa’s films. Some of the most memorable female characters in films during the Mifune era and afterward were not fully fleshed out because they were villains like Lady Asaji from Throne of Blood or were two-dimensional devices on which to hang a plot revolving around the men, as is the case with the wife in Rashomon.

    I find myself less bothered by movies like Seven Samurai that don’t include many women because of the time, place, and situation. That could also be said of Yojimbo and possibly High and Low, which I haven’t seen; it would be a bit much to expect to see a female detective at that time. They were about eras (maybe an era, considering they’re all seemingly set at approximately the same time) when women stayed home and men fought or did police work, and if a movie was about the conflict the men were involved in, necessarily relegated women to the background.

    I’m not sure which you are suggesting might no longer be important — cultural and historical relativism or the role of women being compromised by cultural values — but I think both are important. It’s myopic and unfair to judge films set in times not our own, with different values, by our values. It would be false to depict Sengoku Japan as some kind of women’s paradise, for example. It’s equally as important, though, to be aware that such films faithfully depict the way things were, not necessarily the way they should have been or the way we want them to be.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hi lawless.

    It’s equally as important, though, to be aware that such films faithfully depict the way things were, not necessarily the way they should have been or the way we want them to be.

    Yes, that’s the point worth investigating. What really is our relationship to material that depicts material at odds with our values. Do we elide the uncomfortable? And, how does it impact our appreciation? Are you suggesting that an emotional/mental filing system; “Oh, this is historical-we need not be concerned because it is safely in the past” is the answer? I ask this because at issue are larger concerns regarding tolerance and complicity in the present.

    We say we appreciate cultures, but where do we draw the line? Do we draw it at female genital mutilation? Or is that allright, too, because it’s somewhere else?

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    lawless

    Coco – We’re talking here about film and media, not society in general. Not that media can’t shape society and its attitudes, but how women or any other group is depicted in film can’t be directly equated with a social issue such as female genital mutilation. I don’t have a problem with outlawing it ven though it’s considered acceptable in some cultures. There are other ways of dealing with the underlying concern — female pleasure = bad and women can’t be trusted not to seek it outside of recognized relationships — than female genital mutilation. While the underlying concern is inherently sexist, education and strong messages to the contrary in the prevailing culture are better and more effective responses than becoming the thought police.

    If a movie (or TV show, or book, or whatever) is set in the past or another culture and is meant to be a realistic depiction thereof as opposed to fantasy, sci fi, parody, or what have you, then one has to accept and expect that it will reflect the experiences and possibly the values of that society, even if those aren’t our values. Thus, a jidai geki is going to focus on men, not women, because women weren’t samurai (Seven Samurai, , for example). Ditto a movie about Japanese police solving a kidnapping and its effect on the man expected to pay the ransom (High and Loaw).

    Where it gets trickier is with what the work does with those facts. That depends on the goal of the work. If the goal is simply to tell a story, is the story told in a way that implicitly supports and approves of outdated attitudes and values, keeping in mind it’s as much of a mistake to equate a convincing depiction with implicit endorsement as it is to expect to see modern or local behavior and attitudes in a work set in a different time or place? If it aims to make a more overarching point, is that point supportive of the vagaries of that time, accepts them unquestioningly, or does it challenge them?

    Not every work needs to or should have a feminist agenda, but it would be nice if more depicted women as rounded characters, even if there aren’t a lot of them. Also, if society were more just now, it would probably be less disturbing to see depictions of the past that seem to accept limited views of women (or whomever; pick a group) because then it wouldn’t be a case of that depiction reinforcing current prejudices, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

    My bottom line is that an expressive work (which is my definition of art) needs to be art first — a good story, well-acted and directed, etc. — before it needs to make a greater point, fulfill a societal objective, or advance an agenda. Art has its own reasons.

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    Ugetsu

    As an aside, there is an interesting theory outlined here that the Fast Five movies are the most racially progressive films around at the moment (not having seen them, I’ve no idea how they treat gender issues).

    Its jumping ahead I think, but I watched for the first time Rhapsody in August over the weekend. It seems to me that in all the fuss over Richard Gere and the issue of blame for Nagasaki, one thing that is overlooked is that the depiction of the old lady, Kane, is one of the most powerful female characters in Kurosawa, and I think one of the most heartfelt and moving accounts of old age and senility of any film I can think of. Its also an interesting example of Coco’s point about interpreting material that is at odds with our values. It seems that many critics (incorrectly I think) interpreted what some of the characters said, with what Kurosawa believed, which seems to me to be taking a literal interpretation of auteur theory way too far. A pity we don’t come to that film until 2015! If either of you haven’t seen it, I’d strongly recommend it, it is a very important film I think in the context of discussing Kurosawa and his treatment of women.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I own it, but haven’t watched it yet — so many other things beckon, and at the moment, I’m not sure quite where it is. However, from reading about it, I’d already picked up on the fact that the grandmother is the central figure in the movie. I believe I listed it as a possible exception to Kurosawa’s dropping women as main characters post-One Wonderful Sunday in one of my posts in the “Kurosawa and women” thread linked above.

    Your point about conflating the content of movies with the director’s beliefs is well taken and slots right into the discussion Coco and I are having above. I believe it’s possible to depict the past or other cultures, warts and all, in an evenhanded way without it being a betrayal of one’s beliefs in progress that’s been made in the meantime or an endorsement of hidebound tradition. In fact, movies that are evenhanded, subtle, and non-didactic are, to my mind, more powerful than movies that are lopsided, stack the deck, or club us over the head.

    He’s a very different director than Kurosawa, but for all its flaws, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing‘s depiction of how a riot begins over something as simple as Italian pizza shop owners in an overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood refusing to replace the photos of famous Italian-Americans on the shops’ walls with African-Americans, is a work of genius because he does things like show some men sitting in lawn chairs during the day while decrying the societal view of them as layabouts. By the end of the movie, the audience understands exactly why the riot happened, but in doing so, he exposes all the truth and everyone’s truth, and not just one person or one group’s. It helps that he uses shifting POVs throughout, though this also makes the film choppy stylistically.

    As for your link: while I can’t comment on Furious Five, I prefer, for example, characters that happen to be gay in my TV shows over characters that problematize being gay. The medical examiner on the US police procedural The Closer is gay, but it’s not remarked or underlined in every episode. It gets raised occasionally, as when the main character — Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (I bet you can see why I like this show) keeps everyone in town for Christmas to solve a crime they thought was already solved and he misses meeting his boyfriend’s parents for the first time. (Endearingly, he also carves the turkey Brenda’s mother, who’s visitng from out of town, cooks for them.) Earlier in the series, he flirts with a man on Brenda’s team who is entirely oblivious to it. And in one episode, he expounds on gay club culture (of his own volition) since it’s relevant to the investigation.

    The downside is that the gay medical examiner isn’t a regular, he’s recurring guest star, though BD Wong’s Dr. George Huang on Law & Order: SVU is both gay and a series regular. It’s when gay and trans and black and Asian characters — and women — are shown in all sorts of roles and professions with all sorts of personalities, both good and bad, that we’ll know we’ve really made lasting progress.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hi Lawless, Ugestsu, yep, I have seen “Rhapsody in August” many times. When I was “learning” Kurosawa’s films I purchased everything I could. (The exception is “The Most Beautiful” that I could not get my hands on. It’s the only one I’ve not seen).

    I agree with you, Ugetsu, that grandma is an amazing character. It’s a much better film and much more interesting than it is given credit for being, and exactly for the reasons you state.

    I am probably being a bit obtuse above and elsewhere lately…and please, forgive me. I am on the verge of understanding something that feels as if it might be meaningful, and if you humor me, maybe you can help me get there:

    I felt that what followed here should have its own thread, so I have moved the rest of Coco’s post here. –Vili

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    lawless

    As an aside: even though Drunken Angel doesn’t meet the Bechdel test, for whatever that’s worth (two women talk, but it’s about a man), it has a number of women in important roles even though the two leads are men. There’s Miyo, Sanada’s nurse/assistant, whose dilemma with regard to Okuda contributes to Matsunaga’s death. There’s the schoolgirl who shows that there is hope and not all of Sanada’s patients ignore him. There’s Namae, Matsunaga’s girlfriend who kicks him out in favor of Okuda. And then there’s the barmaid who likes Matsunaga, offers to take him to the country with her, and winds up taking his ashes there instead.

    The schoolgirl has agency; she even reproves Sanada for talking to her like she’s a little girl. The barmaid has agency, even if things don’t turn out the way she wants them to. But both Miyo and Namae live at the whim of men. For all we know, once Namae switches over to Okuda, he’ll treat her the same way he treated Miyo. (By the way, the description of that is fairly vague; there’s no description of it other than a reference to abuse and her catching a STD from him. Presumably, however, he beat her.)

    Even though Miyo left Okuda to work for Sanada (I see no particular hint that she’s his mistress or girlfriend), he tells her what to do and doesn’t give her agency. He’s probably entirely right to tell her not to go back to Okuda, but he doesn’t try to convince her of this, just scolds her for daring to disagree. She may be right that she’ll have to confront Okuda, that avoiding him won’t work. Sanada comes off as somewhat naive here. It is this that may be the motivation for Matsunaga’s confrontation with Okuda.

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    Vili Maunula

    lawless: As an aside: even though Drunken Angel doesn’t meet the Bechdel test, for whatever that’s worth (two women talk, but it’s about a man), it has a number of women in important roles even though the two leads are men.

    Now that I think of it, isn’t this actually true of most of Kurosawa’s films? There are fairly few female lead characters, but many important supporting ones. Somehow we get fixated on the negative characters like Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood or Lady Kaede in Ran and then ask why Kurosawa is being so anti-female, but forget characters like the ones we have here, or Masako in One Wonderful Sunday, or Keiko in Stray Dog, or the girl in Ikiru, or the strong-minded daughter in Record of a Living Being, or many others like them, who all despite being supporting characters are fairly complex individuals, and tend to have a positive impact on the protagonists’ journey.

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