Monday, 1 July 2013

On the Bechdel Test

This is a (slightly edited for blog purposes because Harvard referencing doesn’t really work for blogs) paper I wrote for my Men in Contemporary Society class last semester on ‘Growing up Masculine’. It got an A and I actually really like it, so I feel that it’s fitting for here too. Also all this weekend I’m attending the Empowering Women through Secularism conference so wont have time to write new material. 
While there are many factors which influence how boys ‘grow up masculine’, or are socialised into hegemonic masculinity, this paper will focus primarily on how movies and other similar media teach masculinity, concentrating on the Bechdel Test (or Bechdel-Wallace Test). 
Movies and TV shows are often a dominating aspect of a child’s life. There are few children growing up in Ireland without a TV, and many will go to the cinema or watch movies at home. With a decline in reading among young people, movies and shows are often the way in which children learn about the world outside the family and school, and their allure can cause their messages and views to override those taught at school or at home. 
The Bechdel Test was first developed in a 1985 comic strip called ‘The Rule’ and its premise is simple: in order to pass, a movie/show/novel must have two (named) female characters who interact with each other at some point, and their conversation must be about something other than a man. The idea behind this is to ensure that there are at least two female characters in the story who are relatively developed and complex. For the purpose of this test, gender identity, rather than biological sex, is the defining factor, as such, members of the trans* community who identify as female are included in the list of female characters (despite the lack of trans* characters in pop culture media). While it seems like an easy test to pass, very few of IMDB’s top 250 movies pass (including many with female protagonists), along with only a small number of movies released in the last few years, with very few box office hits passing the test. While this obviously impacts the way young girls are socialised into adulthood, it also affects young boys. The message which far too many movies and shows portray is one which reinforces the idea that women’s lives not only revolve around men, but that they remain the stereotypical ‘damsel in distress’ we remember from fairy tales, or the object of affection which the hero of the story ‘wins’ after overcoming some internal or external struggle. This in itself reinforces the idea of ‘ownership’ of women by men among young children, as well as their supposed simplicity and frivolity. In her book ‘One Dimensional Woman’, Nina Power notes that “if the contemporary portrayal of womanhood were to be believed, contemporary female achievement would culminate in ownership of expensive handbags, a vibrator, a job, a flat and a man”, and this trait isn’t isolated to Bechdel Test failures.
Since, according to R.W. Connell “masculinities are constructed, over time, in young people’s encounters with a system of gender relations” and “the configurations of practice associated with the social position of men”, this leads on to the way in which young boys are directly taught masculinity and manhood through movies and shows, just as young girls are arguably taught femininity through the Disney princess concept. Hegemonic masculinities are reinforced through the portrayal of boys and men – as the tough man, the brave fighter, the hero who overcomes the struggle on his own. As such, How Movies Teach Manhood (a TED talk by Colin Stokes which can be found here and well worth a watch) notes that there’s little room left for “other relationships and other journeys”. Although this hero character is often ‘rewarded’ with getting the girl in the end, it is not always the focus of his journey. These heroes/protagonists are often seen to be good role models for young men, which further reinforces the hero complex aspect of hegemonic masculinities. While the move away from the focus on violence and fighting among male characters is a welcome relief, even the shy, outcast boy who we see more and more of in pop culture reinforces hegemonic masculinities. They struggle on alone, choosing the ‘brave’ route of individual accomplishment over their setbacks, rather than asking for help or co-operating with others in order to ease their load. However, co-operation and asking for help is a trait associated with female characters in supporting roles and protagonist roles. 
Scheiner-Fisher & Russell, in their paper about using historical films to promote gender equity, admit that “often when women are included in a film for the sake of simply having a female in the film, she is relegated to a stock character role” (also known as the ‘Smurfette Principal’), most often cast as the love interest, ‘dumb blond’, nurse, tomboy, or ‘bad girl’. There is a problem in this way of teaching masculinity through film when we do not present young boys, and men in general, with female characters who are strong, relatable and complex. Through movies and shows which fail the Bechdel test, and which promote the ‘lone, brave hero’ male character trope, we are teaching a certain type of masculinity, one which reinforces patriarchal and ‘macho’ behaviour. Debbie Ging  states that many young men “understand images of hypermasculinity and misogyny not as parody but rather as masculinities with subversive or subcultural appeal”. As such, these ideas often win out those which acknowledge different ‘types’ of masculinity and being masculine, and those which provide both genders with strong female role models. 
Teaching masculinity, through any channel, needs to focus on how men interact with other men, as well as with women. Hegemonic masculinity, typically, ignores the ability of women to create meaningful ideas and contribute to conversations, merely reducing them to objects of desire or focusing on their reproductive role as mothers. While this view is obviously harmful to women, it also affects the development of masculinity in a harmful way, most notably through reinforcing discriminatory behaviours and placing less emphasis on co-operation and the importance of seeking help. 
Despite the increasing equality between the sexes in real life as opposed to the fantasy of film and TV,  Ging is concerned that “regressive images of masculinity might be doing more than merely lagging behind a more progressive reality”. How Movies Teach Manhood (2012) shows us that movies and other media are doing a relatively good job at teaching girls how to “defend against the patriarchy”, but they’re not doing the same for boys. The patriarchy affects both sexes in negative ways, and since there is no model for boys to rebel against this discrimination, the way they learn masculinity and grow up masculine is continually impacted upon in a negative way by movies and similar forms of media.

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