Sunday 8th February saw the launch of The Bechdel Test Fest at Genesis Cinema in East London. The test itself emerged after Alison Bechdel published a comic strip, inspired by friend Liz Wallace, where one character has a set of rules for watching a film. The criteria for passing the test are whether the film has two named female characters who talk about something other than a man. It is widely acknowledged as an extremely low bar.
Set up 30 years ago now, it seeks to address the gender bias in works of fiction; it has been found that just around half of films pass this test. With such a low bar set, the figure should be closer to 100%. This festival, led by Corinna Antrobus, puts The Bechdel Test in the spotlight, and aims to provoke discussion on gender in the film industry. In an effect to ‘reclaim the rom-com’, the launch event featured 2014’s Obvious Child and classic The Philadelphia Story — though I couldn’t stay for this part. After the first screening there was a panel discussion, including a video statement from Chloe Angyal about a statement she made that there is “no such thing as a feminist rom-com”, arguing that this is largely because society is still sexist.
Obvious Child could be said to have broken some traditional rom-com features from the onset, by starting with protagonist performing a live comedy routine, and subsequently being dumped by her boyfriend. Though the love story doesn’t end there, the film not only passed the Bechdel Test, but is also arguably Feminist in its depiction of women as complex human beings, with narrative plots aside from the central love story. Donna Stern works at a book store, which is closing down and performs at the same comedy venue every week; a slacker, perhaps, yet something else may hold her back from pursuing more in comedy, suggested by a male comic’s success at landing a pilot in LA.
Despite its Feminist credentials, perhaps Angyal was right to say that no film is completely free of sexism, because it’s not the society we live in. There were a couple of issues raised in relation to Obvious Child, both of which I also thought as I was watching it. Without giving too much of a spoiler, Nellie — the BBF character, who has been one of the strongest characters in the film — disappears from the frame, to be replaced with love-interest Max. There were mixed views on this during the discussion, which featured Simran Hans, Craig Williams and Alice Guilluy.
Despite its Feminist credentials, perhaps Angyal was right to say that no film is completely free of sexism, because it’s not the society we live in.
However, the panel seemed to have universal discomfort with the next issue. Obvious Child has become known as the ‘abortion rom-com,’ as Donna finds herself pregnant after a one-night-stand and asks her doctor for ‘an abortion please”. The awkward moment in the film comes through a discussion between Donna, Nellie and Joey (their gay BBF). Nellie is ranting about the patriarchy in relation to whether Donna should tell Max about her pregnancy and abortion.
There may be mixed views on this, and the film seems to slightly lean towards the moral judgment that both parties have the right to know about the pregnancy, but Nellie’s argument here is that she doesn’t owe anything to Max within a still patriarchal society. Putting aside opinions on whether Donna did or did not owe Max anything, it was presented as a perfectly acceptable response to Nellie’s statement when Joey exclaims that he can feel his “dick” shrinking. Donna is shown to have a similar reaction, which implies we are meant to see Nellie as being ‘extreme’ in her anger and in her views. This equates Feminism with extremism, and it pushes the idea that to talk about the patriarchy, and to get angry about it, is shocking, or wrong.
This equates Feminism with extremism, and it pushes the idea that to talk about the patriarchy and to get angry about it, is shocking, or wrong.
The panel also picked up on an issue that Ari Laurel wrote about the film; it’s about ‘a young, straight, white, Jewish urbanite, with an affluent upbringing in a relatively liberal atmosphere.’ It definitely could have done better in that respect, pointing out that the only POC were a woman crossing the road, and a medical practitioner at the abortion clinic. Another point that has got those who are anti-abortion talking, is a joke where Nellie says “You’re going to kill it out there,” and Donna jokes “I’m actually going to do that tomorrow.” Some may argue this was in poor taste, but beyond that, it sends the message that abortion is killing. To say that abortion is the same as murder is exactly what those on the anti-abortion side argue. This kind of joke probably doesn’t help the pro-choice campaign, yet it could be argued that this humour is in-line with the character of Donna, and suggests humour as a way of dealing with difficult situations.
There may be more issues, but it is also important to state that good characters are flawed, and they make jokes about their genitals shrinking in the face of strong female characters and such things. With this is mind, actress Jenny Slate stated in a Huffington Post interview that they don’t “think abortion is funny, but we think people are funny.” What perhaps needs more attention is how that is woven into the plot.
During the discussion, some films were mentioned in regard to being Feminist films. These included Bend It Like Beckham, 10 Things I Hate About You, and even 27 Dresses. Having gone home to watch the second film mentioned in the list, I think it’s safe to say these films aren’t perfect either.
During the discussion, some films were mentioned in regard to being Feminist films. These included Bend It Like Beckham, 10 Things I Hate About You, and even 27 Dresses.
Yet, as one panellist stated, rom-coms are often viewed in a negative light and it is important that they are seen just as valid a genre as any. It was argued that this negative view comes from the assumption that the main audience for rom-coms are women, and that they are therefore stupid. I also enjoy films such as 500 Days of Summer and Garden State, yet these are criticised for being ‘mumblecore’, the genre’s male dominance, and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. It is possible to enjoy these films, to find Feminist elements and still critique their shortcomings.
What this event has also done is to remind us the importance of independent cinema, where we see most Feminist films coming out. Next on my list is ‘Girlhood’, which was advertised at the start of the screening.
The Bechdel Test Fest continues on Monday 23rd March at Hackney Picturehouse with Tiny Furniture.