Things to make you chew on the walls

Back in September of last year, I wrote a post for SF Novelists about the Bechdel Test. Well, a few days ago I came across a post — don’t remember how I found it — from Jennifer Kesler, written in 2008, about why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass that test.

Short form: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”

(Which is a direct quote from either a film-school professor or an industry professional — it’s not clear from the context who said it.)

There’s a lot more where that came from; follow the links in the posts, and the “related articles” links at the bottom. Like this one, in which Ms. Kesler relates how her screenwriting classes instructed her that “The real reason […] to put women in a script was to reveal things about the men.” For example, the female characters have to be attracted to the male lead in order to communicate that he is a babe magnet and therefore worthy of being admired by the target audience, which is of course male (and straight).

Ms. Kesler eventually quit screenwriting, not because nobody around her wanted to do anything other than straight white men’s stories, but because the machine is so finely tuned to crush any attempts to do otherwise. Criticize Joss Whedon’s gender depiction all you like — there’s plenty to chew on in his work — but never forget that Buffy was seven seasons of a show with multiple interesting female characters, who regularly talked to one another about something other than men (or shoes). How many other creators have managed to get anything comparable through the industry meat-grinder? And apparently one of the rationales behind canceling Firefly was that it rated too highly with women. You see, advertising slots aimed at women go for cheaper than those aimed at men, which meant Firefly brought in less revenue for Fox. So off it goes.

Because the female audience doesn’t matter. We’re talking about an industry where a WB executive can say that he isn’t going to make movies with female leads anymore, because they just aren’t profitable enough. (Sorry, I lost the link for that quote. Mea culpa.) An industry where they can write off Terminator and Alien as non-replicable flukes. Where they look at the droves of women who flocked to The Matrix and conclude, not that women like action movies too, or that Trinity appealed to them, or even that they wanted to look at Keanu Reeves, but that they were accompanying their boyfriends or husbands. Where they look at the failure of, say, Catwoman, and instead of swearing off Halle Berry or the director or the committee of six people who wrote the script — instead of saying, “hey, maybe we should try to make a movie that doesn’t suck” — they swear off superheroines. Because clearly that’s where the error lies.

There’s no particular point I’m trying to arrive at, here; the topic is a kraken, and all I can do is hack away at a tentacle here, a tentacle there. And try to feel good about the fact that at least the situation in fiction isn’t a tenth so dire as it is in Hollywood. (One of the most valuable things that came out of the intersection of my anthro background, my interest in media, and my professional writing is that I became much more aware of how texts are shaped by the process of their production. I wish more criticism, of the academic variety, took that into account.) Anyway, read ’em and weep, and then look for ways to make it better, I guess.

0 Responses to “Things to make you chew on the walls”

  1. la_marquise_de_

    Curiously, I’ve been thinking about this, because a number of the Chinese films I was watching over the weekend passed — and all were low-budget B-movies. Looking through my Hong Kong film collection, an awful lot of them pass, even the action films. I’m now wondering if this is cultural: there can be sexism in them and often is, but the Hong Kong industry seems to have been happier with the idea that women talking is something that happens and is of interest. In the ones I was watching most recently, the women talked to one another a great deal about politics in particular.

    • kateelliott

      I would actually say, based on little evidence I can bring to mind right now, that women are treated much better in British productions (film and tv) than in American Hollywood ones. So the Hong Kong stuff doesn’t surprise me at all. Alas.

      • Marie Brennan

        I also feel like British productions handle race better; but maybe my sample is biased, and/or the ways in which they do it wrong are different. (Since the issue is not identical between societies, after all.)

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m curious what titles you were watching. Most of the Hong Kong films on my shelf don’t pass, but they’re almost all action, which I think (even in Hong Kong) doesn’t do as well on the gender front.

      • la_marquise_de_

        Millenium Dragon (awful); Hero Youngster; The Setting Sun; Circus Kids; The Iceman Cometh (Dreadnaught, Snuff Bottle Connection and Prodigal Son all fail: can’t remember if Avenging Fist passed or not. With the action films, it depends on who the star is — I’m not sure any of Jackie Chan’s do (maybe Miracles or Gorgeous), but several of Yuen Biao’s do and some of Sammo Hung’s, and I think Jet Li’s (less sure, as it’s been a long time since I watched any of his). On the other hand, the whole sub-genre of female action stars tends to pass easily, however low budget the film (I’m thinking of things like Iron Angels and Yes, Madam). But a lot of the ordinary films do, too: there are a surprising number of scenes where women talk about their work or similar. (On the down side, in the triad films, women are usually there to die bloodily.)
        And, of course, the HK female actions stars were big names attracting big budget films, particularly Michelle Yeoh Chi-King, while their US counterparts — Cynthia Rothrock, Tanya Roberts — were straight-to-video and low-status.

        • Marie Brennan

          Now I find myself wondering — do the slicker, bigger-budget films do less well with women, or is it that the U.S. tends not to import even the slick ones that are more balanced? Because Hero, House of Flying Daggers, that sort of thing, don’t tend to balance as well, I think.

          You’re definitely right that Michelle Yeoh et aliae have better careers than any U.S. equivalent.

          • la_marquise_de_

            Hero and House of Flying Dagger were art-house pitched at the west, which influenced them, I think. The Hong Kong equivalents of these are more female-friendly usually (the exception being The Bride with White Hair, which of course is adored by western critics, but is horribly misogynist (along with most of Wong Kar-Wei’s output — western critics love to see women suffer, it seems). But while Once Upon a Time in China,/i> also fails, its more because it focuses on a very male world than that it;s director (Tsui Hark) defaults to ignoring women — he’s usually a very female-focused director (i>Peking Opera Blues, for example). The big wu-xia epics like Swordsman 2, East is Red and Deadful Melody all pass quite easily, as they are have female characters whose main interest is away from romance.
            I think it’s more down to the star system, in fact — Jackie Chan’s films are all about him and his character. It’s not precisely sexism, though: there are sometimes women who are not there as a love interest — women cops and so on — and whose dialogue is about the plot of the film — but they tend to interact with his character, not each other (hence the women in Who Am I?, are competent and professional (a rally driver and a spy) and not interested in Jackie as a romance, but they act with him to deal with the bad guys and so on. (Police Story 3, which is pretty feminist in a lot of ways, fails simply because the two main female characters only meet in terms of a misunderstanding over him — Michelle’s character otherwise is a great image of an active woman with her own life).
            Having said which, there is a lot of fail, too, and the lower budget ones do indeed seem to fail less. The Police Sotry spin-off for Michelle Yeah — Project S, is an awful mess which takes as read that the heroine needs to be motivated by her love for a dodgy man. (I find this weird, in that her earlier films avoided that, as did the wonderful Righting Wrongs aka Above the Law, which latter fails on a technicality, but is all about a woman as a competent adult professional.)

  2. kateelliott

    Good post. I have nothing useful to say because I have to run errands and then do revisions. On a book in which passes the Bechdel Test! *g*

  3. catvalente

    I read the article–all this is just so heartbreaking and discouraging.

    • Marie Brennan

      It really, really is. All I want to do is take the world’s biggest Clue Bat with me to L.A. and start laying about with it until these people open their goddamned eyes.

  4. attackfish

    I’ve read through the Hathor Legesy’s archives a long time ago, so I’ve had a good long time to put my thoughts together, and I’ve found I make a horrible example to back up my claim that hollywood needs more female targeted movies. The thing is, I’m what Hollywood execs think their female audience is in a lot of ways. I don’t go to movies unless I’m going with other people and it’s an event, and I never go to movies so much as I do when I’m dating. Do you know why? I have a circulatory disease that makes it painful and damaging to sit in one place for two hours, and a damaged visual cortex. Yeah, it takes two major physical problems to turn me into the sort of viewer Hollywood expects all women to be.

    However, most female targeted movies don’t appeal to me. Chick flick is a derogatory term precisely because (aside from gender associations of inferiority) generally of pretty low quality, and targeted at a very stereotyped narrow subset of women. When they do poorly, Hollywood execs think women don’t go to movies on their own, and so female targeted movies aren’t worthwhile. These people don’t understand the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy, or else they’re willfully blind. Given that when a female targeted movie does well, they dismiss it, I tend to go with the blind.

    The sad thing is that mediawise the United States has gone backwards in gender terms since the golden age of cinema. The 30s, 40s, and 50s offer better female characters than the 2000s.

    • Marie Brennan

      I was pleasantly surprised by the female lead in a 1935 movie I watched the other night (Barbary Coast). Not mind-blowingly progressive, but she had a pretty decent spine for the period.

      Several of the posts I read — not sure how many of the ones I linked — pointed out that, hey, maybe chick flicks don’t make money BECAUSE THEY SUCK. Not universally; there are some that are good. But as a genre, yeah, they’re kind of made out of cardboard and pink spray-paint, with all the depth of a slick of nail polish. It would be such a novel thing, having actual quality created for women . . . .

  5. strangerian

    Agree completely with your post, and often gnash my teeth over this issue.

    Sadly, I have attended almost exclusively Lord of the Rings movies since 2001, so I haven’t really helped whatever statistics the H’wood types are basing their misconceptions on. (In fact, I’m pretty that *no part* of Tolkien’s life would pass the Bechdel test.) I attribute at least a part of the movies’ appeal, however, to the fact that a team of two women and one man were the driving creators of the screenplay and movie scenario. I’m betting that team passed the Test, a lot, and even more so if one takes characters as not being, literally, men.

    I have, however, bought a lot of DVD movies dating back to that golden age you speak of, with a distinct emphasis on Bette Davis and Myrna Loy. And Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn. And so on…

    • Marie Brennan

      Katherine Hepburn is pretty much a goddess. 🙂 I’m not big on older movies, though, because the genres I love best (fantasy, science fiction, action) aren’t well-represented back then; I do, however, love the historicals.

  6. mastergode

    Yeah, it’s pretty sad how the Hollywood machine works.

    I ran a panel at DragonCon this past year in the Alternate History track about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. We were largely talking about why the movie was so bad compared to the graphic novel, and investigating what liberties they took from the source material and why, when one of the attendees said, “We should just stop going to see stupid sci-fi movies that aren’t made very well, so that they know we want something of higher quality.”

    I had to stop what I was talking about and tell them that no, that’s not what would happen. It’s exactly what you said about the Catwoman fiasco. If people didn’t go to see LXG, the studios wouldn’t say to themselves, “Oh, clearly this was a bad movie, therefore we should make more like this, only better.” Instead, no more movies like that.

    Steve Johnson, who worked on the film, was on the panel as well, and could only apologetically offer that the reason for the film’s problems were likely due to everyone who worked on it being on drugs.

    • Marie Brennan

      Exactly. Maybe if you did a really enormous letter-writing/phone-calling campaign to say “I’m not going to see this movie because it sucks,” that would get the message across — but I doubt even that would work.

  7. Anonymous

    Wait, women have opinions? When did this happen?


  8. d_c_m

    I totally agree and have felt/thought the same thing for some time.

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