A More Bechdel Blog — How and Why We’re Doing It

Ida Lupino directing

One of my most recent friends is a woman in her early 20s, whose hair hangs over one side of her face because of a scar that runs from the corner of her mouth halfway to her ear. We avoided the topic when we first met, but you could recognize two people under there.

We’ve since discussed that scar, the result of an angry ex-boyfriend who hooked a knife behind her cheek and pulled. His reasoning, as best she came to terms with it, is that if he couldn’t have her, he’d ruin her so no one else would ever want to. Every man from then on would know he’d taken a piece of her that day, had left a territorial marker.

Even after they’d broken up, her future was his to decide. Easy as that. A hand on the head, a knife in the mouth, a flex of the elbow.

She knows her hair doesn’t hide the scar, but it at least communicates to people that she doesn’t want it to be a focal point. Uncover it and we stare, cover it back up and we get the message.

Uncover it, though, and everything’s tilted. Every smile and frown and word only takes place on the side of her face she’s habituated to using. The other side stays still, frozen, trained over the years never to draw attention to itself.

In that way, he did claim a part of her that day. It’s a terrifying idea, to go through life with whole sections of your body and psyche taken away.

When I asked her if I could write this, she asked me why.

Because one of my friends last month wrote that she was given a temporary set of densures, to replace the teeth broken out of her mouth. She said she wept when she looked in the mirror and saw herself with teeth again.

Both these women are strong. Both these women are intelligent. Both these women are extraordinarily kind, despite what’s happened to them. They aren’t victims, they’re damn role models.

I can fill pages with the stories I haven’t asked permission for yet, but they’re not mine to tell. They speak of women who live daily with the evidence that men left a mark they thought they had the right to make.

The truth is, as a man, it’s difficult to figure out the right way to speak out. We’re not brought up – no one’s brought up – to view domestic violence as a regular part of our cultural heritage. It’s the exception. Even those who suffer it view it as an exception. It’s not to be talked about because it’s not normal: that’s the myth.

Several days before my friend had her teeth kicked in, jaw broken, hands stabbed, in addition to dozens of other injuries she sustained, I wrote down this phrase: “Be angry. But don’t just be angry.”

I have no idea what prompted me to write that down or what it pertained to in my head. But now it seems to hold special significance to me, as if the universe just knew I’d need that phrase a few days later. Because I am angry, and I’ve been livid since that day. But I’ve been angry before, and I know it’s greedy and self-serving. It’s a way for me to deal with feeling like I wasn’t there to protect someone I care about. It’s not a way to support and help.

I’m glad we have a voice here. At the beginning of the year, this site might have reached a few dozen people. Now, it reaches thousands. In the big scheme of things, we’re still a very modest blog, but I don’t want to have the biggest film site. I want to have the biggest film site that does things right, that has a social conscience, and that looks at its job as primarily one of creating art, not of tearing it down.

We can’t change something systemic just by being angry. We have to embody the change we want to see, and hope our own example changes the example others set.

With that in mind, we are making some changes to the site.

Nora Ephron directing

The Creative Director

First and foremost, Vanessa Tottle will be our first Creative Director. She’s essentially been moving toward that position for several weeks already while we’ve tested new features. I have final edit, but the idea is that Vanessa will control the direction of the content itself. We’ll still be movie-focused, but articles will be more varied, and features more regular. She’s still getting her PhD and travels abroad regularly, but we’re all so terrified of incurring her wrath, I’m confident we’ll stay on task when she’s away.

We don’t intend to change the pre-existing flavor of anything we do, but we do want to add detail and better realize opportunities for talking about issues like domestic and sexual violence, more open communication, and feminism as a whole. These have a role in art and the media that are drastically underplayed at the moment. If we’re not critics of that, what are we critics of?

We now have a rotating, very-part time staff of six writers including Vanessa and myself who volunteer their time and effort. They are writers S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, editor Eden O’Nuallain, and researcher Amanda Smith. This is in addition to more than 20 writers from whom we’ve featured exclusive content. More on our wonderful, newish staff in a later article, because I want to move onto the biggest format change:

Julie Taymor directing

More Bechdel

From now on, every new review posted on this site will have a critique based on the Bechdel Test added at the end. The Bechdel Test rates three simple fundamentals of a movie.

1. It has to have at least two women in it.

2. They have to talk to each other.

3. And that discussion has to be about something other than a man.

Those are fairly basic standards, and some films that pass the Bechdel Test still don’t present women in a good light. Sucker Punch, for instance. Similarly, some films that fail every step of the Bechdel Test feature superb female heroes. Just look at Gravity. The Bechdel Test is not an absolute; it is a tool of measure…so it won’t just be a straight yes/no to each of these questions. We’ll get into why and how each film does what it does.

We realize most people won’t make their viewing decisions based on the Bechdel Test, I often address the portrayal of women in my reviews without it, and there are already good resources for finding out if movies pass the test. It is our hope that visibly including the Bechdel Test at the end of every new review will serve as a reminder for how much work Hollywood still has to do. We also encounter that many still think of the Bechdel Test as a distasteful topic, as if somehow film is too much a creative act to be subject to reasonable social representation. We hope its inclusion will help to normalize the idea in people’s heads – not as some abstract talking point but rather as a useful and informative tool in how we assess film.

We won’t make a big deal of it after this – we don’t want to risk turning it into a gimmick. The review itself will still be the review. It’ll just have additional information for readers to consider.

Kathryn Bigelow directing

Realizing Opportunities for Change

We are also taking smaller steps, but hopefully these are no less impactful. For example:

When discussing music videos, we typically link the video and list its title, artist, and director. We’ve been frustrated that when choosing our top videos of the year, half-year, or month, most are directed by men.

This doesn’t mean they do a better job – our top video of 2013, Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife,” was directed by the phenomenally talented Emily Kai Bock, who notched three music videos on the countdown. Our top video for the first half of 2014, Sia’s “Chandelier” was co-directed (with Daniel Askill) by Sia herself.

Rather, it means that the industry – like filmmaking – is dominated by male directors. Vanessa and I made separate comments that inspired Amanda toward a bit of research. Lo and behold, she found that while the music videos we’ve sifted through (we watched more than 70 for August alone) are nearly all directed by men, the majority of producers are women.

For that reason, when we list a music video now, we will not only list the director, but also the producers. It makes sense – producers have the most important role after the artist and director. Most readers aren’t interested in who produces a music video – we realize that – but we hope highlighting the number of women involved in producing will help readers recognize the power and creativity women can and do wield in filmmaking of all kinds.

We were disappointed when we realized 90% of music video directors are men. We were overjoyed to find that about 60% of music video producers are women. While we realize there’s still a problem to be addressed in that disparity, we hope that readers, viewers, aspiring artists – men and women alike – will also notice that and feel that same joy. Perhaps, it will persuade someone down the road to buck the trend and hire a woman to direct.

This site’s been about melding criticism with social consciousness from Day One. These are the sorts of changes that don’t refocus what we do, but that let us better realize our goal of delivering a new brand of criticism, one that still tells you the basic “is this movie good or not,” but also seeks to make artistic and social statements of its own.

If there’s anything you notice we can do differently, or better, tell us. Thank you for reading.

The women in the photos throughout this article are directors who have each shown why we’d have a better entertainment industry if women had equal opportunity to direct. In order, they are: Ida Lupino, Nora Ephron, Julie Taymor, and Kathryn Bigelow.

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