Monday, December 12, 2011

The Bechdel Test & Small Furry People-Eating Aliens

Often, when we complain about inequality in popular culture, we are told that it’s just entertainment. Our expectations are way too high. In order to be light and entertaining, all kinds of isms and imbalances must prevail. The high-minded ideals of equality are incompatible with the crowd-pleasing goals of the low-brow.

But then there’s Critters.

My expectations couldn’t have been much lower than when Stephen rented the movie Critters. I read the synopsis; it’s about an invasion of small furry monsters from outer-space who eat any animal or person in their path. So I thought Gremlins rip-off and if I actually ever saw Gremlins, I've forgotten it. But it’s really all right. No, it’s fun. We ended up renting all four Critters movies. And all four of them passed the Bechdel Test.

To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must
(1) feature at least two women who (2) have a conversation which (3) isn’t about a man.

Glance over your DVD collection; many great movies fall at the first hurdle. Some episodes of Doctor Who, or the anachronistically-egalitarian Merlin fall at the first hurdle. The Godfather, Casablanca, all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies and all nine or so hours of Lord of the Rings don't feature a single conversation between two women. Most Hitchcock movies fail the test. And the point isn’t that these individual movies are failing women – there are many brilliant movies which don’t have a single women in them (Das Boot, The Thing, The Great Escape, Shawshank Redemption etc). But given that half the world’s population are women, and real women are involved in most of life’s dramas – domestic and global – the overall pattern points to a big problem. And the fact that there are plenty of movies which don’t involve submarines, men’s prisons or small scientific expeditions in remote locations and still don’t manage to involve more than one woman, suggests that some movie-makers don’t count women as people.

When a deeply unsophisticated comedy horror movie passes the test with flying colours, it only goes to show that this is the case.

Critters 3 was the best of the quadrilogy and is notable for featuring a tiny wee Leonardo Di Caprio (he was fourteen or fifteen at the time, but looks eight). The Critters (furry alien creatures) hitch a lift to an urban apartment block, where an evil landlord is trying to force his tenants to leave so he doesn’t have to compensate them when he sells up to developers. The protagonists are the teenage daughter of one of the tenants and her new friend (Di Caprio), the stepson of the evil landlord. Loads of cliché; the girl’s mother is dead and in his grief, her father has become distant, we have grandparental elderly couple upstairs, the two teenagers have a few romantic moments together, etc.. But the girl has conversations with her neighbours and her women neighbours are complete human beings. Even the fat lady down the hall, whose size is the subject of some humour – she has her plus-size lingerie eaten by the aliens - is a complete and sympathetic character. The love interest for our heroine’s bereft father is brave, physically active and her braless sexiness is underplayed.

And nobody would have noticed. This certainly isn’t a feminist film, it’s not in any way a feminine film. There are more masculine characters than feminine characters. But it manages to treat girls and women as if they are as complete human beings as boys and man. If a film who's mere title suggests the absence of sophistication can succeed in fulfilling this most basic principle, why can't almost every movie we see?

Incidentally, Stephen said he’d not heard good things about Critters 4, and I joked it might be like the Alien 4 of the quadrilogy. Okay, so Alien: Resurrection? It’s a total rip-off of Critters 4. In Critters 4, the mercenary crew of a spaceship dock in a space station where they discover evidence of genetic experiments to create a perfect alien creature-as-weapon. They’re then chased about the station by aliens (if small furry ones). And [spoiler alert] they have to race to leave as the station self-destructs. There are entire set-pieces which look like comical versions of those from the forth Alien movie. This was made in 1992 - five years before Alien: Resurrection. It even has Brad Wormtongue Dourif in it. But it is funnier.

It’s also the weakest film. I know this because to be honest, I didn’t see all of it. The first time we sat down to watch it, I fell asleep after about half an hour. The next time, we started from where I dozed off and I was asleep again half an hour after that. But it had a woman character and a feminine talking computer and they do have conversations which are not about men. So that's something.

1 comment:

jason @ soundproofing said...

With regards to the Bechdel Test, you might be interested in a quiz question I came across at our local pub quiz.

What is unusual about the women in the film "Lawrence of Arabia" starring Peter O'Toole?

Answer: None of them speak.

There is no speaking part at all for women in this David Lean directed film, primarily (allegedly) due to his misogynisticism.

Whether this is true or not I've yet to check, but I thought it was interesting.