The Bechdel Test, Baiting, Or Why I Hate “Sex and the City”

Firstly, let me say how proud I am, and a little intimidated as well by Lydia’s great interview of Margarethe von Trotta. (Proud for the sole reason that I feel deeply satisfied when good people get an opportunity. It fills me with hope, for mankind, and I want to explicitely include females here in the horribly sexist term.)

In the interview that you have to read – so I will link it a second timeLydia mentions the Bechdel Test, a term I wasn’t familiar with up to now. I may quote:

To pass, a film has to have at least two women, these two need to have some sort of conversation at some point, and that conversation needs to be about something other than a man. Most films fail.

Whoops.

That was what I thought, feeling caught red-handed, as I started to reflect on many of my own dialogues with women I know. Most tend to end trivial, fetishizing one actor or the other because it is a point of mutual interest. Taking Facebook and Tumblr as a resource for a field survey, this phenomenon seems to be more prevalent in females. I have seen no man in my life who incessantly posts pictures of Scarlet Johansson or of Benedict Cumberbatch, ever.

In parts, it may be connected with the notion that talking about what is sexy is an act of expressing one’s freedom to do so, so I won’t overall criticize the behaviour – I would be a damn hypocrite if I did, too. I enjoy my collections of pictures of actors I like, very much. Most of them are male, as this is in accordance of my general sexual orientation. A question I had to ask myself is … Are we, the straight females fangirling, in fact enhancing the phenomenon of under-representation concerning substantial female characters? I haven’t come to any conclusion yet.

But … Why?

Following my own logic, looking for reasons why I catch myself ending up talking about male actors with female friends of mine a lot, and that I enjoy to see men on screen, as I happen to be something between “it is complicated” and heterosexual – why are straight men content with one female protagonist as a rule? Let’s take a look at The Avengers. Scarlet Johansson is a great looking woman, I have to concede this. In the movie she kicks ass, but in my impression, she has little plot relevance. Sexy, but, … Marvel, you say. Yes, but … Men, that’s enough for you? Apart from the occasional Scarlet Johansson, men, straight or not, like to watch men – maybe because its easier to identify for them?

14 males setting out to regain a treasure? No female company? Fine in The Hobbit, dear Sirs. Tolkien obviously couldn’t attach to female characters at all. Imagine it was 14 women – very unlikely to ever see a movie like this.

I wouldn’t want to exclusively watch series with all the cast being female, with a man added as decorative element, so, guys, what is going on in your heads? I understand why I like to watch men, but I don’t understand why straight men do to such an extent. To learn by example? This sorts out Hannibal, and I very much hope no adult man chooses Batman as his role-model either. Men watching men, hm. Straight men, watching straight men, to be more precise, as apparently, homosexual relationships put the straight or closeted audience uncomfortable.

Quoting John Barrowman:

We kissed, we held each other, we lay on top of each other in bed… and there were lots of complaints about that. Nobody complained that I was shot in the head four times, there were burning people in ovens, that I was stabbed by a mob of 50 people hundreds of times and I was hanging dripping my blood in a pit. So that’s what confuses me, because you’re not complaining about gay sex, you’re complaining about two men kissing.

If you happen to have any explanation for the fascination of men for fellow straight men, I’d be delighted to hear.

Why I hate Sex and the City?

Don’t even get me started. The Bechdel test puts it in a nutshell; it’s like being given a term for an unknown condition. The show is like my Facebook sidebar since I set my gender there as female. Men. More men. Weight loss of 15 kilos in a week. Wedding dresses. Dresses. More dresses. More weight loss. Candy Crush Saga (Agreed, to the best of my knowledge, this one has no part in Sex and the City.) Shoes. More shoes. Men again. This is not me, just as nothing, nothing at all of Sex and the City strikes a chord in me, there is no point, no character where I could identify, as I see it from the in total 1 1/2 episodes in duration that I skimmed it. All jobs, all the lifestyle is invalid, as long as a Mr. Right doesn’t pop up. I can’t even begin to express my disgust for … etc., so I will stop right here.

The’re baiting us all

Am I fetishizing actors, their faces? Yes, I sometimes do. However a picture or a gif will do for me then, or a clip. In a movie I want more. I want plot, and a good one. It doesn’t end with a sexy actor’s face for me. I want a world to dive into, a world as credible and real as possible.

Recently, I heard a term called queer-bating. I started to blog about it, and never published it. The phenomenon touches the present topic however, as women as well as gays are under-represented on TV and in movies. Sex and the city may serve as an almost perfect example of women-baiting.

My original post I started with Sherlock Holmes, and the discussion if the character relationship between Sherlock and Watson might be considered queer-baiting. Quite gay, but never talked about, shoved into subtext to attract a gay audience. Subtext? Yes, lots of, this is Doyle. Queer baiting? I don’t  think so, rather women-baiting, as I haven’t met gay Sherlock fans in large numbers. The adding of fond glances, and unspoken words in hot eye-sex – all in the best tradition of the Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name – is not only there to bait gays, but of course, if the protagonists are male, the female straight audience. And even the straight males get a little uncomfortable and shuffle on their seats. Doubt and unsolved mysteries gets us watching the next sequel. They’re not queer-baiting, but they’re baiting us all.

Just a sidenote: Sherlock – just as Cumberbatch, by the way, to the best of my knowledge – never straightout answered the question about his sexual orientation. “Of course it would be alright,” Sherlock says when Watson assumes he had a boyfriend. His face states the same at that moment. Of course it would be alright – all the awards for putting this sentence into the mouth of the master of logical thought.

To make a couple out of Holmes and Watson though is not quite logical from Doyle’s books – rather I would pick Holmes and Moriarty, just because of the tension between them, while the relationship between Holmes and Watson has no particular tension whatsoever apart from Watson’s adoration that somehow reflects the reader’s. (Only my very own, private opinion.) For a real series, with a substantial plot, and tension that is supposed to be building, I prefer the subtext in that case. The more tension, the better. But …

Back to the Bechdel Test – Where is the world we live in?

I don’t only notice the lack of female protagonists with any plot significance, the lack of lead roles in recent movies, but also the complete failure of most movies to depict an accurate picture of the society the plot is set in.

Coloured people, who if including Hispanics are not even a minority in the US, are vastly under-represented, and tend to show up with cliché traits or in cliché roles. When it comes to sexual orientation, it is even worse.

Most shows I recently saw either have a heterosexual couple or – of course! – straight males as protagonists. Bones – m/f, Mentalist – m/f  Supernatural – m/m, Castle – m/f.

Especially Castle I quite like, but the wooing, getting into bed, blues right after plot (stop at any stage to get a cliffhanger between seasons) is largely foreseeable and added as an easy way to show and get the characters into personal dilemmas, and also to create a stringent subplot underneath randomly assorted “villain of the week” episodes.

What if the detective was gay? Statistically, at least one in ten should be – or more, if based on Kinsey.  But no, there isn’t one!  If a main character is gay, it becomes the theme of the movie.

In short: Bah. Maybe I live to see an explicitly bisexual Bond yet, that would appease me a little. (Can I haz Jason Isaacs as the villain please? That would make me even more happy … But I’m fetishizing again.)

Also, but this really broadens the subject now … serial monogamy. Apparently this is the only acceptable kind of relationship, depicted throughout every movie.

How to tell my kid?

But cheekiness and my own preferences left aside – I find it is very hard to tell children specifically that being gay is alright, that there is a variety of possible lives to live (I don’t much like the term lifestyle in that context) when I only have Spongebob and Patrick, and Timon and Pumbaa as valid examples of homosexual relationships depicted on screen. Most little boys in my daughter’s kindergarten love Spiderman, right at the moment, and the ever-popular Superman. (One kid recently caused an accident trying to stop the bus with his hands, believing he was Superman, and this is no joke. Luckily, no one was badly injured.) Most little girls want to be princesses.

Hell I want a lesbian Disney princess so badly, or one that doesn’t want to marry at all. Luckily, the world is not so boring as to consist of princesses waiting for prince charming. Let’s all be glad. This brings me to another ray of hope in the Disney- and Sex-And-The-City-universe that is so carefully constructed around us to preserve a status quo …

My girl had her Barbie doll with her on the bus when I fetched her from Kindergarten. (She wanted this one so badly, in my opinion a horribly … I can’t really get warm with Barbies of any kind, let’s leave it at that.) It has huge fairy-wings, in purple, so they stuck out of the top of her rucksack. A boy her age (roundabout five years old) sitting next to us looked over a few times , and I already prepared for a snippish comment of his, when he couldn’t resist to state: “There are stick-on stars to that too!” They started to chat; yes, there are, but they tend to fall off, so she leaves them at home, and it turned out that the boy was the world’s biggest Barbie expert. Bless him. It’s not easy to like Barbies when your peers want to be like Spiderman.

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3 thoughts on “The Bechdel Test, Baiting, Or Why I Hate “Sex and the City”

  1. If you think movies provide little inspiration for straight women, imagine what they do for lesbians. I find myself preferring animation, for instance Mulan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulan, and animations of animals above all. But no matter where I look, all the characters default to male (Where’s Nemo, Happy Feet, even WALL-E). It’s a conspiracy! The L-Word provided some lesbian-oriented entertainment, but it was the same kind of junk as Sex and the City, and I bet most of the people who watched were straight men.

  2. I love Mulan! (Just a sidenote, to add a little fangirling in between … Jacky Chan sang the original song 😉

    I never watched the L-World; I skimmed a little and it left a similar impression as Sex and the City, I agree with that.

    Concerning blatant racism – this one is maybe an extreme example, …

    http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/the-impossible

    … but I find it telling, somehow. I am sure that if you would ask the writers and producers, they would claim they are by no means racists. They only focus on the personal drama of a family, who just happens to comprise of a heterosexual couple with a kid, and is by chance “kaukasian.”

    When I read the excerpt, I feel the same way as when I’m watching the news on our national TV. “The two German tourists on board the xxx were saved.” Yes, and the others? Only three sentences later they’re getting a mention, if at all? Who cares about nationality if it is about suffering?

    Maybe this is one thing I like about George R. R. Martin. (Just by the way, I found absolutely weird comments about Game of Thrones on the way while I was looking for the following quote. Apparently people turn the fact that there are women being raped in his books around to say that that is what he, the author approves of. Okay, then he has a veritable beheading-kink concerning males as well.)

    Q: There’s one thing that’s interesting about your books. I noticed that you write women really well and really different. Where does that come from?
    George R.R. Martin: You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.

    I don’t expect writers to want and change something, even if many good ones did; I want them to write good books, and in my humble estimate, Martin does. His female characters are just as interesting, surprising and complex as his male ones. That the world he creates is on the whole patriarchalic doesn’t mean he is in general fond of men.

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