Friday, September 20, 2013

“Cassandra Clare, The Bechdel Test and why Criticising Women Isn’t Anti-Feminist.”

A post by Ceilidh and Christina.

Ceilidh: I am a feminist. But I'm not a clone. 

I say this because for some reason, when many women hear the term feminism, they think it means that I have to support every woman ever. There's this naive and ultimately ridiculous idea that feminists all hold hands and stick up for one another no matter what they've said or done. We in the YA world have seen this attitude appear a lot in relation to many authors being called out on problematic issues. Who can forget the Be Nice mess? Now, we once again return to Cassandra Clare and The Mortal Instruments movie. As it continues to flounder at the box office, both domestically and internationally, the YA community of Clare's inner circle have rallied around her to praise the movie's female friendliness and urge YA fans to see it not only for the good of YA but for women in general. Author Ally Carter got things started with a series of tweets that were amusing at best and insulting at worst.

Going to the movies this weekend? I loved #CityOfBones! Greatmovie about a girl getting a lot of hate b/'s about a girl
If you wantmovies about girls to get made then we have to go see movies about girls.That's math, people.

So there you have it. The movie is failing, both critically and commercially, but all that must be because it's about a girl. It couldn't possibly be any other reason, and if you want women to be in more movies then you should rush out and see a terrible film for the good of us all. That's just like the rules of feminism, as Gretchen from Mean Girls so eloquently put it. I guess the sequel has been shelved because us ladies just didn’t want feminism to succeed hard enough.

Christina: By that rationale, the ten professional female critics featured on Rotten Tomatoes that gave CoB a less than stellar rating are not feminists, or they don't want more movies with female leads.

Let's take Maryann Johanson, for example. She's been lauded by Variety, runs, and said City of Bones gave "overwrought fan fiction a bad name". 

By Carter's standards, Johanson clearly hates the idea of women having lead roles, or she'd support CoB regardless of the movie's actual merit. Nevermind that Johanson has said this about the epic film Titanic:

"This hardly ever happens in films, which are almost invariably about men and their personal journeys. From the most idiotic action movie to the most profound drama, most movies offer us only men who grow and change over the course of a (hopefully) engaging and exciting story. Women, if they’re lucky enough to appear at all, are the noble, saintly bystanders who inspire and encourage men; if they’re unlucky, they will be sacrificed, often quite literally via rape, murder, or both, to the male protagonist’s spiritual and personal development."

Ceilidh: It's such a strange way of looking at things. By that logic, everything done by women is positive for women, and sadly that's not how the world works. We saw the announcement of the casting for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie and I was reminded of the fact that the film will be written, directed and produced by women. Does that mean it'll be female positive? I guess it is if you view romanticised domestic abuse as helping the glorious sisterhood. 

That's the main fallacy in Carter's argument: It's not my feminist duty to support everything done by or for women. The Mortal Instruments, both the film and the book series, have been repeatedly criticised for their less than stellar portrayals of women, not to mention Clare's use of attempted rape as a dramatic plot device and having one of her female characters of colour go back to the man who beat her. 

I think there is some strong reasoning behind supporting the work of women, particularly in film. After all, women only make up about 10% of directors and are practically non-existent as studio heads. Having a woman in the lead role is still seen by many as a sign that they've made a "women's film" because only women can relate to other women while everyone can relate to men. Visibility is a big deal, especially for younger viewers. The badass Geena Davis has done some great work in this field with her institute on gender and media. 

There is work to be done. However, said work does not mean we instantly must support everything by or for women. 

Alvin & the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel was directed by Betty Thomas, and is one of the world’s most commercially successful films directed by a woman. No offence to her but I hardly think supporting that film would lead to more female positive movies and visibility in the industry.

Moving on from the state of the industry, let's go back to Clare, as so many of our conversations these days seem to centre on her. She is still very popular in YA and this movie, while not a commercial or critical hit, did start a lot of conversations, so it makes sense on that front. In an interview with The Mary Sue (jokes on a postcard, please), Clare talked about how she insisted on the movie passing The Bechdel Test. Putting aside yet more proof refuting Clare's claim that she had little to do with the movie, we need to talk about the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test originated in a comic called Dykes To Watch Out For by the genius Alison Bechdel (read Fun Home, it's a masterpiece). 

The test has three basic rules:

1. The movie has to have at least two women in it.
2. They must talk to each other.
3. The topic of their conversation must be about something besides a man.

The test isn't perfect, but then again it was never intended to be a benchmark standard for feminism in film. However, it is extremely useful in pointing out just how unbalanced the gender dynamics are in film, at least in Hollywood productions. It demonstrates the limitations placed on female characters by a majority male industry. 

The limitations of the test itself highlight many other issues with media and entertainment, something Clare and many other writers, of YA and otherwise, don't seem aware of. You can pass the Bechdel Test ridiculously easily if you wanted to. Have two women talk about the weather on the bus and it passes. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency suggested an additional rule to the test: the conversation must last longer than a minute. That minute plus long talk can be about anything non man/romance related and technically it'll pass, so two women slut-shaming someone or having an insultingly sexist conversation can still passed. The problems with the test are evident.

Clare seems proud to pass off passing the Bechdel Test as proof that the film is female positive. It's never been that easy and it's offensive to suggest it is so. The Bechdel Test was never intended to be a get-out-of-sexism-free card for writers, film-makers and the like. Clare can brag about working to pass the test and Carter can talk about the need to support female led stories but there's no guarantee those female led stories are in any way female positive or free of sexism. 

Another reason I resent being told as a feminist YA fan to support things like TMI is because they're not the kind of stories I want to support. A studio and its crew can tell me that TMI is a female positive project but having a young woman kick a bad CGI demon in the chest doesn't suddenly make her an interesting character, let alone a standard for female led film. 

Christina: Also I'm perplexed as to how Clary Fray is being described as a strong character. Obsessing over a rude male character and having an unnatural knack for runes doesn't make her equal to Katniss, or Hermione. Are we currently at a stage in YA where ANY female character, regardless of disposition or motivation, is marketed as "strong", "independent", and a "role model for little girls"? 

Even if we did have a heroine like that, what are the odds that she'll get along with other girls? She might pass the Bechdel Test, but she also might slut shame a romantic rival for being too pretty or too sexual. Or her friend will be unattractive and/or "fat", and will serve as fodder for humour or will spout one-liners. As Peggy Orenstein pointed out in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, there's no room for actual female friendships:

"There is only one princess in the Disney tales, one girl who gets to be exalted. Princesses may confide in a sympathetic mouse or teacup, but they do not have girlfriends. God forbid Snow White should give Sleeping Beauty a little support. Let's review: princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married, and be taken care of the rest of their lives."

Ceilidh: There are many great female characters in film and literature that exist in majority male worlds without female interaction, and they’re not necessarily anti-feminist characters because there’s no girl talk (the recent introduction of the Mako Mori Test, thanks to Pacific Rim, fits this mould). The issue is representation and whether any of it, regardless of how problematic it is, is better than none at all.

Personally, I don’t believe this. Maybe in the early days of film, this could have applied (the documentary The Celluloid Closet, on the topic of LGBT representation in film during the days of severe censorship and homophobia in the industry discusses this at length) but it’s 2013. There’s really no excuse for it now. Even with majority male film-makers and an inherently sexist industry, we’re now more aware and educated as audiences to pick up on the problems as we see it. It’s not going to destroy female representation in the industry to point out that we’re sick and tired of the same tired old tropes being trotted out and then being expected to fawn over it because hey, those two ladies had a conversation about something other than a man! If you want to believe in some great hand holding sisterhood where we should all support one another regardless of what we’ve said or done based solely on our gender identity then go for it, but don’t expect a cookie when you use one extremely flawed tool set at an incredibly low bar to prove your feminist credentials. Like a good book or a good film, good feminism needs a bit more work than that. 

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