Me and You and Everyone We Know

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) Miranda July

Me and You and Everyone We Know by Miranda July, centers on the blossoming romantic relationship between Christine and Richard, while supporting characters try to connect with one another in surprising ways. They each push the boundaries of what is expected, and are tied together by their search for intimacy. Some gender issues the film deals with include masculine and feminine stereotypes and performative sexuality.

Richard works as a shoe salesman and is struggling as a newly single father of two boys. The character resists gender stereotypes by being emotive and openly vulnerable with Christine and others. Music, lighting and color work to identify Richard as unique in a number of ways. The pink shoes which Christine chooses, and which represent their relationship, are first seen settled upon a table display, which is otherwise beige. She writes “ME” and “YOU” on each of the two feet, and films them doing a dance, coming together tentatively, and drawing apart. In another scene, the set is very dark, and only Richard is spotlighted. At the same time, Richard’s character embraces some masculine stereotypes. Former wife Pam chastises him when he forgets to collect their son Robby from school, putting him in danger. He pays little attention to household chores or meal preparation, serving the children cereal for dinner as an afterthought. Pam has to intervene when Robby is frightened by an unknown noise because Richard is impatient and unable to comfort him.

Christine assertively pursues Richard, and seems to be motivated by her own desire for him, rather than by trying to attract him to her. She plays with gender in her performance art, trying on feminine and masculine voices, and relationship roles. When Richard seems repelled by her pursuit of him, she is undaunted, continuing to seek him out. She behaves in a way that is vulnerable, like Richard, but her demeanor suggests that she is at ease with her sexuality, in contrast with some of the other characters.

In one part of the film, Richard is puzzled by Pam’s nightgown, which is a list of affirmative words she enjoys reading to herself in the mirror. “I used to hate that nightgown. Other people have to look at it, but they can’t read it.” He has trouble understanding that Pam needs to reassure herself that she is “worthwhile” or “wonderful.” The gown represents the tension between trying to attract others and cultivating a solid sense of self.

For two young girls in the neighborhood, sexuality is all about appealing to others. They lie about their age and flirt with an adult man who responds by sticking sexually explicit messages to his window, inviting them in. They are concerned about their sexual skills and use Richard and Pam’s older son Peter to “practice.” Still, they feel insecure about their ability to please sexually, and seem completely out of touch with their own desires. It is a relief when the man seems frightened, hiding from the girls when they finally knock on his door. They run away, looking like gleeful children, despite their tight clothing and heavy make-up.

Other interesting characters populate Me and You and Everyone We Know, including a young girl who works dutifully to fill her hope chest, and Peter’s six year-old brother Robby, who unknowingly pursues a sexual relationship online. July uses the character of Christine to represent a version of femininity which is self-aware and grounded in her pursuit of pleasure and happiness. The girls have yet to cultivate the sense of self-worth which Pam seems to be working on and Christine has nearly mastered. Richard is struggling to make a real connection with his boys, but it is when he resists stereotypical gender norms that he is most appealing.

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The Abject and American Psycho

Barbara Creed makes use of Kristeva’s concept of the abject in her 1986 essay “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” This complex theory of the abject relates to human boundaries in which a viewer may identify elements of horror as “not me” (Chaudhuri 93). The character of Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s 2000 film American Psycho can be viewed in relation to the concept of the abject, both in the way that he experiences the world, and in the way that the eye of the viewer is encouraged to relate to the horrors presented. Bateman is easily identified by the audience as “not me,” a twisted embodiment of 1980s yuppie culture who is neither complex nor sympathetic. At the same time, Bateman relates to his world as abject, desperate to “fit in,” yet pathetically unable to distinguish himself from the many businessmen like him. While Harron portrays Bateman as a killer of men and women alike, women’s bodies in particular are on sexual display, subjected to a degree of degradation and torture that is unique to them. Creed focuses on the conception of the maternal as abject, in which the feminine in patriarchal culture is defined as the other, along with added concepts derived from religious taboos including menstruation and other bodily fluids, death and decay (Chaudhuri 93). She argues that in horror, there is a perverse pleasure and catharsis for the viewer in experiencing and rejecting from the self the abject (Thornham 253). Feminist film theory suggests that audiences more easily relate to feminine rather than masculine bodies as abject, the use of graphic violent imagery involving those bodies creating the cathartic relief of “not me.” The violence on display in Harron’s film adaptation of American Psycho uses primarily female bodies to illustrate the monstrous aspects of Bateman’s character.

From early scenes of American Psycho, the audience is treated to repeated assurances that Bateman is “not me.” His humanity is undermined continually through the use of mirrors and other reflective surfaces which draw attention to his deep-seated vanity and lack of substance. The character represents the shallow culture which is the true subject of the film. While Bateman has achieved physical perfection and mastery of the material world, he is profoundly threatened that others might possess more of what he craves. The use of masking creates a barrier between Bateman’s outer persona and his inner monstrosity. As his inner dialogue details his outrageously expensive and ridiculous skin care regimen, Bateman tells the audience, “I am simply. Not. There.” In several scenes, the focal point is his image reflected on mirrored surfaces, reminding the viewer that he is flat, without humanity, completely detached. Often the face of Bateman is distorted or representing his dual role of murderer/businessman. His face can be seen reflected in a taxi window with a dark shadow surrounding an illuminated profile, or shifting from one profile shot to another, splattered with blood, or clean. He literally peels a facial mask away to reveal his empty underpinnings and makes reference to the “mask of sanity” which he feels is slipping away as he cultivates the perfect suntan.

Bateman seeks validation that he is the ultimate embodiment of success, which is related to his material rewards, including the fantasy that he is able to possess women, and literally discard those he deems worthless. He relates to his world as abject, telling one victim that he simply doesn’t relate to him before brutally killing him. Shots of Bateman are frequently followed by or connected to those of towering buildings in which he does business. The uniformity of the buildings and their endless rows of windows reflect Bateman’s inability to distinguish himself from Marcus Halberstram or any number of designer-clad businessmen at Pierce and Pierce. Women are reinforced continually as other, in a business world in which women are absent from the upper levels of corporate culture. Awkward placement of the women characters within the frame highlight his inability to relate to them as fellow human beings. At times Bateman’s rage is directed toward the economically disadvantaged, who he may view as more easily disposed of. He feels entitled to the use of women in exchange for money, which he has in abundance, and uses to garner attention and to manipulate others. He pursues a relationship with Courtney who is “almost perfect looking,” as a way to compete with his colleague who plans to marry her. His own fiancé is hopelessly shallow but has the correct physical characteristics to earn Bateman his desired status. The most brutal scenes in the film involve his interaction with two prostitutes, one of which is so heartbreakingly desperate for money that she knowingly risks her safety to interact with him a second time.

Creed suggests that audiences relate to the abject in ways which are consistent with patriarchal gender norms. American Psycho displays classic elements of the abject throughout in its depiction of female bodies. Feminist film theorist Linda Williams argues that “women figured on the screen have functioned traditionally as the primary embodiments of pleasure, fear and pain” (Thornham 270). Harron uses female bodies to illuminate the monstrous aspect of Bateman. Some of the most powerful moments of horror include focused shots of female faces that wither in fear, fascination or disgust with the character of Bateman. In one important scene, Jean, Bateman’s secretary is shot from below, her face changing from fearful curiosity as she pours over his date book to profound shock, horror and misery. The images she discovers relate closely to Creed’s ideas about abjection in horror. Highly feminine bodies are on display, breasts and vulvas are very stylized, revealing gaping vaginal wounds, disembodied legs in fishnet stockings and high-heeled shoes. Blood, weaponry and objects used to penetrate female bodies are mingled with images of toilets and corpses. This kind of imagery is what Creed identifies as “abjection at work,” allowing audiences to derive cathartic satisfaction through viewing images of utter horror, while comforted by the separation from it (Thornham 253).  Creed makes important note that feminine bodies should not be viewed as naturally abject, but that this is a function of a culture of gender-bias in which women have come to embody the other. Audiences expect and are rewarded with continual images of the degradation and torture of feminine bodies.

American Psycho contains mostly implied gore, and Bateman’s murderous fantasies are directed both at peers, including Paul, and those he views as disposable, such as Christie. The moments in which the audience has the most visible access to Bateman’s monstrosity are illustrated through the violence he enacts upon his female victims. His hatred of women is apparent in his fantasises involving mutilation and torture, which are repeatedly intermingled with sexual acts. The character “has it all,” including the ability to use and dispose of others, a commentary on yuppie culture. The director’s choices validate Creed’s assertion that women are closely associated with abjection, and that an unnatural association exists between feminine bodies and human monstrosity and terror. Harron allows the audience to be frightened by, but also to view Bateman as pathetic and laughable. Much controversy surrounded the publication of the Easton Ellis novel as well as the film, one question of interest to the viewer, is why Bateman seems to revel so completely in the sexualized torture of feminine bodies, and why it seems that such imagery is more palatable to audiences.

Works Cited

American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. 2000. DVD.

Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa De Lauretis, Barbara Creed. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Thornham, Sue. Feminist Film Theory: a Reader. New York: New York Univ., 2006. Print.

The Virgin Suicides and the Inscrutability of Girls

The Virgin Suicides (1999) Sofia Coppola

In The Virgin Suicides, the brief lives of five sisters are examined from the perspective of a group of worshipful neighborhood boys. The story itself is more about the frustration the men feel reflecting back on their childhood that they were unable to unlock the mystery of why these young women would end their own lives. Visually, the film is hazy, muted colors create a seamless connection between the girls themselves and their subdued home environment where they spend much of their time. The audience is left to wonder about the actual substance of the girls, for the boys, the lack of which seems only to add to their allure.

On its surface, the story seems to be about the lives of the girls, rather than an unreliable telling of their experiences through the lens of neighborhood boys, who have romanticized them to an extreme. The narrative voice over tells the story with wonder and amazement, “No one could understand how Mr. Lisbon and Mrs. Lisbon…could produce such beautiful creatures.” Immediately, the girls are set up as slightly unreal, coming into sight one after the other, sunlight glistening on their blonde hair. Each of the girls successfully embodies a particular beauty ideal of the 1970s.

Visual elements serve as reminders that this story is not intended to reveal the inner lives of the Lisbon girls, but to support the male narrator’s recollection of their adolescent fascination with them. As the boys pour over Celia’s diary, looking for clues to explain her tragic suicide, a montage reminiscent of a shampoo advertisement of the day displays the girls lounging in a field of flowers, light again, glimmering off of their hair. They smile and jump and play as if they have not a care in the world. Later, the boys place the girls in a vacation sequence in which they appear, content and perfectly beautiful. The narrator remarks, “We knew that they knew everything about us, and that we couldn’t fathom them at all.” The Lisbon girls are again set up as wholly different beings, impossible for mere boys to understand. The underlying confusion seems to be that due to their utter desirability, surely they must be happy? For whatever else might a young woman want?

What little is revealed about their inner selves suggests that they suffer exceedingly sheltered lives, and that their perceived options are limited. Lux, who is the most fully developed character, expresses herself primarily through her sexuality. She seems to find little joy in it, however, and is harshly punished for stepping out of line. Her character seems the most alive upon first attracting the attentions of Trip, “you are a stone fox,” and leading up to and attending the big dance. While the family unit suffocates them in a number of ways, the outside world suffocates them as well, imposing a myriad of expectations upon them as “beautiful creatures.”

The audience is left to wonder, with these flatly depicted and tragic characters, if the reality of their lives was in fact more complicated than these boys are able to grasp. In this way, Coppola says something subtle and interesting about gender. The young boys’ fascination with the girls and utter inability to comprehend them changes not a bit between the adolescence which is depicted onscreen and the representation of adulthood which is conveyed through the narration.

On Blood and Donuts

Blood & Donuts (1995) Holly Dale — Beware, this post contains spoilers!

“Underneath, this [Blood & Donuts] is a very tender story about trading in loneliness for friendship. It’s not unlike the documentaries myself and Janis Cole made where all the characters may seem like antiheroes. In Hookers on Davie, Michelle, who is an outrageous drag queen that is half woman, half man, inside is a very warm and wonderful human being. Thematically, I think Blood & Donuts is in keeping with the work I’ve always done, trying to dispel stereotypes.”
Holly Dale

The 1995 film Blood and Donuts, directed by Holly Dale, departs from conventional stereotypes common to horror and black comedy. It works to challenge typical representations of gender in important ways through its characters.

The character of Boya struggles with his existence as a vampire. When humans land on the moon, Boya withdraws from the world. Awoken by a stray golf ball, twenty-five years later, he continues to keep the moon-like object nearby throughout the film. Unlike many vampire characters, Boya is awkward and uncomfortable with his identity. He chooses not to drink human blood, but to live off of the blood of animals. He mourns the people he loves, agonizing over their mortality, but is unwilling to turn them.

In an early scene, Boya encounters Earl, a cabdriver in trouble with a group of local mafia. Boya is teary-eyed and emotional, and Earl comments, “Guys got a thing about crying…my dog died,” and summons up some tears of his own. This scene in which two men, nearly strangers, cry together is an unusual one. Earl is immediately willing to be vulnerable with Boya, while seeming aware of the strangeness of the exchange. Dale portrays two male characters that make an immediate emotional connection that remains strong throughout the film.

A local donut shop is a primary setting, where the audience is introduced to the character of Molly, who is comfortable in her job, even when she encounters “tough guys,” Pierce and Axel, who repeatedly terrorize Earl. Earl worries about Molly being “unprotected,” but Molly is confident, occasionally wielding a baseball bat and is backed up by her male boss. Several times in the film Molly is threatened by the two criminals, but holds a steady gaze and a confident posture. The camera tends to focus on Molly’s face and eyes, absent are any gratuitous shots of her body, common to mainstream horror.

Boya is attracted to Molly, but is reluctant to pursue her, partly due to concern for Earl’s possible feelings. In a particularly unusual scene of sexuality, Boya lies in the bath, intensely fantasizing about Molly (this film is tagged “psychic rape” on imdb). Molly appears to be sleeping and is woken up by a dream-like sexual encounter with Boya. Interesting is that while Boya is quite exposed, nude in the murky bathwater, Molly wears a heavy t-shirt and is dimly lit, partially covered in bed sheets. Often in scenes of this type, particularly in horror, women’s bodies are exposed, but here the portrayal of Molly is more character-focused, her body is not used for the titillation of the audience. If any character is used in this way, it would be that of Boya, who walks nude to the window and stares out longingly. It is troubling to the viewer that this is not clearly a consensual encounter. It might be interpreted that Molly invites the encounter, but later she refers to it as a “bad dream,” and is seen researching Shamanism, wondering aloud if it is possible that Boya indeed visited her in her sleep. It is notable in this scene as well that Boya drops the golf ball as though letting go momentarily of his identity as a vampire and allowing himself to feel human.

Conventional standards of masculinity are exemplified by the crime lord Stephen, played by David Cronenberg, and his two assistants. In one scene, Stephen literally uses his boot to “make a mark,” comparing it to Axel’s athletic shoe, which leaves a mere scuff. Stephen and Pierce compete for dominance of both Axel and the neighborhood. The three express little sign of emotion throughout the film, in sharp contrast to the sensitive Boya. Ultimately, Stephen “wins” the competition for power between the three criminals, but Boya clearly is the most physically imposing and powerful character, despite his less stereotypically masculine demeanor.

Rita, Boya’s former lover before his long slumber, is angry with him for refusing to turn her, and struggles with aging. Connected to him thorough his bite, Rita longs to be immortal and is deeply angered that he robbed her of the possibility of eternal youth. She envies Molly’s beauty and tries to scare her away from Boya. In one of the few gory scenes of the film, Rita confronts and stakes Boya, failing to kill him. This scene is of interest because rather than focusing on her failed romance, Rita is fixated on the lost dream of immortality. She is aggressively angry with the former object of her affection. Boya agonizes over his feelings for Rita, which he feels being reflected in his developing love for Molly. He is troubled by the burden he places on them both, and humanity in general.

In the ending scene, Molly makes use of the Automotive Repair Handbook she studies earlier in the film to revive Earl. Boya is beside himself, feeling responsible for his death in a final altercation with the criminals in which he kills Stephen to protect Earl. Molly magically brings Earl back from the dead, making use of jumper cables and donuts (!). Boya decides to end his existence, facing the sun, and presumably the friendship between Molly and Earl survives. The ending is unusual in that Molly’s character remains level-headed and practical, driving the action of the film, while Boya expresses deep anguish and displays a fear of the mortality of others.

Dale’s film comments on the male gaze and gender roles by at times focusing on the physicality of Boya while presenting Molly as a fully developed and fully dressed character. She confronts gender stereotypes with Molly who is an avid reader, both physically and intellectually competent. Boya maintains his physical prowess while being emotive and unafraid to express his affection for Earl, several times touching him tenderly. She successfully defies some of the conventions of horror with this character-driven film.

The Bechdel Test for Women in the Age of Irony

In 1985, the comic writer Alison Bechdel wrote an edition of her strip Dykes to Watch Out For, in which a character declares that in order for a movie to be worth watching it has to suit three criteria. (1) It has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man. What has since become known as “The Bechdel Test” is sometimes used in cultural and film studies as a simple starting point for feminist analysis. Once I started paying attention to this test, it was disheartening to notice how few films and other works pass these three qualifications. Why aren’t women more fully represented in films, novels and television? In the case of The Bechdel Test, why aren’t women minimally represented in more texts? Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency writes, “It’s quite extraordinary actually how many movies don’t pass this test cause it’s not even a sign of whether it’s a feminist movie or whether it’s a good movie just that there is female presence in it and that they actually are engaging about things other than men.” It should go without saying that it would be difficult to find a film that would fail the test if the sexes were reversed.

Jennifer Kessler, former screenwriter and founder of The Hathor Legacy, a site devoted to women in film and television, argues that in order to achieve success in the industry, film writers are actually pressured to write films that do not pass The Bechdel Test, for fear of “losing the audience.” Financial concerns rule Hollywood, and movies which deviate from the traditional mold are suspect. This sets up a continuous problem for filmmakers in which the status quo is maintained. Women continue to take a backseat to men in character representation. Kessler, who left the industry writes, “I concluded Hollywood was dominated by perpetual pre-adolescent boys making the movies they wanted to see, and using the ‘target audience’ – a construct based on partial truths and twisted math – to perpetuate their own desires.” She concluded that she would find more success in attempting to change the system from without.

Neda Ulaby argues for NPR that it is important for audiences to see women engaged on screen on a wide range of topics, not just in the usual conversation about the main, usually male, character. She argues that the twenty-six year old strip “still resonates because it articulates something often missing in popular culture. Not the number of women we see on screen, but the depths of their stories and the range of their concerns.” She argues that The Bechdel Test retains its popularity because women continue to feel that they are not represented on screen. She adds “the shows that fail might surprise you.”

The Bechdel Test will continue to be a useful tool as long as women remain underrepresented in film and other types of stories. In my program at The Evergreen State College entitled, “The Age of Irony,” we spent time examining wars and social movements of the 20th Century in the United States. We also worked to apply concepts of cultural criticism to a number of films and novels of this time period. I decided to examine twelve of these works used by the program, making use of The Bechdel Test as a starting point for feminist analysis. Letter grades were assigned so that I could elaborate a bit beyond a simple pass/fail assessment.

My Man Godfrey
This 1936 film opens with a scene in which two sisters, Cornelia and Irene, are engaged in a scavenger hunt, looking for a “forgotten man.” Immediately it is clear that there is a rivalry between the two, a classic film trope which limits the opportunity for women characters to engage on more than a superficial level. The film passes The Test as Irene and mother Angelica have a brief encounter over Angelica’s goat, with the scene immediately cut to a shot of Angelica’s husband referring to her as a “dizzy old gal.” Throughout the film, however, nearly every other conversation any two women engage in is about Godfrey. The women tend to be vain, lacking in substance and childlike in demeanor, especially Godfrey’s love interest Irene. Godfrey tries to school Irene in “proper” behavior, and even refers to her as a “little girl.” There are a number of women in this film, including maid Molly, who is one of the most level-headed characters, intelligent and amusing without the flightiness of Irene or the prissiness of Cornelia. All of the women seem smitten in some way or another with Godfrey, who is the central figure and hero of the story. The film satirizes the frivolity of the upper class while reinforcing the notion that social mobility is within reach. Overall grade: C-

The Great Gatsby
This 1925 classic novel narrowly passes The Bechdel Test in an early scene in which Daisy and Jordan laze on the couch. They have a brief exchange as Nick enters the room, Jordan complaining to Daisy of boredom. Later in the novel the two grumble about the heat. While Daisy features prominently in the story, the reader learns very little about her as a person. She serves as an object of desire for Gatsby, who wishes to possess her and her desirable class status. He describes her to Nick, “Her voice is full of money.” Fitzgerald works to create a picture of the elite social set living on East Egg wherein materialism, emptiness and indifference are the norm, but the women characters seem particularly flat. Tom takes a fatherly role in his relationship to Daisy, brushing aside her infidelity. On Jordan, Nick declares, “Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply.” This suggests that women are childlike in their motivations, and require protection from men. A minor nod to the feminist movement occurs when Tom says of Daisy, “I may be old-fashioned in my ideas, but women run around too much these days to suit me.” The novel clearly centers on the activities, feelings and motivations of the male characters, and there is little to relate to in the women represented, who mainly serve as background. Overall grade: D+

Babbitt
The novel Babbitt contains some important ideas countering mainstream American concepts of its time surrounding class, politics and upward social mobility which was such an enchanting ideal of the 1920s. Unfortunately, it utterly fails The Bechdel Test. The main women characters in the novel include Babbitt’s wife Myra, “as sexless as an anemic nun,” who “…took care of the house and didn’t bother the males by thinking.” Other notable characters include Babbitt’s daughter Verona, who attends the University and is a bit of a non-conformist, but intellectually shallow, and his friend Paul’s wife Zilla, who is the standard nagging wife. Babbitt has an ongoing fantasy of a fairy girl who is pretty and uncomplicated. She is positioned in the novel oddly as a catalyst for Babbitt to explore the other avenues that might be open to him in lieu of remaining in the middle-class trap he has set for himself. Overall Grade: F

American Beauty
The story in American Beauty centers on the character of Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man struggling with the same kind of materially fulfilling yet empty life that George Babbitt finds himself living. The three prominent female characters include Carolyn, Lester’s wife, Jane, his daughter, and her friend Angela, the object of his sexual fascination. Each of the three women characters work to support the narrative supplied by Lester, illustrating his unhappy marriage, his inability to relate to his daughter, and his gross obsession with her insecure, attention-seeking friend Angela. There is a great deal of tension between Carolyn and her daughter. In one scene, Carolyn slaps Jane and yells, “You ungrateful little brat. Just look at everything you have.” Most of the interaction between Jane and Angela has to do with Jane’s developing relationship with her neighbor, Ricky, or with Lester. There is a fair amount of character development for the women in the film, although the story itself centers on Lester’s thoughts, feelings and experiences. Angela presents herself initially as a sexually precocious young girl, actively pursuing a relationship with Lester. In the end, it is Lester who puts an end to their sexual encounter, as he seems to come to a realization of sorts. Overall grade: C+

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit
This 1956 film is centered on the character of Tom, who struggles to define himself after the war, adjusting to civilian life. The film fails The Bechdel Test, as there is no interaction in the film among the women characters, but the characters themselves are interesting to examine. Betsy, Tom’s wife, is clearly frustrated by her role as housewife. She heavily manipulates Tom in his career in a desperate attempt to have influence over the course of her own life. She equates material success with fun and happiness, and expects to see Tom in full pursuit of increased wealth for the family. She tells Tom, “You can get a raise if you want it…if you have the nerve to hold out for it.” At the workplace, women serve as decoration. Tom is told, “We always give the new man the prettiest secretary.” Susan, the boss’ daughter, enjoys the material benefits bestowed upon her while telling her father, “It’s really stupid the way you live, working all the time.” She is “not interested in money,” but is anxious to marry an older man in order to avoid working or attending college. Tom’s lover during the war, Maria, is beautiful and impoverished. Married Tom tells her, “I want to leave my entire estate to you.” When Tom confesses his affair to Betsy years later, she is concerned about her ability to measure up to his lover. “Did she have a better figure than me?” She asks, “You weren’t always worrying about money with her, were you?” Later, she is repentant, saying, “Hit me right across the head if I ever say anything to hurt you again.” After Tom and Betsy decide to financially support Tom’s son with Maria together, Tom declares to Betsy, “I worship you.” Overall grade: F

Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel fails The Bechdel Test, and contains problematic depictions of women. Billy has a difficult time relating to his family, and is disconnected from his life. He is resentful of his daughter Barbara, who tries to help him to function. He opines, “All this responsibility at such an early age made her a bitchy flibbertigibbet.” He is equally disconnected from his “ugly” wife Valencia, who “was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating.” She wants to lose weight for Billy, who is wholly indifferent to her affections. Instead, he develops a fascination with adult movie star Montana Wildhack. She is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians for Billy’s amusement. Initially she is terrorized, but eventually, inexplicably, comes to “love and trust” him. Early in the novel Werner, Billy and Derby come upon a group of teen-aged refugees in an exposed shower. “The girls screamed. They covered themselves with their hands and turned their backs and so on, and made themselves utterly beautiful.” The three seem to be delighted by their nudity and titillated by their fear. Vonnegut dedicates his novel in part to the non-fictional character of Mary O’Hare, who is concerned that his Dresden novel will amount to the glorification of war. “You were just babies then!” He takes her words to heart, subtitling Slaughterhouse-Five The Children’s Crusade. The novel fails to fully develop any of its female characters, detailing their often unflattering physical descriptions, and at no time do any two women converse, about a man or otherwise. Overall Grade: F

In the Heat of the Night
The 1967 film In the Heat of the Night fails to pass The Bechdel Test. The women characters include Mrs. Colbert who insists that Virgil remain on her husband’s murder case, noting the incompetence of Gillespie and the Sparta police department. Mama Caleba makes a brief appearance as a woman planning to assist Delores in obtaining an abortion. The character of Delores is a young teen, presented early in the film, her nudity barely concealed by the window frame as the character of Sam peers in on her lasciviously from his police car. Delores seeks male attention through her sexuality. The women characters are poorly developed, and serve to support the main story line which is dominated by men. Overall Grade: F

Another Country
James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another Country is a powerful commentary on race, gender and sexuality. It passes The Bechdel Test, although it is primarily a novel about its male characters. Rufus, who dies early in the novel, is present throughout it as his close friends and sister Ida try to make sense of his suicide. Rufus enacts his intense self hatred upon his girlfriend Leona, humiliating and abusing her. The few interactions between the female characters are dominated by their feelings about men. Leona and Cass have a brief exchange in which Cass tells Leona, “Next time, we’ll go off and have a drink by ourselves someplace, without all these men.” Unfortunately, the reader does not witness this conversation. Cass tells her husband Richard when he declares, “I don’t believe all this female intuition shit. It’s something women have dreamed up,” “You can say that–and in such a tone! But I can’t say that–what men have ‘dreamed up’ is all there is, the world they’ve dreamed up is the world.” Richard laughs her off, “what a funny girl you are. You’ve got a bad case of penis envy.” Later, Ida and Cass enter into a conversation about Vivaldo, in which Ida tells Cass, “Come on, Cass, honey, we going to get down to the knitty-gritty this afternoon.” The real “knitty-gritty” is the inner workings of the men in their lives. When Cass and Vivaldo meet privately for a drink, Vivaldo says, “Men have to think about so many things. Women only have to think about men.” Cass responds, “If men don’t know what’s happening, what they’re doing, where they’re going — what are women to do? If Richard doesn’t know what kind of world he wants, how am I to help him make it? What am I to tell our sons?”

The only significant interaction between two female characters in the novel is one between Ida and Cass in which they have a powerful exchange about their relationships, and about race. The two have a difficult time connecting as Cass, like her husband, has experienced white privilege and is able to confront it through her developing friendship with Ida. Ida tells Cass, “There’s no way in the world for you to find out what it’s like to be a black girl in this world.” Ida is treated poorly by the men in her life, and uses her sexuality in order to secure her career as a performer. Richard, too, is abusive toward Cass when he discovers her affair, slapping her hard enough to draw blood. Overall grade: C+

Dr. Strangelove
This 1964 satirical film fails The Bechdel Test. The single female character is that of Miss Scott, the bikini-clad secretary of General Turgidson. In an early scene, the only time in which a woman appears in the film, Miss Scott strikes a number of pin-up style poses as she relays information to boss and lover Turgidson. Later she phones him in the war room to express her insecurities about their relationship. The B-52 pilots peruse Playboy magazine (containing a shot of the actress playing Miss Scott) while on duty, and “Top Secret” documents are contained in a safe whose interior is decorated, high school locker-style, with girly magazine photos. Dr. Strangelove uses irony to draw attention to stereotypes of masculinity, the character of Turgidson, his name, and his relationship to women is one overt example. Nevertheless, Miss Scott is presented as a decorative object for the enjoyment of the audience, and that is her primary purpose. Overall grade: F

Brave New World
Huxley’s 1932 work of dystopian fiction, Brave New World passes The Bechdel Test. The characters of Lenina and Fanny have a few interactions about the experiences of women living in 632 A.F. Most of their conversations focus on male characters, as they are expected to copulate frequently, and not to linger too long over any one in particular. The two discuss the “Pregnancy Substitute,” which all women are expected to undergo in lieu of childbearing. They make use of the “vibro-vacuum machine,” and other rituals to maintain their attractiveness. Lenina conforms to society, embracing and internalizing the expectations put out for her. She is frequently described as “pneumatic,” suggesting a perky and accommodating figure. Bernard takes offense when Henry reduces Lenina to a sexual object. “Talking about her as though she were a bit of meat. Have her here, have her there. Like mutton. Degrading her to so much mutton.” Linda, who has not been subjected to artificial beauty treatments on the reservation, is considered ghastly in appearance, and therefore worthless. While the major philosophical explorations in the novel are focused on the male characters, Huxley presents a solid critique of the way women are socialized and made into commodities in the brave new world. Overall grade: B-

Mildred Pierce
This 1945 film nicely passes the Bechdel Test, containing a number of well-developed female characters. The story centers on the character of Mildred, who is forced to leave her role as housewife when her philandering husband abandons the family. Mildred finds work as a waitress, eventually opening her own restaurant business, securing substantial wealth for herself and her daughter Veda. Veda is spoiled and cruel to Mildred, finding it “degrading” that she should have to work, telling her, “You’ll never be anything but a common frump.” Veda is delighted by Mildred’s boyfriend Monte, who has the name and class standing which she aspires to. Unfortunately, Monte is broke and the two conspire to take advantage of Mildred’s wealth. Other notable characters include Mildred’s trusted friend Ida, younger daughter Kay, and maid Lottie.

Ink-stained Amazon writes for Bitch Media that Mildred Pierce has been the subject of much feminist analysis due to its “gender subversive female protagonist.” Mildred is transformed into a formidable business woman, but suffers as her daughter grows into a contemptible young adult. She measures her true success by her ability to garner love and respect from Veda. While the novel Mildred Pierce is set during The Great Depression, relating the struggle of Americans to retain class standing under economic strain, Warner Bros. chose to delay the release of the film version until the end of the war in 1945, as women were being encouraged to leave the work force. In a somewhat awkward ending, Mildred is shown appearing to reunite with former husband Bert as Veda is imprisoned. Amazon suggests that the timing of the release “would show women that if they didn’t leave the careers they had assumed while the boys were at war, and continued to shower their children with lavish gifts, no good would come of it.” While not a wholly feminist film, Mildred Pierce does have a strong female protagonist, and is a fascinating reflection of its time in regard to issues of gender, race and class. Overall grade: B+

A Feather on the Breath of God
The unnamed female narrator of A Feather on the Breath of God looks upon the lives of her immigrant parents and that of her own, reflecting among other things upon cultural identity, femininity and sexuality. Through her relationships with friends and family, the character of the narrator is revealed to the reader, her struggles to find her own sense of self, and experience of “the female condition.” The novel well passes The Bechdel Test, relating interactions between women on intimate issues such as abortion, class, and sex appeal, revealing the inner complexities of the women characters and giving readers access to their experiences. The male characters of her father and later her lover are examined through the eyes of the narrator, a unique and valuable feature in a work of fiction. The author artfully exposes the experience of the ballet dancer in the novel, the struggle to maintain the ultra-feminine ideal represented by the ballerina, while suffering through damaging eating rituals and bodily mutilation which Nunez aptly relates to foot binding. The narrator shares her experiences of the ballet, “Ballet a woman’s world? But it was men who invented ballet–and the ballerina. It is men who put her feet in those shoes, and who take the food out of her mouth.” Overall grade: A

An analysis of these twelve novels and films from The Age of Irony reveals that the majority of the works do not contain a significant female presence. If averaged together, the letter grade for all twelve texts is a D, based upon five failing grades, one D, three Cs, two Bs and only one A. The letter grades were subjective, but generally a C was assigned for passing, and additional points were added or taken away to indicate the strength of female characters or troubling instances of stereotyping or overt sexism. The strongest work for female presence was A Feather on the Breath of God. Nunez specifically alludes to the experience of being a woman, and navigating a male-dominated world. The characters, the plot, the interaction are all developed through the lens of a female character.

It is important for all of us to have the opportunity to relate to the characters we see on screen and in print. Even though women make up slightly more than half of the population, film in particular tends to be dominated overwhelmingly by men. Women are often relegated to the role of the sexual object, (Miss Scott) the nag, (Zilla, Betsy), the young seductress (Veda, Delores). Men tend to be the central characters, driving the action, revealing their inner struggles, feelings and motivations. Women are taught to identify with men while reading novels and watching films, while stories which feature women are dismissively referred to as “chick flicks” or “chick lit.” Men are less likely to identify with women when there are many representations of male characters to relate to.

Measures similar to The Bechdel Test have been used to examine other forms of representations including race and sexual orientation. Simple awareness of these kinds of measures is a good way to begin analyzing how ideas about gender, race, class or sexuality are reinforced by media. The character from Bechdel’s comic used the test to determine whether or not she would bother to view a film at all. Twenty-some years later, it would be wonderful if she were offered more to choose from.

Works Cited

American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. 1999. DVD.
Baldwin, James. Another Country. New York: Dial, 1962. Print.
“The ‘Bechdel Rule,’ Defining Pop-Culture Character : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. Web. 03 May 2011.
“The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies.” Feminist Frequency. Web. 03 May 2011.
Bechdel Test Movie List. Web. 03 May 2011.
Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Prod. Stanley Kubrick, Victor Lyndon, and Ken Adam. By Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George, Gilbert Taylor, Anthony Harvey, and Laurie Johnson. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, and James Earl Jones. BLC, 1963.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
In the Heat of the Night. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. 1967. DVD.
Lewis, Sinclair, and Kenneth Krauss. Babbitt. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.
The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Dir. Nunnally Johnson. Perf. Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones. Twentieth Century Fox, 1956. DVD.
Mildred Pierce. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. Joan Crawford. Warner Bros., 1945. DVD.
My Man Godfrey. Dir. Cava Gregory La. By Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch. Universal Productions, Inc., 1936. DVD.
Nunez, Sigrid. A Feather on the Breath of God: a Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five, Or, The Children’s Crusade: a Duty-dance with Death. New York: Dial, 2009. Print.
“Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not to Pass the Bechdel Test — The Hathor Legacy.” The Hathor Legacy — Breaking down Gender Roles, One Role at a Time. Web. 03 May 2011.