If you're a fan of Cinematical or this column, you're familiar with The Rule. You know, the simple cinematic guidelines Alison Bechdel immortalized in comic strip form. Quite simply, there needs to be at least two female characters with names in a film, who talk to each other about something other than men. While by no means an irrefutable guide to cinema -- there are excellent films that fail and crap that passes -- its simplicity is perfect for revealing just how rarely we get to see female characters talk to each other about anything other than men.
I'm bringing this up again because there's a new pen to the fold. Last week, John August wrote a new post about discovering The Rule, and how it applies to his own work. August, of course, has a pretty varied selection of films. He's brought us the excellent drug-induced wonder of Go, adapted Big Fish, and created The Nines, while also tackling blockbusters like Charlie's Angels (that sequel's faults are explained here) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though he's written a number of female-starring films, even his work doesn't always make the cut.
August watched the above clip, which lists everything from The Dark Knight to The Wedding Singer as manly offenders, and then looked at his own work. He wrote:
The greatest part about this discovery is not that he applied The Rule to his work, but that it made him cognizant of the lack of women-to-women interactions in his films. He wonders if acknowledgment changes anything, and I'd argue that it does, as long as it isn't quickly forgotten -- for a scribe like August especially. He's the man who's given us Ronna Martin, Claire Montgomery, the new Angels, Margaret/Melissa/Mary and Sarah/Susan/Sierra. I know his name not because I'm a movie geek, but because I've enjoyed his films and his female characters (even parts of Full Throttle, though that was more for Crispin Glover).
Looking back through my movies, I'm struck by how rarely the female characters actually do talk to each other. In Big Fish, it's only a brief moment with Sandra and Josephine. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it's a throwaway moment between Violet and Veruca. Titan A.E. fails the test unless you know that the alien Stith is technically female. In each of these cases, I had to spend a few minutes just to come up with these (admittedly slight) examples.
Also, I find it fascinating that the Reverse Bechdel Test is almost meaningless. Pretty much every movie made includes two named male characters talking about something other than a woman.
Does acknowledging the situation change anything? Maybe. I'll certainly ask myself these questions about future scripts. For now, my upcoming projects all seem to pass, but they have a familiar paradigm: a single main female who mostly interacts with the men in the story.
Of course, even in August's post, there is backlash. One commenter calls the idea "kind of bullsh*t," stating: "A screenwriter's job isn't to make everything created equal." But that's precisely not the point. Like any argument that poses a challenge, the naysayers see the end-all, that recognizing and trying to live by The Rule is some terrible shackle that ruins the creative process. I'm sorry, but that's hooey. August isn't shouting out a call to arms, but merely noticing a trend in his own work that he had no idea he was perpetuating. Upon realizing this, he's vowing to keep The Rule in mind for the future. It's no different than a friend or editor pointing out a word you say or write way too much. If, after becoming aware of it, you want to keep saying it, go ahead. That's your prerogative. If it makes you realize something you'd like to correct, however, even better!
The problem is that we don't notice it, or speak out about it, and the screenwriters themselves have no clue. Considering August's reaction to The Rule, I'm wildly curious about the other scribes out there. How many, if they applied the qualifications to their own scripts and saw the results, would start rethinking how they handle women on the page?
What's so funny about this idea is that we're not talking about changing the system, fighting discrimination, or masses of people's attitudes. The Rule simply requests that the women on the screen have names and talk to each other. It's the simplest advancement to make. Let them talk about life. About work. Hell, let the big-screen women also get their girl-on-girl geek on. It doesn't change the story to give two characters a more comprehensive or engaging conversation. All it can do is help.
But Joss Whedon says it better than I can right now, and this next bit comes courtesy of a commenter on August's blog, Grover. A few years ago, Joss Whedon won an award from Equality Now. In his speech, he discussed how he gets asked the same question over and over and over again, about why he writes strong women characters. It might be about strength over conversation, but the same ideas apply. He talks about being asked that same question over and over, and how as the question is hit to him, he volleys back:
"I think it's because of my mother. She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman. That's the kind of woman I've always surrounded myself with."
"Because of my father. My father and my stepfather had a lot to do with it because they prized wit and resolve in the women they were with above all things. And they were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else's power does not diminish your own."
"Because these stories give people strength."
"How is it possible that this is even a question?! Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't?"
"Because... Equality is not a concept. It's not something we should be striving for. It's a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women."
"Because you're still asking me that question."
[via Women and Hollywood]