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Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Bechdel Rule and The Dark Knight

posted by Silvana
I'm a little shocked that I hadn't heard of The Bechdel Rule until this morning. The rule is that movies should have 1) at least two women, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. I know, you guys have already heard this before. But it's brilliant!

It's a perfect explanation of the sort of movie that would meet my feminist criteria for having fully-formed female characters. I remember having this frustrating conversation with my boyfriend after we went to see Iron Man, which we both liked a lot (maybe me even more than him, but that could have been because my expectations were low and he was super-psyched about it) where I was complaining about Gwyneth Paltrow's character, Pepper Potts, and how I thought the writers could have done a lot more with her. She's a good actor, and the character is kind of interesting (she's not just a love interest, but one with her own moral code and a job that sometimes compromises that), but I came out of the movie wanting more from her. Trying to explain what exactly would have helped to flesh out her character, however, was driving me crazy (my only thought was "more dialogue." "But it's an action film, and it was already pretty damn long." Both of which are true.)

I had less of that feeling after I came out of The Dark Knight last night, although I suspect that having Maggie Gyllenhall in the role helps--she's nothing but independent and sassy-seeming, no matter what she's saying. But the movie, as much as I loved it, fails the Bechdel test.

You see, the reason the Bechdel criteria are spot-on is that having conversation between women about things other than their romantic relationships with men is that it means that women are driving the story. Dialogue is where you get to the meat of the problem, the heart of the plot, the explanation for why characters act the way they do. Even in action movies. In The Dark Knight, dialogue is where you get the most terrifying, electrifying information about any character in the movie: that the Joker has no agenda, has no plan. He's not after money, or power, he has no purpose, no rules. He merely seeks to create chaos. The terror created by those artifacts of his personality are what drive the terror and the action of the film. In Iron Man you got the explanation of Tony Stark's change of occupation from a weapons-mongerer to a justice vigilante through dialogue, as well. Without dialogue, things just happen—they don't have any meaning. And meaning, whether it's political, moral, or about the nature of evil, is a crucial element that makes movies worth watching.

So now that we've pinpointed dialogue as the locus of meaning in film, we need to think about who's having it. Few movies pass the Bechdel test--most of the dialogue happens between men, or between men and one woman. Most movies who have extended conversations between women tend to be under the umbrella of "chick flicks," or the newly-minted term, "RomComs." But even those movies don't pass the Bechdel test; not only are the conversations about men, the movies are driven by what men do or don't do, what they want or don't want, even when all the principal characters are women.

Men are talking. They are making decisions, they are explaining the motivations of the characters, they are illuminating the world they live in by describing it. And this is because the world the men of The Dark Knight or Iron Man live in, far more than the one we live in, is a man's world, where all the important actors are men.

Okay, so you get it. Women need to be talking to drive the story. But they do talk, right? Maggie Gyllenhall and Gwyneth Paltrow weren't running around mute in these movies. Actually, these character didn't talk much, but even if they had, their ability to drive the story is limited by the fact that when they talk, they're talking to men.

Why? Because the world created in film is even more sexist than the one we live in, and when a man and a woman talk the man's world is the reference point for their conversation. His thoughts, his ideas, his conundrums, his desires. In The Dark Knight, Rachel has conversations with Bruce Wayne about his role as a vigilante and his desire to be with her. She has conversations with Harvey Dent about his career, his plans, his safety. What about her career, her desires, her safety? Well we don't know anything about her career, and her desires we find out about in a 4-sentence letter. As to her safety—we find out about through the male characters' desires to keep her safe.

This is not like my world—I spend lots of time talking to men, and a lot of the time we're talking about me, my thoughts, my ideas, my career, my desires. But when men are primary characters in film and women only hold secondary roles, the conversations between them are bound to be about the principals.

That's why the requirement that women talk to each other is so crucial--because when women talk to each other, and they're not just talking about men, they're driving the story. If they're talking about their ideas, their dilemmas, their motivations and desires, that means that those things are moving the plot.

Otherwise, women in film are just window-dressing, there to be projected upon, there to be married or dumped, to die tragically or to be saved: to function as plot twists rather than plot-participants.

And I'm tired of watching movies like that.

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