Friday, 11 May 2012

We Need To Talk About Feminism

In my hastily cobbled together bio (see right) with more clauses than Santa’s family tree, I noted that I am a feminist.  More of that another time, but for now I will just say, that I know lots of women.   Not one of them would accept being barred from schools or Universities where men with equal or less intelligence attend; not one of them would rest if there were laws that meant their opinions, knowledge or expertise were disregarded due to their gender; and not one of them would accept that the only route to a better job would be to sleep with the boss.   However, out of all these women, many would argue that they are not feminists.  Anyhoo...

Here’s what was on my mind recently.
I have spent the last couple of months watching Scott and Bailey.  If you missed it, it was a police drama on ITV, starring Suranne Jones, Lesley Sharpe and Amelia Bullmore.  I thought it was brill.  There were bucket loads of things I liked, but amongst all of them, it just felt real – real characters, real situations and real storylines.  Despite the necessity of the makers to provide drama and suspense in order to entice viewers, there was a sense of natural dialogue lying amongst the grotesque murders and passionate affairs.  Whilst I have zero understanding of what a Serious Crime Squad syndicate might actually be like, it felt authentic.   I love mysteries and cop shows with the best of them, (Dolly Bantry is a LEGEND) but when Scott and Bailey is lodged firmly amongst what I imagine to be similarly realistic contemporary police shows such as Lewis or even New Tricks, the show’s script (particularly the exchanges between Janet Scott, Rachel Bailey and Gill Murray) is incredibly well-written.  It mirrors exactly the kinds of conversations I have had in my own place of work with my own colleagues and my own friends. My opinion, but there you go. 

It was after reading a article in the Guardian that I started to have an inkling about why I might have been subconsciously drawn to this aspect of the show.  Put simply, it passes the Bechdel Test

If you are, like I was until very recently, a stranger to this test, it is really straightforward.  It applies a three point criteria to a film (or TV show in this case) to assess the prominence it gives its female characters.

1.     Does the film/show have more than two named female characters?
2.     Do they talk to each other?
3.     Do they talk to each other about something other than men?

When I first read that, I laughed, and dismissed it as being a non- issue.  But then I thought about it.  Lots of films meet one of the points.  Some might meet two.  But of all my favourite films, the ones that I think, make me the person I am and inspire me in life, NOT ONE passes all three criteria. 

At this realisation, I tried, once more, to pretend it didn’t matter.  They are still great films, I reasoned.  They can still give pleasure with every viewing. They can continue to illuminate and enlarge upon life’s meaning, and the daily journey we trudge together.  Can they?   Does it actually matter if the characters are mainly men, or separate individual females that never meet, or females that meet and whose sole topic of conversation is men?  Does it actually matter?

The thing is, in my actual life, my real life.  I know lots of women.  Whether these women are my friends, my family, my neighbours or ladies that jiggle about next to me at Zumba every week, these are people I have regular conversations with.  In the last week, I have talked to a wide variety of these women about a wide variety of topics.  Off the top of my head these have included politics, education, travel, fertility, pregnancy, cars, vibrators, reality TV, University, house prices, periods and food.  There have also been conversations where we have talked about relationships, weddings, sex and impotence.  But (and my mother would be relieved to hear this) the sex and men talk has been but a small fraction compared to all of the other equally fascinating things that have come out of my mouth, and the women I knows’ mouths in the past seven days.  And that is where not passing the Bechdel test feels like a terrible problem. 
It is completely unrealistic. 

Yes, I know that films are often plot driven, and the plot needs to be told within a specific timeframe.  So rather than hear two female protagonists (if the film even has two female protagonists) discussing who they voted for in the local elections, before one of them gets back on Rom-Com message and kisses a boy in a station as the credits roll, they instead cut out all the ‘realism’ and just do the traditional boy meets girl stuff.   I also appreciate that there are always going to be films that contain more men, or films that are going to feature more women, that only talk about men.  (The achingly funny Bridesmaids, causes heated discussions on the Bechdel website, as to whether the women are only discussing men because by default, men are intrinsically linked to straight marriage, so are therefore ethereally present in bridesmaid dress discussions whether they like it or not).  No, the thing that makes me feel dispirited to my core is how so few films exist that meet all three criteria.   There should just be more.  It’s as simple as that.

A few days after becoming aware of the Bechdel test, I watched The Lincoln Lawyer.  I’d seen it last year on a plane, enjoyed it and so watched it again.   (It is a thriller with a lawyer and a baddie, and a bit of suspense, made in 2011 and set in present day America.)  Very soon I became aware of its Bechdel limitations.  Despite there being a variety of of female prostitutes, background cops or secretaries, in terms of named female characters, there were seven.  (There were twenty-nine named characters in all.)  However, there wasn’t one scene that showed any of these women talking together. One final cause for contemplation was that amongst the actresses, Marisa Tomei played a prominent role.  She got second billing on IMDB  and played the ex-wife of the male protagonist.  Despite her character being a brilliant prosecutor, and having a complicated relationship with the father of her child, she was shown in minimal scenes; either watching her male ex-partner work from the back of the court, or waking up in bed with the same ex, and showing a bit of shoulder flesh.  An accomplished actress woefully underused.
 Yet despite this gnawing unease, I enjoyed the film.  It was just like lots of other films I have seen and enjoyed. It is just clear to me now, however, that these films are men’s stories, written by men, acted by men, and about men, with women on the sidelines supporting the action by being off screen most of the time.  As long as I recognise that, it's OK.

Anyway, back to Scott and Bailey and the reason I dragged my little soapbox here, stepped on it and started waving my arms about like a mad woman.  Scott and Bailey doesn’t do that.  It doesn’t have women on the sidelines.  It doesn’t have women standing at the back of the room looking on as the men lead the narrative.  I guess it has men on the sidelines, although in the main cast, there are lots of them.  (The male characters are named, they talk to each other, and not just about women.)  But they are on the sidelines.  And that might not have occurred to anyone that it is a problem, because, you see, it isn’t.  It is a small feminist drop in a male-centered ocean.   If the vast majority of telly was this way, men might feel a bit pushed out, and be moved to write a blog post about it, but the fact remains, that the vast majority of telly is not this way.  

Some shows are predominantly about men.  Some are predominantly about women.  Often the shows that are predominantly about women tend to actually be women talking predominantly about men. (Have I used predominantly too much yet?)  However, every so often, I want to watch drama that recognises that women are the main characters in their own lives and that the stories of those lives are not actually always to do with the men.  Not all the time, and not in isolation.  
Sometimes they are about the local elections and vibrators.  
Or cheese.


  1. Programmes on the telly
    Stories in lifestyle magazines
    Clothes in the shops

    (to name just three)

    People might simplistically assume that these things are driven by what people want - "give the customer what they want". The truth is probably a lot more complicated though, isn't it? It's probably more accurate to say that these things are often driven by what a relatively very small number of people think what a certain cross-section of people think they want - or, more simply, give the customer what you they *think* they want.

    I would suggest that there is probably a massive disparity between the two.

    A lot of what people think they want will be driven by culture. A lot of culture is driven by what the culture has been in the past, rather than where it would be if you took a fresh look at things as they are now. And whilst some aspects of culture are dynamic and fast-moving, these are at the periphery - the main cultural stuff moves far more glacially. Why? Because our culture is defined, reflected and reinforced by those things I listed at the top there, where a relatively small group of people get to give people their view of what they think people want.

    Your internets, twitters, facebooks and generally social interfacery is having a real positive impact on this because it's slowly eroding the importance of that relatively small group of people and giving the power to everybody. It means what people actually want is increasingly getting fed into the mix very visibly and effectively, allowing culture to become more responsive. I think it's got a long way to go, but it's good that the tools are in place for things to happen. This can only be a good thing for chipping away at the male domination of the telly box.



  2. I completely agree that so much of what seems part of today's culture, really speaks to a tiny minority and not a social majority. I hadn't considered properly the power of social media in challenging that, but it really does, doesn't it! I LOVE Twitter for loads of reasons, some of them daft, but mostly it is as real an exchange of views as you get anywhere in the media. Hurrah! Also, thanks so much for commenting and reading.