Welcome back to Lady Things, the column in which we steal a spaceship and set out to explore the faraway galaxy that is the experience of being a woman. This week, we tell a tale about what happens when ladies try to talk about the most hyped-up movie of the year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
First, a true story I call "Mansplaining the Bechdel Test." Names have been redacted to protect my co-workers who didn't sign releases for this reality show that I've created out of my life, and some liberties have been taken with the dialogue since I didn't have a recording device:
On the day of the advance screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of my co-workers came back from watching the film and casually mentioned that some people were already tweeting about whether or not the movie passed the Bechdel test. Thus began a discussion between a female intern and me about what the Bechdel test actually entailed, the kind of back and forth people used to have in the olden days before Google, using their memories to retrieve some basic information. We agreed that the first two things a movie had to have were at least two named female characters (named beyond "Girlfriend 1," for example) and that at some point two of these named characters had to talk to each other.
The conversation continued like this:
Intern: Then the women have to talk about something that isn't a man.
Me: Yeah, like isn't a man in a romantic sense or isn't a man at all? I don't remember.
Intern: I think isn't a man at all, in any context.
Me: Yeah, I think you're right.
We had reached an agreement and were ready to move on. At this point a male colleague, who is legitimately a nice guy, honestly, but you know, a product of the patriarchy, joined the conversation:
Male Colleague 1: No, no, you guys are wrong. It's a man but in a romantic sense. Otherwise what would they talk about? Like they can't talk about a guy mowing the lawn? No, it's definitely just that they can't talk about a man they are romantically involved with.
Me: I don't think so. Because that's still talking about something a guy is doing. That's a problem, women just talking about men doing cool things.
Male Colleague 1: No, it's definitely a man in a romantic sense only.
Me: I think you're wrong. I'm pretty sure you're wrong.
Intern: Yeah, I think it's they can't talk about a man at all.
Male Colleague 1: No, I'm right about this. I'm sure.
And then, a second male colleague spoke up:
Male Colleague 2: No, they're right. To pass the Bechdel test, the two women have to talk about something other than a man in any context.
Male Colleague 1: Oh, OK.
It was a classic moment in Being a Woman Expressing Herself.
A few days later, I saw the movie.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a potentially feminist movie in a season full of potentially feminist movies. There's Joy, David O. Russell's somewhat transgressive tale of a woman climbing out of poverty using nothing but her brain and her determination. There's Carol, Todd Haynes' lesbian love story, which I haven't seen yet. And there's the new Star Wars, which has as its central character a strong, young, probable future Jedi, Rey.
These movies all feature women and center on the stories of women. But also, all these movies are directed by men, which isn't exactly a surprise. In fact, only 7 percent of the top 250 films in 2014 were directed by women.
And don't forget, women in Hollywood are still getting paid less than men.
Not to mention that while Rey is tough and charming and central to the movie, she almost never talks to another woman. Her potentially Bechdel-passing conversations are limited to when she talks to a potentially female alien (outer space is gender-fluid so who knows?—the alien was voiced by Lupita Nyong'o) about something that kind of isn't a man, though it sort of is (Luke, the Force, life) and the final moment of the movie when another human woman says to her, "May the Force be with you."
She doesn't respond.
There is one more thing about the new Star Wars: Some guys are very, very angry about a woman in the leading role, saying she's a "Mary Sue," which basically means "any female character who is unrealistically talented or skilled." (Not surprising, really. They were mad about the black Stormtrooper too.)
Recently this article, "Speaking While Female," by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, has been making the rounds. In it, they talk about the fact that women who speak up in work settings are deemed "incompetent":
Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings.
They also talk about the fact that the only time these stats change is when women are in leadership roles:
Professor Burris and his colleagues studied a credit union where women made up 74 percent of supervisors and 84 percent of front-line employees. Sure enough, when women spoke up there, they were more likely to be heard than men.
So yes, it's nice that we have a bunch of movies that have women in leading roles. And honestly, I fucking loved The Force Awakens. And Joy too. But if we want to make really feminist movies, they need occasionally to be directed by women. Women need to get paid the same as their male counterparts. And also, the discussion about them has to be civil and, I know this is crazy, every once in a while include women.