Artistic merit is all well and good, but being able to relate is also good. Let’s put it this way:
Would you be asking these same questions if we were talking about people of colour in film instead of women?
Because all of these questions can be asked in that context and it boils down down to the same thing: We are under-represented, we often don’t even realize it, but when we do, it hurts.
First off, if anyone here doesn’t know why I think Ishara is awesome, here’s it. You should check out her whole post (this is just an excerpt) and bask in the epic. Doh fight it.
But I love the fact that we’ve changed the question to race. Personally (and I know someone somewhere is going to tell me I’m disregarding the voice of history or some shit) I think women have had it harder longer than any group that has ever been dehumanized on racial grounds, but I do also think that whereas gender issues make the privileged party assume dominance in majorly personal-political ways (ranging from the disrespectful and crass to that of personal violation - by the way, doh beat up, there isn’t a prefix for the word intrapersonal, which bothers me; #grammarnaziproblems), whenever someone disregards someone else on the basis of colour it gets very bloody very quickly, which I find is weird for a battle that has been waging far shorter (I understand) than gender issues have been worldwide throughout history.
That being said, I have a Racial Bechtel Test - I never named it, but for the sake of reference let’s call it the Barbershop Test. Bear with me, since it has a lot more criteria only because I think a lot of things need to be considered:
In a film produced specifically for an audience of colour (with a director of colour, majority cast of colour, a setting that calls toward the story questions about race issues predominantly concerning that race);
- Are there more than one ‘majority’ character (e.g. more than one white character)?
- Do they have names?
- Do they speak to each other? Is it about something other than the race of the protagonist?
- Do at least one of them antagonize the protagonist by default (e.g. Is the white landlord of the barbershop just being spiteful?)
- Do the characters hold majority people in low regard? (Do they spend a great deal of time, for example, decrying the crimes of ‘The Man’, or making fun of white people?
- Do characters of each race converse amicably?
- Do they deal with race issues responsibly, or just paint a portrait of racial issues without making any addresses toward them?
In the history of my lay study of cinema I have only seen one film actually try its best to do all these things. Which film, you ask?
I still hold firm to the belief that the only reason it could have accomplished that task in the first place is because it has to do justice to two minorities in a setting where the majority’s oppression is enacted by absence - the community is occupied by both African-Americans and American Jews, both of which in the context of the event being referred to have been treated harshly not only by the disregard of the majority, but by each other, which has led to a fundamental distrust between the groups. But it is in breaking or bending some of these guidelines of the Barbershop Test (having the groups open with antagonism, for example, and having no majority characters present) that the movie shines as an example of how to positively present stories about intricate social issues.
(Before I became an asshole and dropped out of UWI) I once took a course in gender studies. I also took a course in film studies. Both profoundly changed my perspective on how I critically view cinema, storytelling, and people’s reactions not only to stories on the silver screen but stories on the screen of the eye, playing out between reels of skin rather than film stock (that’s going in a poem by the way). Storytelling is important to both - cinema was built on the back of stoytelling, and feminist praxis also has at its foundation the need for women to fellowship and raise consciousness, which is only done by sharing and listening to the personal stories of other women.
But one of the things that stuck with me in film studies was, in discussion about experimental film and style, that breaking the rules is often how a film becomes more meaningful rather than less. This is not to say that the rules aren’t necessary - a lot of the mainstream films today, for example, totally disregard having some sort of issue at its heart, instead going straight for visual spectacle - but that often the best way to tell a powerful story is to disregard what some people may consider the ‘right way’ or ‘politically correct way’ to make the film, and go instead for the real way. This is by far often not the case, but that goes for issues of race, issues of gender, issues of politics, issues of religion, and other issues as well, and I consider it a good rule of thumb when storytelling, discourse and progress through storytelling is the key.
Take Jane Campion’s classic The Piano. There’s a handful of female characters, but they spend a grand portion of the film only talking about one or both of two men; the female lead can’t speak at all, and barely works on changing that til the end; the plot more or less is advanced in response to very poor ideas about women, romance and sex, most of these poor ideas held by the protagonist’s main ‘antagonist’, her husband, who she was sold to (the protagonists are white, btw, so no slavery t’ing). But Ada, the protagonist (played by Holly Hunter) is aware of her situation, which starts off pretty shoddily, and honestly has very much more shoddy bits in the centre, and from then onward moves to take control of it. She falls in love with the man she loves rather than the man she’s sold into marriage to; she is in control of her own sex life, no matter what the townspeople may think; she does what she wants or needs to do for her own sake.
By no means is this the ideal story, no matter the happy ending, ironically enough. But the fact that it is a real, screwy, confusing, messed-up, human story makes it more ideal than whatever we may have considered. It’s thought-out, nuanced, and considerate, and it both makes statements and forces the audience to ask questions. But it fails the Bechtel Test, miserably. But I would argue that if it had passed, it would not teach us the kinds of things it does.
Art is built around storytelling and dialogue; I’d argue that art is necessary because it presumes forming dialogue around an issue not by asking a question, but by making a statement you ask a question about. Even shitty films like Legion and The Rite are built on solid ideas (in those two cases, about God and faith in the supernatural respectively), and when properly executed, force the viewer to engage in dialectic not because the storyteller wanted an answer to a question, but because the storyteller gave a perspective and the audience wanted to question his answer. From the most abstract Jackson Pollack or Andy Warhol painting to the most painstakingly crafted novel all have these things at their heart - start a dialogue, but not by being the first to ask a question, but the first to say something, dare I say, questionable.
You said in your post about your favorite films screened through the Bechtel Test that passing the test doesn’t necessarily make the film a feminist film. I’d also posit that passing the test doesn’t necessarily make it a woman-friendly film either, but I’m sure you know that better than I do; even further than that I would argue that failing the test, rather than being a sign of misrepresentation, is often the necessary evil that accompanies trying to tell real and powerful stories about women that do more justice than attempting to pass it. In a sentence, any movie passing the Bechtel Test is set in a world where society cares about the Bechtel Test, which in a patriarchal society is majorly not the case, and therefore isn’t set in the real, cruel, stupid, patriarchal world we live in. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about the Bechtel Test (or that we should be obligated to care either, TBH), only that most of us don’t. But I’d prefer a story that knew why it had to break the Bechtel Test, the Barbershop Test, or any other (quite frankly) far too optimistic view of society and the ideas some people hold in it, rather than a movie that tried to pass these tests and therefore had no idea what story it was trying to tell people.