Bechdel 2012

So this video is up:

I’ve blogged about the Bechdel test before. And I think she gets to the heart of why it’s useful — not as an evaluator of a single film but of Hollywood in general. However, there is one issue I had with this and, increasing, with the Bechdel test itself. And it is based on her comments on Midnight in Paris.

Midnight in Paris fails the Bechdel test and it really shouldn’t. There are numerous women in the story and all — the two French women Gil meets, Gertrude Stein, Inez, Adriana — are good roles with smart dialogue and an importance to the plot. That it technically fails the Bechdel test is just that — technical. That Gertrude Stein is not shown relating to her lover is not some slap in the face from Woody Allen. It’s because the movie is not about Gertrude Stein.

And that brings me to the bigger problem with the Bechdel test. It’s less a test of sexism in Hollywood than it is of story structure. The way most stories are written is that you have a single protagonist. Everyone else is defined by their relationship to the protagonist. This is especially true in movies. Films, by necessity, must economize on characters and time. So if your protagonist is male, you will almost certainly fail the Bechdel test. Because two women interacting about something other than the protagonist would be a plot loop that a conscientious editor would almost certainly excise.

It is notable that of the movies she cites that pass the test — The Help, Winter’s Bone and Black Swan — all three have female protagonists. If you applied an inverse Bechdel test to these films, they would fail (although almost other movies would pass easily).

What the Bechdel test tells us is that Hollywood movies tend to still be built around a single protagonist and that this protagonist is almost always a man. That’s a fair point. As I noted in my previous post on this subject, movies that pass the test tend to be much more complete and rounded. But you could get the result a lot faster if you just counted male protagonists instead of interactions.

So why do Hollywood movies tend to center around a single man? Several reasons. First, most writers and directors are male and so they write male protagonists. Second, many movies concern war, prison or sports — which tend to be male-dominated. Third, non-essential characters, interactions and plot elements tend to be excised for economy (which is why so many characters are childless single children). And finally, if you’re plundering the literature for plots, you’re going to encounter an ouvre dominated by lots of men and Jane Austen. Why the literature is dominated by men is a discussion for another day.

(As limited as the Bechdel test is, the imitations are even more so. One of her commenters proposed the “LGBT” test that a movie should have two or more gay characters that interact about something other than their sexuality. This is a little silly. The Bechdel Test is useful because over half the population is female. Less than 3% are gay, so the test simply doesn’t transpose. Most movies don’t have even ten significant characters, let alone the sixty you would need to statistically have two gay characters.)

Machete Order

I think I’ve made my feeling about the Star War prequels pretty clear. In short, I think they are very good, but flawed. And those flaws drive people in my age demographic bonkers. The hatred spewed at them is way out of proportion to their actual quality. And it is noteworthy that younger and older viewers see the prequels as about on par with the original trilogy. In the end, the original trilogy is elevated in the minds of Gen-Xers because we saw it as children. Nothing could live up to that.

One question I’ve wondered about is what order to show the films to my daughter in. This article as a great suggestion, advocating showing them in the sequence of IV-V-I-II-III-VI. That preserves the big shock of Vader’s identity while keeping things coherent. It’s a fantastic idea and I intend to follow it.

The alternative is hoving off Episode I entirely (“Machete Order”). And I agree with a lot of what he says. It does do away with a lot of the problems of the trilogy and gets back to what I said in my past post: the original trilogy would have worked better had it started Anakin as a troubled teenager rather than an innocent child.

Sunday Linkorama

  • Now this is cool. A plant is brought back to life after 30,000 years. I once wrote a very cliched short story about a human having the same thing happen; being woken up millennia after our extinction by intelligent insects.
  • Continuing in that vein: let’s go back 298 million years.
  • I knew that kids understood words at much younger ages than we thought. They’re sorta like cats: they just can’t be bothered to talk back until they need something.
  • Mathematical Malpractic Watch: the financial crisis. They have one outlier data point. And it seems much more likely that men move back in with their families because they economy is in the shitter, not the other way around.
  • A wonderful note about overcoming racism and Sidney Pottier.
  • An amazing story about a man surviving two months in the snow.
  • This graph-laden article is probably one of the more intelligent analyses I’ve read of the trends in marriage in our society. Long story short? People are still getting married; they’re just waiting longer. That’s not entirely a bad thing.
  • The Shakespeare Project: As You Like It

    I would say that it was due to reading on a trans-pacific light. But this is the second time this play had failed to make much of an impression on me. This was the play I saw in the redwoods at Santa Cruz and I barely remember any of it (I only recognized it because the actor playing Jaques looked into his pants when discussing what the time was.)

    This just seems to be a play built from segments of other plays, notably the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The villain disappears almost immediately. The device of Rosalind’s disguise is a bit too clever. And most of the couples fail to make an impression.

    There are some amusing parts and Jaques’ “All the World is a stage” speech is justifiably famous. I found it amusing in performance. But I’m inclined to agree with the critics on this one that it lacks the depth of the best comedies.

    Next Up: The Taming of the Shrew


    For a blog with very little traffic, I get a hideous amount of spam. 15,000 comments and links since the spam crashed the site five years ago and lost the first 1.5 years of blogging (at that point, I was getting something like 100,000 a day — no, I don’t know why). Askimet has put a stop to that, killing almost everything I don’t want. Maybe one or two comments have slipped through but since I get so few, they’re easy to spot.

    It’s picked up a bit since I started tagging posts. But Askimet is still up to the task.

    I have to wonder why they’re doing it though. Is it pure mendacity? ‘Cuz there’s no benefit to them at all.

    No Sleep

    I suspect that the century long concern that children aren’t getting enough sleep is at least partially bogus. There are many problems with the scientific studies backing the supposed recommendation up, not the least of which is the assumption that all children need a similar amount of sleep. But why would we assume this when it’s so obviously not true for adults? There are may adults who function fine on a few hours of sleep, others are zombies with less than ten. And there is some evidence that sleeping a lot is correlated with a shorter life span.

    I personally love a good night’s sleep, but I’m averaging about 5-7 hours. A good night is 7-8 hours. And while I wake up groggy and confused, I find that I really can’t go much beyond that. Is is shortening my life? I don’t know. No one knows. What matters more to me is quality of sleep, rather than quantity. A hard four hours is better than a broken eight.

    I do think there may be a genetic component to it. Although Sue needs 8-9 hours, Abby only needs about 9, about 1-2 less than recommended for her age group. And like me, if we try to force her to get more, she just lies in bed wide awake.

    Gold Coast Linkorama

  • A fascinating look at the ultra-orthodox hasidic sects springing up. I think there would be a lot more panic about this if they followed a different faith.
  • Only in Right-Wing World: a new study comes out with the best constraints yet on glacial melting. And it’s spun as being a huge blow against global warming theory because the melting is less than predicted.
  • Science fiction has ever imagined a universe as incredible as the real thing.
  • Oops. ESPN has some explaining to do.
  • Personally, I seriously doubt that concussions are going to end football. The article is full of weak arguments and assumptions. But I do think the issue of concussions and neurological damage is going to get bigger.
  • The Shakespeare Project: The Merchant of Venice

    If it weren’t for the ending, I would like this play a lot better. As it is, it has its moments of brilliance, particularly Portia’s ridiculing of her past suitors and Shylock’s famous speech. The romantic subplot is side-lined, generating little tension. The idea that no one thought to pick the lead casket strains credulity. And maybe it’s just me, but the sidekicks — who usually generate much of Shakespear’s humor — seem subdued. But, all in all, this is a typical entry into the cannon — quotable, fun and a fast read.

    Until, that is, Act IV.

    Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish but the ending of this play infuriates me. Shylock is deprived of a perfectly reasonable debt by a legal theory that wouldn’t water in a kangaroo court administered by someone who, technically speaking, has no legal authority. The logic used to defeat Shylock — that he could not get a pound of flesh without spilling blood — easily destroys Portia’s argument that he tried to kill a Venetian. A more typical twist of this would be to have Portia’s argument used to threaten the hero, then to have him rescued by a wiser ruling. But, of course, the entire court scene is a farce, degenerating quickly into an excuse to impoverish, humiliate and convert Shylock, a character I find unsympathetic and deserving of a comeuppance, but not one as arbitrary and total as the one he gets.

    That, of course, brings me to the big question about this play: is The Merchant of Venice anti-semitic? Well, there’s a good case to be made that it is. Jews and Judaism are denounced repeatedly. The hero of the play admits to abusing and spitting on Shylock. The happy ending has both Shylock and Jessica converting to Christianity and there is zero irony or ambivalence about it. To the extent that there is sympathy for Shylock — his famous speech — it still regards his religion as more of a tragic flaw. Othello the Moor’s religion was treated with more respect than this.

    Historically, the role was played was little sympathy until modern times. The fact that the role can be made sympathetic has less to do with any subconscious sympathy in the writer and more to do a key factor of Shakespeare’s enduring brilliance: the ability of the plays to resonate in any context or performance. The Taming of the Shrew still appeals when converted into a teen comedy; Macbeth is still compelling even, as my Twitter friends discussed, he’s a vet with PTSD; and Shylock can be made into a sympathetic character. This happens because Shakespeare spoke to deep needs, fears and emotions. This happens because all of his characters and plots are multi-layered. This happens because he was Shakespeare.

    (Defenders claim Shylock is vilified and humiliated more for his greed and usury than his religion. Apart from ignoring the plain text, this misses the context. Banking was synonymous with European Jews in the last millenium because Christians tought charging interest was sinful. Since Jews were going to hell anyway and were barred from most other professions, they naturally became bankers. And it wasn’t long before the caricature of the greedy Jew arose. So vilifying Shylock for usury and greed, in the Elizabethan Era, isn’t that far from vilifying him for his faith.)

    In the comments on one play, I noted arguments I had in college over Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale”. The Prioress’s Tale is clearly anti-semitic but my professor and my class bent over backward to pretend that it was really mocking anti-semitism. I countered that their desperation to prove Chaucer was free of or wasn’t exploiting any anti-semitic feeling was a form of modern chauvinism. Chaucer didn’t invent anti-semitism. He was a man of his time, born into a country that had expelled Jews and regarded them as intrinsically evil. Anti-semitism would be as natural for a man of 14th century England as racism was or a man of the 19th. His writing is just as brilliant if he were anti-semitic than if he weren’t. In fact, the Prioress’s tale is quite well-told, for being a blood libel story.

    Shakespeare didn’t invent anti-semitism and, to my knowledge, it doesn’t appear in any other works. And it’s likely that, like Chaucer, his use of a Jew as the villain more to do with is culture that any particular feeling of his. But the disdain for Jews and Judaism by the heroes of Merchant is unmistakable. Why should we refuse to accept that he might have accepted the same things about Jews that everyone else did?

    Frankly, the beliefs of artists don’t really bother me. There are many modern artists who embraced the murderous soul-crushing evil of communism. There are many who have embraced racism, anti-semitism, anti-Islamism, sexism and any other form of bigotry you care to nominate. We shouldn’t ignore the brilliant things they make when they are not irreparably tainted. Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history. Merchant of Venice is a great play. That Shakespeare might have bought into the common and official belief that Jews were evil does not change that.

    Next Up: As You Like It

    Aussie Linkorama

    A linkorama as I board a plane:

  • This report on how Apple products are made seems to answer its own question. The reason iphones are not made in this country is that Americans have better options than working 12 hour days and living in company-owned dormitories.
  • Fortunately, the faction of the GOP questioning whether gays should adopt is small. Unfortunately, they are engaged in extremely bad policy. Every piece of research available shows that gays make fine parents. They don’t even turn their kids gay.
  • Mind. Blown.
  • I’m unsurprised by the latest CBO study that shows that federal employees are better paid than private peers (especially when you factor in benefits) and that that advantage tapers with education level.
  • New research casts some light on the Little Ice Age. As I’ve said, massive climate changes happen for a reason.