Popcorn and Empowerment

by Hailey Hart-Thompson

Graphic courtesy of Grace Johnson

Feminism at the hands of the cinematic world is a dangerous combination. Quite often, tropes arise of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl,’ and suddenly Female Empowerment’s voice is lost in a tumult of stereotypes. However, from the ashes, the Bechdel Test was created.

Coined by author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel Test has three simple rules for a worthy movie: 1. two named female characters that talk, 2. to each other and 3. discuss something other than men.

The key to using the Bechdel test to its full potential is to examine how these named female characters are portrayed in the environment of the film as a whole, rather than a small sample of ‘passing’ dialogue. Some movies are the epitome of a ‘pass’, a luxurious example of feminist art, such as The Help, that would make Bechdel drool. However, three distinctive movies that may surprise viewers are Little Miss Sunshine, Silver Lining's Playbook and Juno.

A feminist film doesn't need an all-female cast and a focus on ”women’s issues”. A high-quality feminist film portrays every character in a realistic, flawed and understanding light. These stories appreciate the intricacies of human life.

“For there to be accurate representation of women in film, they have to be a part of every level of the production process,” said Eleanor Ho (COM ’21). This includes writing and directing roles.

The use of tropes “isn’t something that is to be avoided at all costs but when intentionally creating a trope [writers should] be conscious and give the character personality beyond the tropes,” said Christina Lamagna (COM ’21). Giving characters depth, with both hopes and flaws, ensures writers “are treating individual characters as individual women.” And this balance of tropes is where one popular film begins.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006, dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), follows the journey of a family on a road trip to get their young daughter to a beauty pageant. The film tackles mental health, questions death and beauty and captures severaal life-changing events in a single movie. Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear’s dark humor also pokes fun at common beliefs associated with masculinity and male expectation.

Partnered with vibrant cinematography and an award-winning cast, viewers see the family grow in a matter of days all because of their daughter, played by Abigail Breslin. In summary, the film passes the Bechdel test when the daughter first learns that you can be a beauty queen and eat ice cream, contrary the beliefs of her father.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir. David O. Russell) passes the Bechdel Test to a limited extent as it focuses on the individual’s struggles and challenges stereotypes. The Oscar-winning romantic comedy is also one of the most honest romantic comedies.

The movie follows Pat (played by Bradley Cooper), a grown man with anger issues and a tendency to tell the truth too often, and Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed young woman. We see the movie pass the Bechdel test with conversations between Tiffany and her sister, but a feminist arch is also found in Tiffany’s honesty.

Tiffany is a kaleidoscope, a character broken into many pieces who shows a full span of emotion. The role challenges Lawrence's performance range in order to successfully portray a character that is slowly falling apart.

One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when Pat and Tiffany are casually discussing depression and anxiety medication at the dinner table, much to the dismay and horror of their friends. Here, there is no attempt to censor Tiffany’s candid female form.

Finally comes Juno (2007, dir. Jason Reitman). A cult classic, the movie is also a twist on the stereotypical ‘coming-of-age’ archetype. The female characters in the film discuss parenting issues, platonic relationships and the challenges of motherhood,

Juno, played by Ellen Page, is a high school student who has recently become pregnant. Viewers follow Juno as she tackles the choices of abortion or adoption, questions the definition of motherhood in strife with her own step-mother, and still has men in strong supporting roles. Juno is unique in its focus on the female characters while reversing the common female tropes onto male characters without losing their vibrancy.

This movie fails the “Anti-Bechdel Test”, meaning two named males don’t discuss anything other than females. This interesting fact forces audiences to focus on the females of the movie, although Juno could also be coined as romantic comedy.

All three films, filled with dark humor and peculiar opinions on love, pass the Bechdel in ways that are unexpected. Yes, all three check off boxes, but the heart and soul of the Test is in the environment of the characters.

All three films create a space of honesty and an unforgiving portrayal of realistic women that are strong, flawed and display a side of self-deprecating and witty humor.