Bechdel rule

by CarlD

Thanks first of all to wicked anomie, I’ve caught the Bechdel rule virus. Of course I love that there’s a comic strip called “Dykes to Watch Out For;” and I think the Bechdel rule and its corollaries are good to think with. To refresh the virus here, the rule assesses whether a movie or tv show is worth watching:

* It has to have at least two women in it,
* Who talk to each other,
* About something besides a man.

This doesn’t seem like much to ask for; in real life this sort of conversation happens all the time, as various women commenting on the rule have pointed out. And since all movies/shows aren’t about men (are they?), and conversations between characters about whatever the movie is about are pretty much the norm for plot development, this sort of conversation would also look like it should happen all the time, by accident, in the flow of the flick. Right? So see if it does. Not so much, as I and many others have found.

There are some interesting lines in the commentary on the NPR site. Whether it makes sense to apply dogmatic rules rather than more flexible sorts of quality assessment is one. Another is whether we should expect edification or merely entertainment from movies and tv. And a challenge to the idea that race, gender and ethnic constituencies should prefer identification with characters to a more cosmopolitan celebration of diversity brought stinging ad hominem responses from the aggrieved. Perhaps not surprisingly given the venue, the latter debate failed to attract the usual libertarian wag pointing out that the media in a capitalist economy are not in the social justice business and provide exactly what the various niches of the market are willing and able to pay to see. I missed the customary reflexive retorting poo-storm of outraged moralisms so much, I almost stepped into that character for a moment.

Juvenile instigations aside, for me, with my roots deep in Gramsci, it’s most interesting to note the lag time between developments in high theory and their trickle down into popular culture. So I note that with the current viral popularity of the Bechdel rule, the popular culture of feminism has leapt from the ’50s to the ’70s, from Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949) to (almost) Wittig’s “One is Not Born a Woman” (1981).

For Beauvoir women are women always in reference to men – women are thus the “second sex” – with the feminism derived from (a superficial reading of) her work seeking equal recognition in that relationship. A famous and beloved scene of this retro second sex feminism is the one in “Waiting to Exhale” where Angela Bassett as Bernadine wreaks revenge for her husband’s infidelity by making a bonfire of his possessions. Bernadine’s empowerment makes sense only in relation to her ongoing emotional involvement with him, so although the tables are momentarily turned her dependence on a man to give her actions meaning is not altered.

Wittig, writing from a lesbian perspective of life lived without reference to men, recovered Beauvoir’s full implication that ‘woman’ is a myth: “One is not born, but becomes a woman” only in this optional relation with ‘man’. When the Bechdel rule seeks a fully womanized relationality, it gets much of the way to Wittig by cutting men out of the picture. But it stops short by still embracing the defining category of ‘woman’ and therefore the mirror trap of contested gender power. As Wittig says, “Matriarchy is no less heterosexual than patriarchy: it is only the sex of the oppressor that changes.”

It will take a transformation of the second nature of gender categories in popular culture, still well beyond the horizon as we wiggle our way toward acceptance of a ‘woman’ as a legitimate candidate for top executive power, for us get to the conceptual ’80s. Judith Butler and the ’90s wait in the wings, but their act comes much later in this play.

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