Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bored Cultural Gag Reflex

Sometimes my cultural gag reflex is an angry one, one that leaves me heaving and a little teary. Sometimes my cultural gag reflex is a frustrated one, leaving me saying either too many words, not enough words, or incompletely thought out words. But mostly my cultural gag reflex is a bored one; because as a woman the items offered for my cultural intake can be very boring indeed.

I would like to present a short survey of my thoughts as I watch a standard film or theatre offering that does not meet or barely meets the minimum of the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test asks if there is two named female characters in the script that talk to each other for a minute about something other than men. Examples of scripts that fail the Bechdel Test fill our cinemas, our stages and other areas of our popular culture*, and that means I am bored an awful lot, alas.

The first thing that happens with the standard non-Bechdel compliant script is that when I meet the first female character I want to be comfortable in the narrative and I want to identify with her. Usually I have committed about two hours to her and her cast mates, so I am pretty keen to find myself a place in the narrative, and thus in the world for those few hours.

In the days when I repressed my cultural gag reflex, I would identify with the only female character on screen, no matter if I liked her or cared for her, and as a female audience member I would be reduced to a pretty standard list of options within, and reactions to, the narrative. Now that I no longer repress my boredom or cultural gag reflex, I like to exercise nefarious narrative observation of the standard non-Bechdel compliant script rather than participate in it.

So I will present the basic thought processes of the two versions of The Claire Who Consumes Culture:

Buying In to attempt to find common ground

There is one, maybe two female characters. So I had a choice to identify with one set of ideas in the narrative, two if I was very lucky.

Having to Opt Out because the selection was too small to satisfy me

Looking around at all the other (male) characters for the character that was similar to me in thinking. Once identifying with him, feeling disappointed that no female character is given a story arc as rich as his.

Buying In to feel like I could exist in the narrative / world

There is one female character because the (male) characters have included her for their reasons, not because of her actions. So I find myself feeling like I need to be seen by men to exist.

Having to Opt Out because I exist, whether any man likes it or not

Looking around at all the other (male) characters for the character that has earned their place in the group in a way I can identify with. Once identifying with him, feeling disappointed that no female character is included in the group due to respect for her own agency.

Buying In so I feel like I am contributing to the narrative / world

The one female character is in the narrative to support the other (male) characters, sometime literally just to feed, fuck and / or fight them. So I start to feel the only way to exist is to be seen by men and serve them.

Having to Opt Out because I look after myself, so you should look after yourself too

Looking around at all the other (male) characters for the character that looks after themselves. Once identifying with him, feeling disappointed that no female character is included in the group without having to feed, fuck and / or fight the male characters.

Buying In because I want to feel I have some power in the narrative / world

There is only one female character so I really have to like her and identify with her so I can BE in the action and not just observe it from the audience.

Having to Opt Out because there are more positions for women everywhere

Looking around for the other places in the narrative that could be filled with female characters because I am getting PRETTY DAMN BORED ABOUT NOW.

Buying In because I want to learn something from the narrative / world

There is only one female character so she has no female mentors, role models or peers to guide her, inspire her and support her in the narrative.

Having to Opt Out because I am tired of having to always fight to view inspiring women

Looking around at all the other (male) characters that have male peers, mentors and role models to guide, inspire and support them, and trying to learn from their interactions because I am getting PRETTY DAMN BORED ABOUT NOW.

Buying In because I want to survive in the narrative / world

There is only one female character so I have to hope she survives until the end of the script so that I do not finish my allotted time with no female characters, or having to meet another lone female character that replaces the first female character. So I start to feel that I am alone, I have had my visibility conferred on me and not earned, I must either feed or fuck men, there is only one position of power for a woman and I must defend my place in that one position of power.

Having to Opt Out because I want to build my place in the narrative / world

Looking around at all the other (male) characters that survive in the narrative due to their own efforts alongside their peers who support and guide and inspire them to surge forward and grasp and build their own destiny no matter what stands in their way. Once identifying with them I simply give up, because I am sick to death of having to identify with men AGAIN to gain wide experience, because of the lack of female characters in the script.

Thus ends the non-Bechdel compliant script, freeing my brain from all the work it had to do to try and carve out any interest in the narrative from the limiting and limited opportunities offered by the most boring of scripts. I look at the credits, trying not to register the gender proportions, and I speculate on how the world appears to women when seen through the prism of the non-Bechdel compliant script.

I think the worst legacy of the ‘one or two female character only’ model of script is that every woman in the audience is subconsciously standing apart from the other women in the audience to identify with the one female character. And subconsciously stepping away from the rest of the female audience to occupy the only position of visibility, power and agency is a pretty lonely, bitter and destructive way for your subconscious to spend your time when consuming culture. And it doesn't really encourage a sense of working with other women, as the male characters are allowed to do in the non-Bechdel compliant script, especially if there is only one available place for female characters in the narrative / world.

So I Opt Out of the ‘one or two female character only’ model of script so I can feel alive, powerful and productive in the narrative and in the world. And no, that is not by identifying with the male characters, because that is not a real option, simply an exercise in Opting Out. I Opt Out by making sure I stop suppressing my cultural gag reflex; I let my healthy disrespect for a non-Bechdel compliant script throw it right out of my brain, never to darken the doors to my soul again. And then I go talk to a real life woman who inspires, supports and guides me, because your average non-Bechdel compliant script couldn’t handle the women of the real world in its wildest dreams.

* I must acknowledge Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency for her fabulous Tropes vs. Women series, especially The Smurfette Principle.

And, bless them, the Axis of Awesome even comment on the 'one female / many males' model in How to Write a Love Song

Girl, you might think it's weird, Girl, that there's three guys singing about just one girl, Girl, but let me tell you something, Girl, it's not weird at all, in fact, Girl, it's an industry standard and it happens all the time.

Thank you Boys!

NOTE: I adjusted this post on the 9 August as I completely forgot to mention women who practice ultra-violence either physically or mentally while fighting the male characters.
non-Bechdel compliant script REVIEWS

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