RED and a Reverse Bechdel

I was all set to post about Mechademia, but then I saw RED today and somehow my plans changed. (I also saw a soccer game at which they gave away red scarves, but I didn’t get one, so who cares?) Anyway, on with the show.


Slight spoilers, though not too bad.

RED is the story of Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a retired CIA assassin who is having trouble adjusting to civilian life, but also beginning to find love – until he is suddenly attacked by assassins. Bada bing, bada boom, he is back in the game. In short order he collects his lady love Sara Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) – to keep her safe, of course – and a handful of old comrades (or at least pleasant enemies) and sets about finding out who wants him dead/stopping them. It’s a fun movie that I would encourage you to see. For all the violence of the premise there’s not a ton of gore. There are plenty of explosions, which always pleases me, but your mileage may vary on that one. No, what I want to talk about here is the Bechdel test. For those of you who don’t know it, the Bechdel test came out of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip. It’s gained notoriety because it showcases cleanly and clearly how badly women are represented in films. The test has three parts, as follows.

A movie must have:
1. two female characters
2. who talk to each other
3. about anything except men.

It sounds so simple. Women constitute about half the population. We talk to each other often at work, at home, on the phone, in locker rooms and restrooms… Topics of conversation include our jobs, our bosses, our kids, our hobbies, our yoga classes, new recipes, plays… You would think films would capture this as a matter of course. But they don’t. If you want to see how your favorite films stack up, head over to The Bechdel Test and search for them. You might be surprised. Then again, you might not. The Social Network failed, for anyone who’s been following the hubbub about that.

Now, you’re probably thinking “So, does RED pass?” and really, I’m not sure. There are four named female characters with speaking parts that I recall*, and of them I think two do speak together about something other than a man. That being an exchange along the following lines:

Boss: “What are you doing?”
Employee: “Nothing. Just… nothing.”

Not much, but enough to pass. Remember, this test is a basic measure; it’s not meant to be the be-all and end-all of realistic portrayals of women. There might have been more such exchanges, too. As I said, I didn’t pay that close attention. (I was too busy having fun.) What I did notice was how multiple characters pulled aside Frank Moses and spoke to him… about a woman.

There isn’t a reverse Bechdel test – two men who speak to each other about anything except a woman – because we don’t need one: practically every movie would pass it with flying colours. RED is a little different. It works Moses’ progress in falling in love to his progress in settling into retirement. In other words, it realistically suggests that, for a male character, a girlfriend isn’t merely a person the bad guys can kidnap at the appropriate moment or a fun roll in the hay while waiting for an assassin to come. She’s someone to talk to, someone you have to work with – and occasionally someone you really, really want to like you even though you effectively kidnapped her. In short, she is a part of your life. So we have Moses mentioning the woman he collected so that she wouldn’t be killed to his old friend, and then his other friends ask him about her, repeatedly, and then when the bad guys kidnap her (as you knew they would) naturally they have to mention her on the phone to him and again to each other. She’s central to the movie, as she’s central to Moses.

I didn’t keep track at the beginning of the movie because it’s so rare, but I wonder if this movie could pass a reverse Bechdel test? It might not. If Sara Ross is involved in all of the scenes where they’re planning how to find the bad guy, I don’t think it would.

This left me thinking, if a movie failed a reverse Bechdel test, would I care so much if it passed the actual Bechdel test? After all, if a movie solely included mixed-sex group scenes it would be incapable of passing the test, but at the same time it would be putting female characters front and center throughout the entire film, which is what the test was made in hopes of. I could go for that.

Final note, for those who are skeptical that the short dialogue above should give any proof of a movie’s seriousness about depicting women: I’ve noticed, over the years, that some TV and film pieces manage to work in small hints that yes, there are these creatures called women out there. A short scene in NCIS where the head of NCIS, an agent and a forensic pathologist – all female – discuss the most appropriate courtroom attire to ensure that one is taken seriously. Use of a sanitary pad to staunch blood flow from a bullet wound in Salt. There is such a moment in RED. I’d be happy to tell you about it, but it alone of all the scenes in the movie (and there were many funny moments) got the entire audience laughing as one. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but I assure you that it’s there. In addition, please note that I have written this whole post without mentioning Helen Mirren’s Victoria. This is because she is so fantastic I didn’t feel I could do her justice in the context of a Bechdel test-related post. And someone chose to make the most noticeable assassin female. Good choice. Offhand, for major characters I’m counting seven male and four female. For an action movie, that’s rather astonishing. Go take a look and see if you don’t like it.

*I should note that some people only count named characters for the test. For the purposes of this movie, I only recall the named characters + one unnamed woman who only spoke to men, and there wasn’t a huge speaking cast besides, so it shouldn’t have an impact.

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