I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”
This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.
First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.
The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.
And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.
Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.
The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.
If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.
We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.
We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.
To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, The Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.
The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.
I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.
We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.
Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.
You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.
There’s no test.
Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.
Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.
Recently director Tim Burton was asked by Bustle writer Rachel Simon why his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, features an all white cast with the single exception of Samuel L. Jackson (who is cast, disappointingly yet unsurprisingly, as the murderous villain), Burton had this to say:
“Nowadays, people are talking about it more,” he says regarding film diversity. But “things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”
“Things either call for things, or they don’t.” This is an alarmingly incorrect position to take.
By “things” one can only assume he means “films” or perhaps “film casts.” The idea that a film can, all on its own, cry out for an all white cast with a single black villain while the humble director, helpless, must obey without question is, of course, preposterous. “Things” do not “call for” anything– directors make specific decisions. You cannot abdicate responsibility for your casting by blaming it ON THE FILM YOU MADE, in which you personally made or approved every artistic decision.
If by “things” he means “the source material,” meaning that initially the book series was all white (adding characters of color later on in the series), once again he is abdicating responsibility for his personal decisions by pretending that he’s but a faithful reproducer of the source material. Where was this desire to faithfully reproduce the book when he was directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example? While Burton’s version is closer to the original 1964 Roald Dahl book than the 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Burton still deviated in multiple ways from the book. Is whiteness the only inviolable aspect of source material?
As directors, we make the decisions that bring the world of the play, the film, or the show to life. We create the worlds you see on screen and on stage. We can choose a diverse world that reflects the one in which we live, or we can choose an all white world that shuts out people of color, denies opportunities for actors of color, and creates the illusion that white people are the only people whose stories are worthy of telling unless something is specifically about being Black, Latinx, Asian, etc. When a work is just about “people”– when the story has nothing to do with race specifically–if you then think the work “calls out” for whiteness because you see white as “neutral,” you have, at the very least, a failure of imagination. But that failure goes much deeper.
The alarming aspect of Burton’s abdication of the very basics of film directing– the artistic decisionmaking– is that he imagined the work itself somehow told him he needed to create a group of wonderful white people whose major threat is a murderous black man. This kind of reinscribing of whiteness as superior, innocent, and good alongside blackness that exists solely as a dangerous threat to that whiteness is a trope that literally gets innocent black people killed every day. This isn’t “just a film.” There’s no such thing. Our culture is primarily impacted by the narratives of popular culture. Films are massively important cultural artifacts that have the power to shift an entire culture.
When police officers have a split second decision to make, why do they imagine seeing a gun in the hand of an unarmed black man, or imagine a black man reaching for a gun when he reaches for his wallet as instructed, or imagine a black man lying on the ground with his arms in the air is a threat, or imagine a black child with a toy gun is an adult threatening their lives, especially when police bring in European American active shooters alive routinely? When our culture pumps out narrative after narrative after narrative equating blackness with DANGER, that has a massive impact on the real world.
When we talk about police “retraining” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives– which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before black people with their guns drawn.
As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better. It’s an insult to their lost lives to say that the “thing” magically “called for” you to use an all white cast with a black villain.
It’s telling that Burton imagines that a lack of white people in blaxploitation films of the 1970s is somehow equivalent to his all white cast/black villain in 2016, as if the obvious race privilege of white people in the 1970s didn’t exist and the films at the time were racially problematic– yet magnanimously forgiven by Burton– for not including white people. As if we’re not now all aware of the massive social injustice faced by black people who are treated unfairly at every level of the criminal justice system, and who face police use of force– from small acts of violence to fatal ones– at far greater percentages than white people, and what it means in 2016 to make a group of innocent white children the heroes battling against a murderous black man. It’s astonishing, really, that anyone who makes his living from creating art– from understanding the value of symbols and tropes and narrative– could miss this. It’s alarming. These tropes, unchecked in our culture, are complicit in the deaths of far too many people of color, including children.
It’s telling that Burton says “oh, let’s have an Asian child and a black” in decrying the tokenism of shows– again from the 1970s (dude, that was 40 years ago)– like The Brady Bunch. Apart from the dehumanizing phrase “a black” (a black what?), Burton cannot imagine diversity as anything but tokenism, as if people of color do not exist outside of whiteness, as if including people of color is automatically tokenism, as if he can only imagine a single token actor of color in a film. Tim, why not cast people of color in lead roles? In lots of roles? In all the roles? Why not consider a diverse range of actors for every role and see who best fits the part when race is removed from consideration? Yes, sometimes race needs to be a foremost consideration in casting. If you direct A Raisin in the Sun (please no one ever let Burton do this), Mr. Lindner needs to be European American and everyone else needs to be Black. But in, say, Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, race is not central to the narrative. Nothing would have been lost by hiring a diverse cast, and much would have been gained. No one is asking you to cast a single token Black actor, and yet THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID in casting Samuel L. Jackson, making that even more egregious by casting him as the villain. But The Brady Bunch‘s dippy 70’s “we’re all one big happy melting pot” nonsense is “more offensive” to you?
I’m not going to criticize Jackson for taking the role, since I have no idea how much he really knew when he signed the contract, and his statement about it does read like, “I am under contract to do positive PR for this film.” He’s an actor whose job is to act. Who knows what he was told about how the film would be created.
I am, however, flat out astonished that someone of Burton’s level of talent with symbol, narrative, and trope would create such an obvious lie as “things call out for things” as a cover for his own decisionmaking. Then again, I’m not surprised at all.
This article is also available on the Huffington Post here.
Please also check out “An Open Letter to Tim Burton from a Black Fangirl” by DeLa Doll, posted to HuffPo yesterday.
After the release of her game-changing, brilliant video, Formation, and the stir her Superbowl halftime show caused with dancers dressed like Black Panthers, Beyoncé is blowing up everyone’s feeds everywhere. And one thing I am shocked/notshocked to see is white outrage about both.
Let me begin by saying that I’m not a Beyoncé fan. I’m not a fan of any of the pop divas. I don’t have anything against them; it’s just not music that interests me. So Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Madonna, Mariah, Adele, I apologize, but I’m sure you and your massive success could not possibly care less that I would rather be listening to punk or classical. The only reason I’m pointing this out is to make sure you know I’m not a Beyoncé fan. This is not about defending a beloved star.
Let me tell you what it IS about.
The vast majority of Black people in the US are descended from people who were dragged here against their will and forced to live in a culture that shut them out completely from mainstream artistic production for 400 years. For 400 years, Black people were living in a culture where their pain, their culture, and their art were appropriated and sanitized for white consumption, or, more often, shut out of the narrative entirely, replaced by racist caricatures or rendered invisible. For 400 years, the stories of Black people on this continent were untold, belittled, or made the tools of white narrative and white profit.
Now we’re in a cultural moment where there are powerful, mainstream Black artists telling Black stories that may or may not include white people, may tell uncomfortable truths about white people in Black lives, or may use white people as metaphors. For 400 years Black people were used as metaphors in white art, so my sympathy for “not all white people” and “that’s not fair” is somewhere at the bottom of a pile of Magical Negroes, Gone with the Wind, and token Black friends.
In this cultural moment where powerful, mainstream Black artists like Beyoncé are telling their stories on their own terms, the white people who controlled the narrative– including how and when Black stories have been told– for the past 400 years need to sit back, shut up, and listen, listen, listen. You don’t like how white people are being portrayed? Spend some time thinking about why Black artists are portraying white people that way instead of demanding they adjust their stories to conform to your self-image as “the good guy.” We are not the heroes in these stories. We are not the intended audience. We are irrelevant, and there’s nothing people in power hate more than to be made irrelevant, but the fact remains that these are Black stories, by, for, and about Black people. You don’t like it? Don’t watch. But I recommend that you do, and give it some real thought. This is their truth. You do not get to dictate how Black artists see or portray their own lives.
The line of riot police surrendering to the power of a beautiful dancing child is not “anti-white” or “anti-police.” It is pro-hope, pro-life, pro-art, and pro-Black. If you don’t like the metaphor of the line of white police officers here, I suggest you spend some time thinking about why Beyoncé chose it.
The Formation video and the Superbowl show are examples of a powerful Black woman at the top of her game brilliantly telling Black stories for Black people, brilliantly seizing the narrative and asserting the beauty, power, and truth of a people who have been stringently and deliberately silenced for centuries in this country.
The call for Black women to get in formation, get information, and celebrate their power gave me chills. You hear a lot about “Black excellence,” and Formation is a potent reminder that Black excellence isn’t something created by white people congratulating themselves for bending down to hand out opportunities. Too many of us define “white ally” as “someone who is desperately needed by Black people to help them, and therefore deserves all the cookies.” Black excellence is already there, has always been there. It doesn’t need white validation, and the lack of fucks Beyoncé has for white validation from the center of her Black power is giving some white people fits.
Beyoncé, I hope you’re bathing in a marble tub full of white tears this morning.
My fellow white people: Listen. Listen. Listen. This is a Black moment, rarer than rare in this culture. If you don’t like the way Black artists portray white people, work on changing the impact of white people in Black lives, not on telling Black people they’re wrong about their own lives.
SIGNAL BOOST: “We Slay, Part I” by New South Negress is an excellent analysis of Formation.
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