Blockbuster Feminism

How the Big Screen is Reflecting a Changing Culture

I’m a stay-­at-­home dad who writes and makes movies during naps and nights. I get a lot of time with my daughter these days, which is great. What I haven’t been doing much lately is going to the movies. But in recent weeks, I’ve managed to catch two—Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road. I’d heard a lot about each, and both lived up to the hype. I’ve long been a feminist, which has only been reinforced now that I’m helping raise an incredibly sharp girl. So anytime something touches on feminism, my interest is piqued.

Ex Machina features an expertly-focused screenplay with only four characters interacting for the bulk of the film. An eccentric internet tycoon brings one of his employees to his remote and luxurious house to perform a Turing Test. The test is named after Alan Turing, the father of computing, who theorized that if a machine could hold such a natural conversation with a human being that an independent evaluator could not distinguish which party was human and which was machine, then that machine could be said to have a true artificial intelligence.

What fascinates me about Ex Machina is that the movie fails to pass a different sort of test: the Bechdel Test. Introduced by cartoonist Alison Bechdel as a way to measure how fully developed female characters in Hollywood films are, the Bechdel Test has three criteria: (1) a movie has at least two female characters (2) who talk to each other (3) about anything besides a man. Ava, the leading female character in Ex Machina, is in fact an android, so an argument could be made that technically Ex Machina fails to meet the first criterion. And all the on-­screen dialogue takes place either between the two male characters or between one of them and Ava, so it fails the second. And yet, in spite of this, Ex Machina is a profound feminist meditation on the male drive to objectify and control women. It’s haunting, purposefully disturbing and powerful as it portrays the dangers of misogyny. It tells me that feminist art cannot be defined by such a simplified idea as the Bechdel Test. Though the test may be helpful in assessing general trends in movies from a macro perspective, it is useless in assessing any individual film.

Mad Max couldn’t be more different from Ex Machina in terms of story and style. Where Ex Machina is a meditation, Mad Max is hard rock concert. But, again, feminist thinking and wrestling with the social restraints on women is on clear display. At play is the notion of women as property that can be owned or stolen, which taps into both feminist and human trafficking concerns. The movie passes the Bechdel Test—but just barely—as so much focus of the dialogue between the female characters relates to their escape from the harem of an oppressive overlord. But Mad Max is not a tale of women rising to defeat men, but one of equality and breaking the shackles of oppressive regimes. There is both toughness and tenderness in its women. The men who turn their backs on the established ways of this male-dominated post-­apocalyptic world become women’s allies in their quest for freedom. As my friend pointed out, it’s fascinating that Mad Max becomes the sidekick in his own movie!

So in the same summer we have two examples of major motion pictures directed by white men which offer feminist tales that are both entertaining and worth pondering. On top of this, increasing numbers of films are featuring female heroes unapologetically with no need to emphasize romantic connections to their male counterparts. Pitch Perfect 2 is one example. I think this is a reflection of an encouraging larger trend, as the perspectives and stories of women command more attention in the pop-culture landscape. As Lisa Cron points out in her book, Wired for Story, stories trigger our mirror neurons and help us empathize with characters. The problem has been that too often the big stories that get most of the attention in our culture have been focused only on male characters. While woman and girls learn to empathize with male characters, boys and men have not been afforded the same opportunities to empathize with female characters.

Of course, as the statistics on the decline of women directors in the Hollywood studio system indicate, there’s still room and need for significant change. I hope that, as my daughter grows up in our shifting culture, these kinds of stories and conversations become more and more a part of our lived reality. And as a man, I hope I can follow the example of Mad Max and make myself readily available to partner with women in making this world a better place for all of us, ready to follow or lead.

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