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(Bechdel) Testing Joss Whedon

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My girlfriend noticed it first, even though I’d seen the movie twice. That was probably appropriate.

Remember that.

Yesterday, Jim C. Hines was thinking a bit more about The Avengers - particularly the tone and power structure of some of Black Widow’s scenes. While the scenes in question struck me very differently, Jim raises some really good points. Even though I had a different reaction to those scenes (and disagree with him), I can definitely understand why those scenes came across the way they did to him.

But that’s not the big problem for me.

Joss Whedon1 has two films in theaters right now - The Avengers and THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. Both are very tightly written, with all sorts of nuance and layers to the story and plot. Both films have (at least) reasonably strong female characters. Both films also deal with having a very large pool of primary characters (or an ensemble cast) very well, making sure that no character is slighted.

So why, in two tightly written movies, do both do so poorly with the Bechdel Test?

Avengers fails completely, despite having two strong female characters (they never even speak to each other), and CABIN gets only a technical pass.2

Technical passes don’t impress me - it’s a ninety minute movie, but two women can’t talk to each other about something other than a man for more than 90 seconds?


I like Feminist Frequency’s point a while back when talking about Oscar nominations: The Bechdel Test is a minimum, not a final goal. If you have to quibble about whether or not something “counts” for passing, it might as well have failed. We’re talking about 50% of the population here; most movies should be able to clearly and obviously pass the test.

Joss Whedon has delivered two excellent movies (and they are both excellent). Both films feature strong, smart female characters. I think he did a really good job at delivering on both these points, and the tightness of his plotting shows how much thought went into the movies. At the same time he missed the more subtle sexism in our society and in his scripts.

Just like I did.

I didn’t notice that The Avengers failed the Bechdel test until my girlfriend pointed it out to me. (Told you we’d get back to it.) Because, well, I’m a guy raised in this society. And I’m pretty sure that Joss (who does try to not stereotype women in his films) missed it too. We’ll slip into the same easy discriminatory patterns if we don’t actively work against it.

The only way to fix this sort of thing is to be aware of it.

1 They’re not just his films, but there’s a very definite Joss imprint on both. And saying “Joss Whedon and everyone else who worked on the script” gets really unwieldy to type...
2 “The Director” isn’t really a named character and it’s an agonizingly short conversation; the conversation at the beginning is intertwined with conversations about boys and is also horribly short.

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