Saturday, December 20, 2014

4 Fantasy Films that Surprisingly Pass the Bechdel Test

The Bechdel test - two women must talk to each other about something other than a man - illuminates several important gender issues in films. It's a vivid illustration of how few female characters there are compared to male, and also how often those female characters exist primarily in relationship with men and therefore never interact with each other. The fantasy film genre has been particularly prone to traditional patriarchal narratives that keep female characters marginalized and sexualized, and even when fantasy films aren't outright misogynistic, they rarely pass the Bechdel test. Given that half the world is female and we do, indeed, talk frequently about subjects other than men, it's really rather disturbing to realize that these films fail the Bechdel test completely: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the original Stars War trilogy, The Princess Bride, and The Lord of the Rings, to name only the most prominent. It's been said before, but it's well worth repeating: the Bechdel test determines nothing about the feminist politics of a film. Passing the Bechdel test doesn't mean that a film is feminist. It just means that the absolute minimum effort was made to have female characters that do not function purely in relation to men. What's worth noting here is that the key is, in every case, that there are multiple female characters - a stunning number of movies fail right off the bat. In the case of the following films, there are some interesting commonalities. All four of these films have female villains. And all four feature female characters that are related, either sisters or mothers and daughters.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Disney's Sleeping Beauty has been a favorite target of online feminist criticism since the inception of the internet, and although it is in no way a feminist film, it does pass the Bechdel test, unlike Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Sleeping Beauty has an unusually high number of female characters, outnumbering the male characters six to three. The film passes the test several times over: the three good fairies have multiple conversations about their difficulties defeating Maleficent, protecting Aurora, and living like mortals, while they also talk with Aurora about chores and her duty as a princess. Ultimately, the three good fairies are the real protagonists of the story and they determine the outcome - Philip would have been utterly incapable of even escaping the Forbidden Mountain, let alone defeating Maleficent, without their help. It's easy to miss the significance of female power, both for good and for evil, in this film by focusing too much on Aurora, but Sleeping Beauty doesn't just pass the Bechdel test - it presents a range of female characters situated within the (admittedly simplistic) dualistic morality of the film.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1988)
C. S. Lewis was certainly not progressive in his gender politics ("battles are ugly when women fight" - so, when men do, they're pretty?), but this adaptation of the most famous of the Chronicles of Narnia does, only just, pass the Bechdel test: sisters Susan and Lucy argue together about whether Lucy is lying about having been in Narnia. Though the film has a number of prominent female characters, including the White Witch and Mrs. Beaver, the only female characters who ever get to interact without the presence of male characters are Susan and Lucy and most of their conversations are focused on their brothers or Aslan. Though the film, like the book, is shaped by some antiquated ideas about gender (and some that I wish were antiquated), the conversation that allows the film to pass is significant because it doesn't center on a stereotypically feminine subject; rather, it's a conversation about moral integrity and skepticism.

Willow (1988)
Willow passes the Bechdel test easily. At the very beginning of the film, a midwife and the woman who has just given birth to a prophesied child talk about how to save her from the evil queen. In the second instance, Queen Bavmorda instructs her daughter to intensify the search for the baby. In the third instance, the queen and the enchantress Fin Raziel battle for control of a magic wand in the final struggle to save the baby. All of these conversations, like many of those that take place between men in the film, center around this prophesied baby, a girl. Willow may not break certain rules (the beautiful female lead is going to choose the right side and the right man before the movie's over), but it has a lot of female characters, most of them magically powerful. Some of them, like Bavmorda, Finn Raziel, and Cherlindrea, are solely interested in the larger fate of their world and the power they hold within it.

Stardust (2007)
This film has a ton of female characters, but it would come close to failing the Bechdel test if not for the interactions of the female villains, all witches, and all engrossed in discussing the fallen star that could restore their youth and power. In fact, nearly every conversation that takes place between the primary witch foes (and it's worth noting that they're sisters) has no mention of a man, with one exception; they do talk about Prince Septimus, after it becomes clear that he is also seeking the fallen star. There is also a lengthy conversation in which the witch Lamia tricks the star Yvaine into believing herself safe and secure; Yvaine is rescued by the hero before Lamia has a chance to kill her. Once again, the film fails to abandon many of the patriarchal tropes common to the fantasy genre - the heroine is repeatedly rescued by the hero, there's no question of male succession to the throne, all of the good female characters are beautiful - but it has a refreshingly substantial cast of female characters.

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