When it comes to film, representations of women are for the most part, epic fails. They're almost always afforded roles like a flatly characterized romantic partner or their actions and emotions are used toward other, almost always male characters' motivations. One way to understand just how frequently movies undermine or just plain ignore women characters is The Bechdel Test. Conceived by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 strip from her seminal comic "Dykes To Watch Out For," it is used to highlight the rare movies which feature women talking to each other about something other than a man. That's literally it. Three criteria: It has to have (1) two named women who (2) talk to each other, (3) about something other than a man. You'd think that it would be incredibly easy to pass this test, but the sheer volume of movies (most of them) that don't make the cut is disappointing and lame.
Since we're approaching the end of March, also known as Women's History Month, a celebration of women's contributions of the past and to the present, I thought it was important to acknowledge a couple of films where women are given primary roles and do a lot of lady-to-lady bonding without men having major stakes in their relationships. In other words: two movies that pass the Bechdel Test. We're going with 1991's "Fried Green Tomatoes" and 2011's "Bridesmaids." Released 20 years apart, both of these films were written by women and star women, though neither were directed by women, but still, maybe that can be an additional adjustment to the Bechdel Test some day.
"Fried Green Tomatoes"
Directed by Jon Avnet
Currently streaming via Netflix
A film in which women make up all of its primary characters, "Fried Green Tomatoes" is a bold expression of female friendship. The movie focuses on the story of two young women, Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) in Alabama circa the 1920s, as told to Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), a lonely housewife who has lost her way amongst suburbia and a tedious marriage, by the young-at-heart Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) in a nursing home sometime in the visual catastrophe that is the 1980s.
The film jumps back and forth between the '20s and '80s, illustrating the bond between Evelyn and Ninny as well as the promising connection between Idgie and Ruth, best friends who run the Whistle Stop Café together. Idgie and Ruth's relationship is full of homoerotic subtext and a lingering kiss on the cheek seems to cause Idgie to rethink her entire life (as if her tomboy demeanor and heart eyes for Ruth had gone unnoticed up until that point). Regardless of the giant missed opportunity that was doing the romantic side of their relationship justice—a mainstream compromise made when the Fannie Flagg novel, with explicit lesbian overtones, was turned into a Hollywood movie—the film does an excellent job portraying friendship as a knotty and complex thing as the duo deal with the death of loved ones, running a business together, and even a murder.
Idgie and Ruth's story is juxtaposed against Evelyn's journey to get her shit together and make her damn self happy, since her greasy beer-bellied sports fanatic of a husband obviously isn't going to do it for her. Her character development climaxes when she abandons the ladylike behavior she was raised to have and goes HAM in a grocery store parking lot, repeatedly crashing into a young woman's convertible after being disrespected for the last time. She then excitedly tells Ninny that she wants to take down wife beaters and machine gun their genitals. I'm right there with ya, Evelyn.
Directed by Paul Feig
Currently available via Amazon and iTunes
"Bridesmaids" takes on the mainstream boys-will-be-boys comedy formula, which usually casts women as minor characters including nagging wives, hot young neighbors with low IQs, and, wait, no that's actually pretty much it—and stirred up big laughs and Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress in the process. That it also included publicly shitting in a wedding dress was just an added bonus.
The movie focuses on Annie, played by Kristen Wiig, and portrays the intersecting lives of six women as they prep for Lillian's (Maya Rudolph) wedding. Annie struggles to keep her jealousy from getting the best of her as Lillian, her best friend since childhood, grows closer to Helen (Rose Byrne), which leads to a heated battle for Lillian's attention. Not to mention, Annie is also dealing with an embarrassingly sucky love life, an unsuccessful business, and overall shit-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life meltdowns, which she handles, of course, with grace. Lillian's new sister-in-law, Megan (Melissa McCarthy), is the breakout character in the movie and an inspiration: she steals puppies, has telepathic soul-awakening conversations with dolphins, and comes on to strangers on planes, all the while, delivering consistently hilarious and unpredictable lines like, "I'm glad he's single because I'm going to climb that like a tree."
Ideally, "Bridesmaids" would have killed the "women just aren't as funny as men" conversation but check any YouTube comment section under a female comedian's video and you'll see that attitude is alive and well, so we probably need many, many more "Bridesmaids" before that one goes, though female-centric comedies like "The Heat," "The Mindy Project," and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," all bear the influence of "Bridesmaids." Nevertheless, when "Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig announced his "Ghostbusters 3" would feature an all-female cast including "Bridesmaids's" Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, the dude-nerds on the internet lost their shit. Good.