Bechdel revisited

I often find myself in disagreements with male friends about the Bechdel Test, because there are so many good movies and books that fail it, from Lawrence of Arabia to Pride and Prejudice. The Bechdel Test is NOT a strict yardstick of either feminist content or quality. There’s a lot of awesome media that flunks the test. Here’s what it does do well:

1. It raises awareness of when there’s only one woman in a story. Which allows for other conversations about gender imbalance, stereotypes, and tokenism.
 
2. It highlights the problems of stories where the only female characters are there as encouraging cheerleaders, love objects, or obstacles for the male protagonists and have no lives of their own.
 
3. It problematizes the cultural assumption that the only acceptable stories with female protagonists are ones where women are looking for love. (Nothing wrong with a good love story, but there’s a problem when that accounts for the vast majority of stories women are allowed to tell about themselves.)
 
The Bechdel Test is not a checklist that ends conversation. It’s a tool to begin conversation.

One Weird Trick for Being an Ally on the Internet

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

Last week it was a two-hour back-and-forth with a stranger in the comments section of a friend’s Facebook post, gently explaining to her why Jesse Williams’s speech was not reverse racism. Last night it was a marathon session with a different stranger in a different friend’s comments section, discussing how Alton Sterling’s arms flying up for balance as he is tackled is a reflex action that does not constitute resisting arrest.

This is what I do as an ally: I have these conversations with other white people, online and in person, trying to erode their defensiveness. As a white person, I may have a better chance of being seen as unbiased and getting through to them. And I know from my own experiences as a woman how important male support is, like when Jackson Katz reframes violence against women as a men’s issue, or when my favorite male authors refuse to attend conferences and conventions that don’t have an enforceable harassment policy. When my allies speak up, their voices can reach people who don’t want to listen to me, but who are willing to listen to someone more like themselves. And more than that, when my allies speak out, they make it clear that my issues matter to them, that I matter to them. I want to pass that on.

This morning, a white friend and I wearily compared notes: We have these Facebook conversations over and over, one by one. We assemble our facts, deflect the commenters’ barbs, use reflecting language to make them feel heard (“It sounds like you’re upset because…”). And when we finally break through and get the other person to acknowledge that black people have a different experience of living in America, they immediately turn around and demand, “So, how do we fix it?”

I hate this question. I don’t know how to explain in a brief Facebook comment how to fix racial inequality. At least, not in a way that I think a person will realistically go out and do if they’ve just said fifteen minutes ago that Jesse Williams’s white mother should be ashamed of him. When this person says, “How do we fix it?” what they’re really saying is, “I don’t like feeling uncomfortable. Tell me something quick I can do so I don’t have to feel uncomfortable.” And if they don’t get that easy answer, they go to where they do feel comfortable, which is right back where they started.

So I start where they are. I tell them that when incidents of police violence happen, they should watch the footage and make up their own minds, because I hope that seeing other people’s pain will wake them up to the fact that these are people, not talking points, and that these incidents happen far too often to people of color. I tell them to read WEB du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, unfortunately still very relevant for race relations in America today. I tell them about Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” and John Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,”which are very gentle ways of talking about privilege without making people defensive. I hope that by giving them something small, something doable, I can get them to take baby steps into empathy and a better awareness of the problems. I don’t know if they’ll get to a place where they’ll be open to more confronting works like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. But maybe they’ll think about attending a candlelight vigil or a protest when they see news of another senseless killing of a black person. Maybe it’ll change the way they talk to their friends about these issues. Maybe, the next time they go to the polls on election day, it’ll shift their feelings about a proposal or a candidate on the ballot.

And for myself, I take a deep breath and try defusing the next angry, defensive person.

I hope, I really hope, that that’s how we fix this.

In my eyes

Rereading How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, I notice all over again how the book has one ideal heroic male or female face, one face for female villains, and a good dozen possibilities for male villains with really interesting character design. And I stare at that rogue’s gallery, thinking how I could riff off it to make interesting and varied character designs for women’s faces. But all I can think of are three.

It’s probably important to note that the villain faces are clearly exaggerations of character actors from B movies, and again, actors are allowed a broader spectrum of age, build, and attractiveness than  actresses. Which makes me realize I have a HUGE cultural blind spot here: Television and movies train us that certain faces or body types are worth looking at as objects of beauty, curiosity, or scorn, and we overlook the infinite variety we see in the real world if we can’t put that variety into one of those cultural boxes. We’re just starting to talk about these issues with people’s roles, like with the danger of a single story, or the constant erasure of women’s stories that don’t fit our beliefs about women’s history. But we’re really not talking about these issues in terms of people’s physical bodies. I’m staring at this page and suddenly realizing that I have been so indoctrinated that women are invisible unless they fit a narrow definition of beauty that I literally can’t make myself imagine these varied noses or chins on a woman’s face.

Clearly I have some work to do.