Tuesday, May 08, 2012

I am woman, feel me avenge

Let’s get this out of the way right away. “The Avengers” was awesome. Like hot damn, holy cow, fuck yeah AWESOME. And chances are you saw it and thought it was awesome too. Because it made like a bajillion dollars over the weekend. ($207.4 million to be exact, which is the biggest opening weekend ever, besting previous record holder “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2” by more than $38 million).

As an avowed Joss Whedon fangirl, I couldn’t be more proud and pleased with the movie or its reception. It was everything you want from your big-time, big-name, big-hero super films. Exciting. Epic. Funny. Fierce. Cohesive. Contextual. Geeky. Gripping. And fun, man, was it ever fun. Sometimes event movies forget that they’re supposed to be fun. And while I like shit blowing up as much as the next gal, that doesn’t make it fun. Nor does taking oneself super seriously. But “The Avengers,” now that was fun. It earned my $11. And I plan to give it another $11 very soon.

But, and fuck if there isn’t always a but, it also underscored one of the continuing and institutional problems with the big summer blockbuster. And that is they almost never pass the Bechdel Test, “The Avengers” sadly included. While the movie passes the first crucial test: Yes there are more than two named female characters. “The Avengers” has three: Black Widow, Agent Maria Hill and Pepper Potts. But then it fails the last two tests. They never talk to each other, about a man or anything else for that matter.

Of course, this isn’t to say that female representation is terrible in “The Avengers.” Quite the opposite, really. None of them are damsels in distress. One could argue that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper is a standard-issue superhero girlfriend, but given her backstory in two previous solo “Iron Man” films makes her more than mere arm candy. Plus she’s about the only person who can cut cocksure Tony Stark down to size. Sure, Cobie Smulders’ Agent Hill mostly just looks stoic (also hot, so hot) in her SHIELD uniform while providing exposition. But she also battles her own brainwashed agents with heroism and flare. And then there’s Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow who is not only integral to the plot, she nicely turns some female tropes (she’s weakened by her apparent love for a man) on their head. All these women are strong and smart and so much more than action movie T&A. This is Joss, after all.

In fact, if anything is overtly sexualized in this movie, I’d say it was Captain America’s massive back. I swear, his upper body is like a stingray’s silhouette on steroids.

But, still, this is Joss after all, so we expect a lot – and more. This is in fact the only project Joss has written and directed (besides the shoe-string budget “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” which only had four named characters total) that has failed the Bechdel test. “Buffy,” “Angel,” “Firefly,” “Serenity,” “Dollhouse.” All these passed with flying colors. But “The Avengers,” which should be noted is also the only writing-directing project where Joss did not also create the universe in which it exists, does not.

So am I disappointed “The Avengers” fails the Bechdel Test? Of course. Would it have been that hard to give Agent Hill and Black Widow a moment together? Perhaps they could commiserate on the fit of zip-front jumpsuits. Am I disappointed with the women in the film? Hell no. They’re awesome – especially Black Widow and her thighs of fury. They’re superheroes, not just females in spandex. In fact one could argue that the female heroes in this film are in a way even more heroic than many of its male heroes. They stand up and fight without super powers or super armor or super God powers. They’re just humans, who are damn good at what they do.

But “The Avengers” is also a reminder than even when you’ve got a big-time feminist like Joss Whedon at the helm, who has built his reputation on being able to build strong female characters that break the Hollywood mold, it’s damn hard to break the Hollywood mold. The big boys of summer continue to rule, but us ladies won’t stop fighting to get in our licks, too.


last year's girl said...


Loved this movie, but I was honestly sitting on the edge of my seat all the way through it muttering "this has to pass the Bechdel test, this has to pass the Bechdel test"...


If Joss Whedon can't do it, there is no hope for action movies.

David M said...

The Bechdel Test is really interesting and I have a lot of time for it, but I don't think it's so worthwhile for examining individual stories as much as overall cultural trends. I'd like to see a world where a lot more stories pass the test, but I don't think any individual story is necessarily letting anyone down by not doing so. Some just naturally won't.

Worst of all, some films pass the Bechdel test and yet display totally repulsive attitude towards women. (Ugh, Transformers 2 and its sexy camera-attracting ladybum robots, ugh.) That sort of thing is where per-film the test is pretty useless. But per-medium, it's bang-on.

Writer Kieron Gillen explains my (minor, I feel I should point out) issues with it much more eloquently than I can: http://www.formspring.me/KieronGillen/q/258959750903901262

"If someone uses it as a rule that fiction *should* apply to, it is - at best - an incredibly coarse measure of a story's feminist value and at worse a kind of bonsaification of the art form"

Kristan Hoffman said...

As we walked out of the theater, I made the same observation to my boyfriend: This doesn't pass the Bechdel Test.

He had never heard of the test, so I had to explain what it was, and why I had expected Avengers to pass (i.e., Joss's reputation). My bf made some arguments (like, Wouldn't Showgirls pass? Wasn't that movie degrading to women?) and in the end I think we came to a similar conclusion as David M here: The test is imperfect. It's a good tool for benchmarking culture and art, and just because a film passes or doesn't pass doesn't *necessarily* mean it's good or bad.

Would it be nice if every film passed the test? (As well as its reverse: 2 men talking about something other than a woman?) Absolutely. And as a writer, I like being able to use the Bechdel (and its reverse) to examine my own stories/characters.

Was I disappointed that Avengers didn't pass? Absolutely.

But do I think there's a difference between being non-feminist and un-feminist? Absolutely.

Anonymous said...

FUN movie! Even dug the 3-D. And yes, (biased)the women were/are the best thing about it.


Emma said...

The Avengers was amazing. I had been up for over 30 hours before I went to see it, and spent the whole time with my my mouth open in fangirl shock at its sheer epic-ness.
I think that the Bechdel Test is really interesting (especially with regeards to Joss Whedon), but the important part is that he is merely playing with a ready-made universe.
I would have liked a link back to Peggy Carter for Capt America though, same way that Tony Stark's father 'created' him.

Denise said...
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Denise said...

Wow, am I the only person who was bored out of her skull during Avengers? Ah, but that's neither here nor there. What I wanted to say was that I don't know that Pepper was actually a character in this movie, and probably shouldn't count pro or con for the film. And in any case, I don't know that it's entirely logical to apply such standards to the Marvel Universe, regardless of who writes the screenplay. But since we are, compare it to Captain America: The First Avenger from last year, and Avengers' feminism is more than impressive, regardless of if it passes the Bechdel test, which, of course, is just one way to analyze a film's feminism. No female (or male, for that matter) character used "girl" as an insult in Avengers, for example.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that The Avengers failure of the Bechdel test decreases its value. Joss Whedon has shown us time and time again that he can create and cares about strong female characters, and he's done it again here. However, he's working within a pre-existing universe. Just because he didn't choose to bring these ladies together in a way that contradicts their comic book origins, doesn't devalue his work. As a per-film test, the Bechdel just doesn't work here. Whedon really did make these characters much stronger and more feminist than they have been before. He deserves alot of credit for that, and should not be belittled just because he didn't pass this particular test. What he did is really difficult in any comic book based universe, including the Marvel one, and he pulled it off brilliantly. Now, can't we just appreciate that?

faye said...

There's also the fact that, asskicking as his women may be, Joss Whedon has also done things like write off an actress (with an incredibly uncomfortable storyline) because she got pregnant, plus his treatment of mentally ill female characters is so stereotypical (and universal) as to be laughable, so he's not exactly some hero of feminism.

kasadilla said...

This is one of your best-written posts, Ms. Snarker. I was wondering about how The Avengers would fare under the scrutiny of the Bechdel Test since the films leading up to it were all sausage fests. I'm still going to see it, but now I'll be a little be more discerning about how well Joss attempted to lady it up.

Your friend, Rusty said...
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Your friend, Rusty said...

The Avengers example shines a spotlight on the inadequacy of using a simplistic test to determine a film or TV show's feminist credentials.

Why shoehorn in a single scene to make sure a work passes the test?

If all any work has going for it is that it passes the Bechdel test I'll pass on the film or show.

At the very least rather than requiring that the two named female characters interact the rule should state IF they do interact they talk about something other than men.

Anonymous said...

There is another forty minutes of that movie that didn't make the final cut. Maybe with some of those scenes it would have passed. Roll on the blu ray so we can check it out.

fridax said...

Saw the movie recently, it made me happier by the minute. Naturally, I hoped that the women are not only tokens but kickass their way through lots of mayhem, too. They did, Black Widow for sure (though I'm still no fan of Scarlett). So not much to complain for me.

Anyway, Joss, I am grateful that he entertains us profoundly for years now, bringing in the fun and apocalypse redux!

See this laudatio on Black Widow's role in the movie: http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/grey-matters-black-widow-spins-a-web-around-the-avengers

Anonymous said...

I knew ScarJo's Black Widow would bring the asskickery, but Cobie Smulders? Who knew? She rocked the shit out of that opening sequence. Nick Fury definitely approved.

Anonymous said...

The way Joss Whedon satirized the characters in terms of masculinity, which is usually part of the superhero-genre, makes me think, that this is one of the few movies, which actually passed the Bechdel Test.

And, by the way: Black Widow's first performance - red haired, sitting on a chair, being tortured - reminded me of the first episode of Alias.

Anonymous said...

Bechdel Test = Damned if he does - and damned if he doesn't.

The "Old" Double Standard. Not just for men any more!

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU. Army lady: SO HOT.