The Atlantic


 

Originally published by The Atlantic

Last week, Swedish movie theaters created a media foofaraw when they announced that they would begin providing a rating based on the Bechdel test for the films they screen. The test, created by comic artist Alison Bechdel in 1985, asks whether a film has at least two female characters and at least one scene in which they talk to one another about something other than a man—if it satisfies these criteria, Swedish theaters give it an A. The goal, according to Ellen Tejle, the director of an art-house cinema in Stockholm that is implementing the rating, is to draw attention to how few films pass the test and encourage filmmakers to make more movies with three-dimensional women characters in them.

When the news broke, writers immediately began questioning whether the test is an effective way to judge whether a film is feminist. The answer to that is no—but it’s important to note that that’s not actually something the test was intended to do. The illustrated character in Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For who first espouses the idea says she uses it to determine not whether the movies are feminist but simply which movies to spend her money on. For those of us with a limited movie budget and a desire to see representation by and of women improve, choosing which films to support can be a political act; I like to spend my dollars on films directed by and/or written by women—and, not surprisingly, those films also usually pass the Bechdel test.

But to actually evaluate whether a film as a whole is feminist requires much more than a tally of female characters and the conversations between them. A film may have some feminist elements, some sexist elements, and some elements that are neither, because—and this is important—”feminism” is not simply the absence of “sexism.” The most reliable way to determine whether a film is feminist is to see it—and even then, the question is not a simple one.

It is, for example, possible for a character to be a feminist creation without the film in which she appears being feminist. When Pacific Rim premiered earlier this year, sci-fi fans eager to support Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi invented a test named after her character, the Mako Mori test. Though Mori is the only female character in the film with more than five lines, she has her own goal that’s separate from the male lead’s: avenging the wrongful death of her parents. Thus, the Mako Mori test asks whether a film has “at least one female character who gets her own narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story.” This test is one way to determine whether a character is feminist—by which I don’t mean that she espouses feminist philosophy but rather than she is a fully-fleshed out human being—by asking whether she is a subject or an object. A subject has her own thoughts and desires upon which she acts, whereas a woman who has been objectified is acted upon by others.

However, as the inventor of the Mako Mori test notes, the question of whether a film is feminist cannot be determined solely based on whether the characters are. For example, some critics have argued that although Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone, the central character in Gravity, is a feminist creation (director Alfonso Cuarón resisted studio pressure to define her by a romantic relationship and have her be rescued at the end), putting the solution to her problem—spoiler alert—in the mouth of a male character, hallucinated or not, actually reinforces patriarchal norms. Likewise, not every film that fails the tests can be said to be entirely sexist. In fact it is hard to find anything sexist in  The Lord of the Rings, which fails the Bechdel test, other than the lack of female characters. Same goes for The Avengers, which fails both the Bechdel and the Mako Mori.

Muddying matters further, whether one believes a film is feminist varies depending on one’s definition of feminism. Liberal feminists—who believe that women and men are created equal and should be treated as such even though they often aren’t—would likely consider the X-Men films to be feminist because they feature female superheroes who fight alongside male ones, even though they live in a world ruled by men. Cultural feminists, who believe women’s biology and instincts make them different from men in ways that should be celebrated, might consider Steel Magnolias to be feminist even though the characters only talk about men and family. Material (more commonly referred to as intersectional) feminists—who believe that sex, gender, sexuality, race, religion, class, and other factors are all components of internal identities and signifiers of privilege (or the lack thereof) in society—may consider Bridesmaids to be feminist: Though it avoids race and religion, it deals with class, body size, sexuality, and the intersection of the many pressures women face in choosing mates, friends, and careers. (Shout out to Jill Dolan’s The Feminist Spectator as Critic for the categories liberal, cultural, and material feminism.)

But in evaluating whether a film is feminist, it’s perhaps most important to understand that the question of whether a film itself is feminist is often confused with the question of whether it is sexist, whereas in reality the absence of the one does not imply the presence of the other. Dead Poets Society is not generally considered feminist: It does not pass the Bechdel or the Mako Mori tests, and it does not espouse equality, celebrate female biology, or detail the multitude of factors that determine identity. But unless we’re willing to call Bridesmaids sexist for having only one fully fleshed-out male character and not dealing with the concerns of men, it would be unfair to call Dead Poets Society sexist simply for being a male-driven film.

The truth is that the definition of feminism varies as much between feminists as it does between feminists, non-feminists, and sexists. For those of us in the artistic and theoretical realms, one focus of feminism has long been disrupting false binaries like male/female, masculine/feminine, and gay/straight so that equality is not something that’s measured by whether you treat women the same way you treat men but by whether you regard everyone as a unique yet fully human individual. Feminist criticism needs to work to disrupt a binary, too—the one that defines art as either feminist or sexist. Even the most socially conscious creator can be influenced by the sexism that pervades our culture, whereas a creator interested in telling stories primarily about men can still make a feminist film—or at least a not-sexist one.

The Bechdel test, the Mako Mori test, and whether the film was written and/or directed by women are all great ways to determine how to spend your movie-going money in ways that support women’s stories. But evaluating the feminism, sexism, and/or lack thereof in a film as a whole rarely results in an easy conclusion—and it definitely requires that you see the movie.

uncletomscabinbanner1.jpgOriginally published by The Atlantic

Miley Cyrus probably hasn’t studied much theater history. She was most likely completely unaware of the legacy of minstrelsy that influenced her performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards. She has nevertheless been heavily criticized for appropriating black music and dance while demeaning her black backup dancers. A few people have defended her against the accusation, and others have said that that they were unaware while watching it of what made Cyrus’s performance racist.

I’m not surprised. When I teach theater history to undergraduates I meet very few students who have heard of minstrelsy before I tell them about it. Even when I teach graduate students, I find that many of them think American theater history began with Eugene O’Neill. They are completely unaware that the first nationally popular American play was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, transformed onstage from an anti-slavery text into a racist spectacle whose influence survives till today.

Just as present-day filmmakers are on the lookout for bestselling novels that can be made into blockbuster films, 19th-century theater managers looking for hits adapted popular books for the stage. The first known stage version of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was performed even before the final sections of the serialized novel had been printed. The second production was part of an evening of entertainment that included a tightrope walker and a blackface burlesque of Othello. Though George Aiken’s somewhat faithful adaptation was the most successful version, Southern pro-slavery writers parodied the novel in productions that turned Stowe’s sympathetic portrayal of slaves on its head. Theater managers everywhere competed to have the most outrageous show by adding bands, songs, dances, even fireworks.

The popularity of the scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when Eliza is chased across a frozen river by dogs led to the inclusion of more and more live animals in Tom Shows, including mules and even elephants. Eventually producers began casting “real Negroes” to bolster their claims of authenticity: Their shows, they boasted, depicted black life as it really was—full of happy go-lucky, animalistic should-be slaves. That these black performers still had to wear blackface betrayed the truth—the Tom Show idea of black life was not authentic at all.

Simultaneously, minstrel shows—combinations of skits, dancing, and music characterized by caricatured representations of buffoonish black people by performers in black face, slapstick situations, and a send up of aristocratic pretensions—rose in popularity from a working-class entertainment to a middle-class one. By combining the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the central tropes of minstrelsy, Tom Shows, as these spectaculars came to be called, presented song and dance representations of black life from a white perspective. Even after the Civil War, Tom Shows continued to tour the country and attract large audiences from all walks of life.

Just as these performances’ dances, like Jumping Jim Crow, were purportedly observed among real black people and then caricatured, Miley Cyrus, surrounded by black women half-dressed as animals, attempted and perverted a form of black dancing called twerking. Rather than aping aristocratic pretensions, like minstrel shows did, Cyrus sent up her own past as an innocent child by embodying the good girl who nevertheless knows she wants it. But it was minstrelsy just the same.

Audiences may not have recognized the tropes upon which Cyrus drew partly because even people who know about Tom Shows think of them as being performed by men. In reality, by 1871 America had at least 11 scantily-clad, all-female minstrel troupes performing in blackface. Even in male troupes, “wench” characters, played by men in light makeup (they were “yaller gals”) and depicted as possessing overwhelming sexual appetites, made public representations of eroticism a common element in Tom Shows.

Cyrus wasn’t wearing literal blackface in her performance, but the tradition of a little white girl at the center of a minstrel performance is as old as minstrelsy itself. One of the most popular characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Little Eva: the blonde, lily-white daughter of conscientious slave owners who is adored by white and black people alike. The uncivilized slave Topsy, who says that she cannot love anyone because no one has ever loved her, is nevertheless moved to tears by Eva’s death and vows thereafter to be good.

In 19th-century productions, Eva’s centrality to the narrative was made literal: The moment of Little Eva’s death put Eva centerstage, on her bed surrounded by mourning slaves. In at least one production, so many slaves appeared that the stage was full of them, while others peered in at windows and stood in doorways. In the more spectacular, upbeat adaptations, she doesn’t die but rather sings and dances with the happy slaves.

Tom Shows did not decline in popularity until well into the 20th century—only after they had made their impact in Hollywood. The metatheatrical 1936 film Dimples, featuring Shirley Temple as a young performer (Dimples) who is playing Little Eva in a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, combines the sentimental portrayal of the little white girl with the “isn’t she just cute as button dancing with those negroes” version. Her death scene brings about tears from the actors on stage and those in the on-film theater audience, and just as in the original story Topsy is redeemed by her ability to feel, the villain in the movie is redeemed by the sentiment evoked by Eva. As an epilogue to the play, the curtain comes up on a minstrel troupe, and Dimples dances at the center of a group of blackface performers.

Whether or not the creators of Cyrus’s performance know it, American entertainment has been so suffused with these images for so many years that they live in our shared subconscious and are often referenced without artists or audiences even realizing it. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has been praised for its mostly female, racially diverse cast, but it has also been rightly criticized for drawing upon black experiences to tell a white girl’s story. The creative staff of Orange Is the New Black or the talented actor who plays Crazy Eyes, Uzo Aduba, may not have been thinking about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but both Topsy and the Crazy Eyes character are black women who were adopted and “civilized” by white parents. Crazy Eyes, like Cyrus at the VMAs, even sports Topsy’s iconic hairstyle.

Contemporary pop culture may be driven by Hollywood, but back in the day, it was theater—particularly traveling troupes like the Tom Shows—that created a shared national culture. This history will not go away, whether we acknowledge it or not. Without an awareness of the way the iconography of minstrelsy informed so much of the entertainment that has come afte