Don’t rely on the Bechdel test too much

Scene from the new ghostbusters (okay, the old ghostbusters with four heads stuck on it)
Scene from the new Ghostbusters (honest), yesterday

COMMENT: The Bechdel test is a good guide for female inclusion in stage plays and screen plays. It should not be used as a gold standard for what’s “sexist”.

So, all-female Ghostbusters. That should keep the Twitter trolls on busy on both sides for a while. And since I prefer to keep my opinion posts on this blog combative and controversial, and I’m feeling a bit left out of all this mutual rage, let me begin by saying two things. Number one: I don’t care for the original Ghostbusters. And number two: I don’t care for Bridesmaids or the other films from Paul Feig. Hopefully that’s alienated everybody in the world, and the whole of Twitter can unite in hatred against me. Anyway, given my overwhelming indifference to all of this, I don’t really have an opinion on Ghostbusters Rebooted. I do, however, have views on the under-representation of females parts in screen plays and, to a lesser extent, stage plays. Yes, it is a problem.

Whilst you’re all still riled one way or the other, I’ll drop in my next inflammatory statement. I am strongly of the opinion that is it not the responsibility of writers to provide jobs for actors or balance under-represented demographics. It is their responsibility to write good stories. Sometimes a story will need an all-male cast, sometimes it will need an all-female cast. Most of the time, however, you need to accurately reflect the society we live in, which was about 50:50 male to female the last time I checked. And this is where I think writers are falling short. I suspect a lot of male writers are doing a lazy practice I call “male by default”. That is, every character is created male unless there’s a reason why any need to be female. Maybe some equally lazy female writers are doing “female by default”. But with the script writing profession dominated by men, it’s male by default that’s the problem.

So this is the sort of problem that the “Bechdel Test” is meant to address. Originally mentioned in a comic strip, an unnamed female character says she only watches films that meet three criteria:

  1. It has at least two female characters.
  2. These female characters talk to each other.
  3. When doing so, they talk about something other than men at least once.

Anyway, what start off as an off-the-cuff remark is now all the rage. Bechdel is a household name, even if you don’t know Alison Bechdel who drew the original cartoon. Virtually any play, film, or book will be scrutinised for the Bechdel Test at some point. There’s even a whole website dedicated to dividing all movies into those Bechdel and non-Bechdel compliant. So popular has it become that it’s pretty much treated as the gold standard for gender diversity in films. And that’s where we hit problems. It’s one thing to use it as a rough guide, but another this to use it as a definitive yardstick. Continue reading

It’s more complicated than class or money, Chris Bryant

Chris Bryant and James Blunt (credits at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Blunt#mediaviewer/File:James-Blunt.jpg and http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chris_Bryant.jpg
FIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!

COMMENT: Chris Bryant sort of has a point about lack of social diversity in art – but it’s a lot more to do with connections than class.

Well, well, well, it’s all been kicking off today, hasn’t it? Last Friday Chris Bryant spoke out against lack of social diversity in the arts, singling out in particular middle-class ex-public school boys over working-class salt-of-the-earth types. He called for fewer James Blunts and Eddie Redmayes. James Blunt heard about this and wrote a rather sarcastic open letter back. It started off calling him a “classist gimp” but then went on to make some quite valid points about how little help his public school education was in becoming a singer (before signing off as “James Cucking Funt”). Chris Bryant tried to respond with a another letter trying to clarify what he said, but by now everyone was practically forming a circle round the two of them shouting “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

So before this escalates any further, let’s keep this in context. For the record, I fucking hate James Blunt’s songs, especially You’re Beautiful, but I do have a kind of grudging admiration for the second career James Blunt has carved for himself by being, um, blunt. My favourite one-liner was when a random Twitterer wrote “Who is a bigger twat: James Blunt or Robin Thicke?” to which James Blunt replied “Me! Me! Pick me!” As such, James Blunt’s letters should be taken with a pinch of salt, and “You classist gimp” should be treated as equivalent to “Excuse me, but I think you some of your assumptions are a bit unreasonable” from anyone else. Chris Bryant, on the other hand, wasn’t trying to engage in a classist tirade against James Blunt – he was just ill-advised to pick a couple of names out of thin air. Oh the whole, however, I see what Chris Bryant was trying to get at.

I will now try to give Chris Bryant a hand, because I think he’s underestimated how complex this problem is.

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How do you solve a problem like class?

COMMENT: There probably is an attitude that theatre is for the middle class and not the working class – but the root problem is a society that thinks in classes in the first place.

Devoated and Disgruntled logoLast month I attended the Empty Space’s “Devoted and Disgruntled North East 3“. I don’t have time to explain exactly how this event works, but it’s a kind of networking event based on the idea that the most useful bits of conferences were not the structured sessions, but the coffee breaks in between where people get to talk to each other in groups of mutual interest. Anyway, there were a number of interesting topics discussed, but perhaps the most interesting talk was about the so-called “class divide” in theatre, brought up by Joe Caffrey (as recently seen in Wet House and Cooking With Elvis). There are two different issues relating the class divide. One is the apparent class divide from participation in theatre, and the other is a class divide in people coming to see it. They are both important subjects – and in the case of participation, although I think it’s more to do with connections than class, I heard of a lot of dodgy practices going on – but this discussion was very much on the latter.

Now, before I go on, I should clarify when I say “working-class” or “middle-class” in this article, I am referring to people who self-define as one or the other. I personally think this obsession with class is bollocks. It’s an outdated concept based on a long-dead system where a land-owning “upper class” had all the power. Nowadays, hardly anyone calls themselves upper-class, with middle-class and working-class being split roughly 50:50. And that’s not really a middle, is it? And with few people being born into a career nowadays, what makes you middle-class anyway? Because your parents are middle-class? Because your income or savings is over a set amount? Because you shop at Marks and Spencers? I’m struggling to find a sensible definition. But, like it or not, people define themselves as one or the other, and many people defining themselves as working class are flatly ruling out going to the theatre because it’s not for people like them. People actually says things to this effect. However stupid you might consider it, it’s a problem we can’t ignore.

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