Does M.I.A. consider herself a feminist? Which recent movies passed the Bechdel Test–> and is a ‘barely passed’ still a pass? On this week’s episode of GAB’s podcast, we are joined by Maria Guzman (Heartland Feminist, Senior GAB editor) and Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency!
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Full transcript after the jump!
Emily Heroy: Welcome to the Gender Across Borders podcast. My name is Emily Heroy, Executive Editor of Gender Across Borders, and I’d like to welcome you to GAB’s new-found podcast. We are an international feminist community where issues of gender, race, sexuality, and class are discussed online. But now, we have taken that discussion to the airwaves. Stay tuned for exclusive interviews, pop culture reviews, round table discussions, and much more.
Maria Guzman: Hello, my name is Maria Guzman and I am from Kansas and currently living in San Francisco. I consider myself a feminist and my areas that I explore that through are my sense of politics, specifically immigration and, of course, reproductive rights. I’m a scholar in art history and cultural studies and a lot of that has to do with popular culture, so lately I’ve been finding that a lot of what I want to explore has to do with music and entertainment, so I’ve been working on that lately. The artist that I’d like to expand upon for this podcast is a figure that I’m fascinated by at the moment. Her name is Maya.
So far I’ve written two articles about her latest work which has attracted criticism because she maintains a very confrontational approach that seems to distinguish her from other artists working today, and I think that this appeal is based on her self-proclaimed outsider status and it’s something that lends itself and is informed by many genres of music, specifically hip-hop and punk rock.
I grew up listening to punk and I was one of the few I guess minorities or women of color, or however you might put it, and it was something that I always wished would manifest itself for me somehow while I was experiencing that. And although I did appreciate a lot of the literature and music and ideologies that I was exposed to, I still felt like there weren’t a lot of figures that I could relate to besides, you know, Poly Styrene or Bow Wow Wow, the lead singer, so there weren’t a lot of figures that I could identify with, and the closest I could get to was actually Grace Jones, which is another female artist who’s hard to categorize. So lately M.I.A. has kind of been the closest that I’ve come across in popular culture that seems to be an intersection of a lot of my own experiences and also a lot of the perspectives that I admire.
I’d just like to expand on where I’m coming from with my readings of Maya. She’s somebody that elicits these very strong reactions from all of my friends and acquaintances and you either love her or you hate her, so this is sort of my exploration of why I love her, because she challenges me and towards the end I’m going to explain how she challenges me.
Basically, I like how she lends herself to various music genres, and as a fan of punk and hip-hop, it’s great for me to be able to recognize songs. For instance, “Born Free” was immediately something that I could get into because I recognized that it was a sampling of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, and I’m a big fan of Suicide, so she immediately engaged me in that way.
[“Born Free” plays]
But she kept the message in “Ghost Rider” and sort of contemporized it. And what I like about her is that she personalizes these issues and makes them seem very contemporary, which they are, through her music. So hip-hop and punk are notable for their political history. There are various artists that we could name right now: N.W.A., The Clash, The Sex Pistols. I wanted to consider her work along this tradition and address the politically charged issues that she talked about. In addition, her work as a visual artist, I think, also merited attention in these projects. So I immediately through of Laurie Anderson, who was a very well known performance artist and who also addresses the same subject matter which is the American identity, or more broadly the concept of citizenship. And that is something that is very close to Maya’s heart because she still struggles with her visa status, and of course, as I noted in that article, her own mother’s ability to enter the United States. Even though she is a very well-known figure, and realistically should have that right.
[“Paper Planes” plays]
So this is a quote from that post, which discusses “Born Free”, about her immigrant status, and how I think she is using music to relate and to be in spaces where she might not be allowed because of her visa and immigrant status and also for her role as a very outspoken woman.
“Growing up, her own identity as a Sri Lankan immigrant was established through identification with yet-to-be-seen allies, which she expressed in an interview about hip-hop and its ability to help her. “
Now, this is something that, as I was writing, the phrase “as yet-to-be-seen allies” I think is something that can be applied to why certain philosophies speak to us, and feminism for me has had that sort of appeal that I will have these allies if I speak out or if I put something out there, and so far it has definitely proven to be true. So, furthermore her entire album, which I recently reviewed, has taken on a wholly experimental vibe, which suits her tendency to constantly examine relationships. So I see that she’s still moving in this same direction and I like how it sounds and I can read into some of the things still.
I do have to respect her, though, because recently, in the July issue of Nylon, she made a statement about feeling alienated when she was attending St. Martin’s College, which is a very prestigious arts university in the UK. And she actually made a statement using the term “feminism” and it sounded as if she didn’t subscribe to that way of thinking or that she thought it might be pretentious. So that was kind of surprising, and I thought about it and I decided to just kind of put it into the repertoire of what I’ve heard and read about her and just use it for my own needs so that I can understand that philosophy better and understand that it’s not this monolithic thing that everyone’s going to fulfill. So I appreciate her for challenging me in that way.
Kyle Bachan: I’m here with Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency fame. For those who don’t know, Feminist Frequency is a web series of video commentaries on a variety of feminist topics and popular culture. Her series have tackled topics such as: what liquor ads teach us about guys, Fembots, and of course, the Bechdel Test. Now, Anita wrote a guest article for Gender Across Borders back in March entitled “The Bechdel Rule for Women in Movies” so today she’ll be discussing and applying said test to a couple of movies that were released in recent times. We’ll also get her recommendation as to whether or not said movies are worth seeing from a feminist perspective.
Now, “The Bechdel Test”, or I guess I know Allison Bechdel recently changed it, or she wants people to call it “The Ripley Test”, but I guess it didn’t really stick. Do you know about that at all?
Anita Sarkeesian: Yeah. She actually tried to change it a few times because she wasn’t the one that came up with it. I believe her friend, I think her name was Kim Wallace, came up with it, but it just didn’t stick.
KB: Ok, so first of all, can you just explain what “The Bechdel Test” is?
AS: Sure. It is a really basic sort of litmus test to gauge the active presence of women in films, so it just has three criteria. The first is, it has to have at least two women in it, and later on it was added that they should have names. The second is that they talk to each other, and the third is that they talk to each other about something other than a man.
The films I’ve seen the most recently in the theaters were “Sex and the City 2” and then “Karate Kid”. SATC obviously passes the test. It’s about four women who talk about all sorts of things, not just men and “Karate Kid”, there’s some debate, but “Karate Kid” doesn’t actually pass the test. There’s a couple instances in which the mother speaks to some women, but they either don’t have names, or they’re talking about her son.
KB: Say “Karate Kid” did pass the test. I know that there’s a lot of films that pass the test on a very small margin. Like they have one conversation and it satisfies it. Now does that, do you think that still counts then?
AS: I think that, I mean it counts within the parameters of the test, but I think what’s really important about this test is that, I like to think about it as a beginner guide to media literacy for folks who haven’t really critically thought about the media that they’re consuming. It’s a good way to just sort of be like “Oh look, there aren’t very many women on film, or they don’t have very significant roles, their stories aren’t really as important as the male heroes’ stories.” So again, it’s not a test about whether a film is good or not, or whether it’s feminist, or whether it’s bad, or any of that. It’s just sort of getting people to think about, critically, what they’re taking in and sort of the lack of women generally. To have two women talk about the mall for a second: it counts, but it’s not really significant in terms of women’s presence or women’s roles or stories in movies.
I think because we live in a system of patriarchy that men’s stories are just valued over women’s stories, and so the people who are running the production companies and making the decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t, is looking at sort of bottom line profits, which is very complicated because studies that have been done about female fans, especially in the television world, have talked significantly about having strong female characters, and those shows are the first to get cancelled or under threat to get cancelled even though they’re incredibly popular with a female fan base. So I think that if women owned the means of production, not just small, independent production, but actually large-scale companies, that we could change the landscape of what stories can be told and are told, and women can have more critical roles in films.
KB: That actually leads into my next question because I was thinking about “Mad Men”, which the writing staff is 90% women. I was gonna ask you if the Bechdel Test counts if the entire environment of the film makes failing the test impossible, and I think that, when you have a film where the male production crew goes out of its way to create a film or a show with strong female leads, they’re not necessarily doing what Alison Bechdel wants to happen. I know that provocative vampire slayer Joss Whedon was saying that he was surprised that so many people were reacting to there finally being this strong, female, independent lead in a show and he was saying: No, it should just be a regular thing. That should just happen. It shouldn’t be something that people go out of their way to make happen. So with “Mad Men” you kind of have a regular environment but you actually have a female presence on a show that isn’t forcing that environment to be all females.
AS: Well, television is a little bit more difficult to apply the Bechdel Test to, and I don’t actually do it. Some people try to. Some people say that they do it episode to episode to see if it passes the test, but television allows for more character development over longer periods of time, which allows for more interactions. You get to know the individual characters, and they’re constantly interacting with the main cast and secondary cast and sort of extras. So, it’s just a lot more difficult and almost every show will pass the test. Looking at films like SATC or other films that are like romantic comedies for the most part that almost always pass the test, it’s really important to see how it’s genre-specific. It’s like as if women only want to see other women talking about shopping and shoes or dating, which is so obviously not true. There’s many of us who aren’t excited about those films. And they also fall into these gender binaries. I think that movies that pass the test pretty quickly, such as romantic comedies, are very complicated and it proves that it’s not a good, that the test is not an example of whether it’s a good movie or a feminist film. Because I think that that’s really the critical part of this test. Again, it’s sort of a beginner’s guide to just get people thinking about these things, not necessarily the value of the movie. For example, there’s a movie that was released last year called “Moon”, and I absolutely loved it, and there was like not even a single female character. There’s like one for two seconds. But it was a really well-made film. It’s not bad because it didn’t pass the test, it just didn’t. It’s definitely a systemic issue, right? And again, it’s not just this movie and that movie. It’s an industry-wide epidemic almost, that the people making these films think that audiences only want to hear about men’s stories for the most part and only want the women…
Like all the action films are all the tough, macho men with his little hot woman, girlfriend, love interest or whatever. When this is a product of this system of patriarchy that has men in, mostly men in positions of governance, in positions of power, and so it’s not just within the film industry that we see problems like this.
Emily Heroy: From all of us at GAB, we would like to thank our listeners for listening. We hope you enjoyed this installment of the Gender Across Borders podcast, and if you did like what you hear, head on over to www.genderacrossborders.com