Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Rule

I've been meaning for a long time to write about "The Rule", a 1985 episode of Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. About a year ago it was featured on National Public Radio, which is some kind of sign of cultural arrival, but it had long been discussed online and elsewhere. As with anything that catches on, there's a certain amount of confusion about it -- what it means, or even what to call it. The name of the episode is "The Rule," but you'll find it referred to as "Mo's Rule" (though this was before the character Mo was introduced), as "The Bechdel Rule" and (as on NPR) "The Bechdel Test." So read it for yourself (click on the image to enlarge it for better readability).

Bechdel has mentioned in interviews that she stole the idea from her friend Liz Wallace, whom she credits in the strip's opening panel, but only hardcore Dykes to Watch Out For fans would recognize a reference to "Liz Wallace's Rule." So I'll try not to be too pedantic, especially since there are other, serious issues involved.

First of all, you might wonder if too much isn't being read into The Rule. As it appears in this strip, it's as much a dating strategy as anything. The woman who describes it is as much interested in getting her date alone for some romance as in watching a movie. (Better to eat popcorn at home than in a crowded theater.) But that's part of what makes Alison Bechdel fun to read, and reread: at her best, she mixes interesting ideas with entertaining human stories, and one of her primary aims in Dykes to Watch Out For was to make a comic strip about lesbians and their loves at a time when media images of women-loving women were scarce, even in alternative media. That's what keeps DTWOF and this strip in particular from being a mere exercise in didacticism.

The fact that The Rule has stuck in many people's minds over the past quarter-century, though, while they often forget the story in which it's embedded, shows that the idea has been important for them. Sometimes I think that the idea becomes just an excuse for sloppy list-making, like the quizzes you find on social and tabloid news sites. ("Ten Things You Should Never Say To Your Date." "Which Character in Twilight Are You?") The NPR story is a painful example of this sort of thing, with its clumsy attempts to come up with "rules" for other minorities. It's also arguably mistaken that one reason for the paucity of good female characters is the scarcity of female writers in film and TV. As blogger Jennifer Kesler tells it, the industry is aware of what it's doing, and aspiring female writers will be told not to write scripts that conform to The Rule.

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see. ...

... there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I’d found the “audience won’t watch women!” argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).

At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”
“Not even if it advances the story?” I asked. That’s rule number one in screenwriting, though you’d never know it from watching most movies: every moment in a script should reveal another chunk of the story and keep it moving.
He just looked embarrassed and said, “I mean, that’s not how I see it, that’s how they see it.”
Right. A bunch of self-back-slapping professed liberals wouldn’t want you to think they routinely dismiss women in between writing checks to Greenpeace. Gosh, no – it was they. The audience. ...
Kesler also mentions in a comment that "the passing or failing of the Bechdel test is not the sole measure of a film’s feminist value", and another commenter adds:

Also, I wouldn’t want anyone to fall into the trap of assuming that just because a movie does pass the test means it’s either a feminist movie or a great movie. Beaches passes the test. I’m not going to stand up and say it’s either great cinema for the ages or a great feminist story (again with the breakdown of women’s friendships over men *sigh*), but I still own it and watch it.
If you look again at Bechdel's original comic strip, you'll see that the Rule is a minimum criterion for acceptability in a movie, not artistic quality or exemplary feminist consciousness. It means that if I am going to give my money to the movie industry, it must pander to me at least this much. I've gotten into some weird online debates with people who got upset if I dissed this or that mediocre gay Hollywood film, like Philadelphia, because if we don't support it, Hollywood won't make any more gay movies. (Promises, promises!)

Which brings me to one of the reasons I finally got off my butt to write about The Rule. I recently read the new edition of gay African-American science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany's book of critical essays, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. It includes a blistering "Letter to the Symposium on 'Women in Science Fiction' under the Control, for Some Deeply Suspect Reason, of One Jeff Smith", written in 1975. Among much else, Delany talks about his efforts to improve his own depiction of female characters, influenced strongly by his then-wife, the poet Marilyn Hacker. Among the "parameters" he developed was this one (page 102):

Women characters must have central-to-the plot, strong, developing positive relations with other women characters. The commercial/art novel would be impossible without such relationships between men: from Ishmael and Queequeg, to Fafhrd and Mouser, to Huck and Jim, to Holmes and Watson, to Nick and Gatsby, such friendships are the form, content, propellant and subject of the novel. I would pause here to state, from thirteen years' distance, that any novel that does not, in this day and age, have a strong, central, positive relation between women can be dismissed as sexist (no matter the sex of the author) from the start.
In short, we have a formulation of The Rule, ten years before it appeared in Bechdel's comic strip. (Or even longer, considering that Delany worked it out in the 1960s.) After more discussion, Delany concluded (page 103):

I still think these parameters are primary. And they still don't go anywhere near far enough!
I don't bring this up to imply something like "See, girls, a man got there first!"; rather something more like Great Minds Think Alike. Delany had been influenced by Hacker.  His account made me wonder how many other writers of either sex had come to the same or similar conclusions about the depiction of female characters. There is, for example, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own from 1929, where Woolf describes an imaginary novel, Life's Adventure by Mary Carmichael, featuring characters Chloe, Roger, Olivia, Tony and Mr Bigham:

And, determined to do my duty by her as reader if she would do her duty by me as writer, I turned the page and read . . . I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind that red curtain over there the figure of Sir Charles Biron is not concealed? We are all women you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these—’Chloe liked Olivia . . .’ Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.

‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA would have been altered had she done so I As it is, I thought, letting my mind, I am afraid, wander a little from LIFE’S ADVENTURE, the whole thing is simplified, conventionalized, if one dared say it, absurdly. Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more. But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in DIANA OF THE CROSSWAYS. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose.
This isn't quite The Rule; but the principle that underlies it is present. (If anyone knows of any other, especially earlier, examples, I'd love to hear about them. The e-mail button is up there...)

Another thing that made me want to write about The Rule was noticing films that conformed to it, though they came from what most people would consider unlikely places. The "conservative" East, for example. When I first saw the South Korean film Blue Swallow (2005), among my many reactions to it was that it passed The Rule with flying colors. A biopic about Park Kyeong-won (1901-1933), one of the first Korean women to become a pilot, it showed Park going to Japan to learn to fly. At the training school she bonded with other young women and discussed the joys of flight and their hopes for their careers. The film was controversial because it dealt with a painful period in Korean history, when Japan colonized and controlled Korea; any ambitious young Korean had to become a collaborator. Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) who later became dictator of South Korea, also trained in Japan.

Park Kyeong-won died when her plane crashed in Manchuria on a propaganda flight. (Jang Jin-young, the actress who played her also died young, of gastric cancer, in 2009.) While Blue Swallow shows Park falling in love with a Korean man (hence the poster image above), as I recall it spends at least as much time on her friendships with other women. It's a very good film in its own right, worth seeing; I like to imagine the two women in "The Rule" stopping off at a video store, picking up Blue Swallow on DVD, and watching it over popcorn. (Image credit)

I've seen a surprising number of other films that conform to The Rule, and I'll probably write about them here in the future.