Bechdel Test Fest presents: Reclaim the Rom-com

I was lucky enough to get free tickets for the launching of the Bechdel Test Fest, hosted at the wonderful Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel by Corrina Antrobus. In the first of what looks like a great schedule coming up we examined the merits and pitfalls of romantic comedies as a genre, and questioned: can rom-coms ever be feminist? There is, inherent in the genre of rom-coms, feminist potential. A group of women go to the cinema together, to see these films, share these stories. Why then, can they not manage, on the whole, to match up to the real lives of the women going to see the films?

First up, a love note to Genesis Cinema.

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I believe that the kind of cinema you watch a film in has an impact on how you view a film; the customer service you receive, the environment inside, the price of a ticket. Genesis cinema has the feel of a cinema that truly loves film, with wonderful posters everywhere, coffee in abundance and a great bar area upstairs – where we were seated, ready and waiting to reclaim the rom-com.

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We started with Obvious Child, starring Jenny Slate as recently dumped stand-up comedian Donna, who finds herself pregnant after a one night stand with Max (Jake Lacy). It’s a very frank and open story of pregnancy and abortion, and feels like the most real film about abortion to come out of the world of cinema. But I hope that’s not the only thing that anyone viewing this film takes from it, because it shouldn’t just be defined by its wonderful depiction of abortion. As well as that, it’s genuinely laugh out loud funny with a great script, as well as having genuinely heartfelt moments. Jenny Slate is amazing and, fun fact, she really was a gigging stand-up when she was approached to star in the film. The film also manages to depict how a comic’s life affects their routine, and what baring your soul on stage in the name of comedy can do. Obvious Child is a love story, yes, but it’s also about learning to love yourself and allowing yourself to be loved at difficult times in your life, whether that be by your friends, lovers or parents.

It seems to subvert many rom-com tropes; Donna is the character who needs to grow up, prepare for commitment or love, whilst Max, the male love interest, is the one who seems to have his life together and is the character who pushes for more of a romantic relationship. Plus, post watching the film I have been listening to Paul Simon on repeat non-stop and dancing around in the endless hope I will become Jenny Slate.

Following the film was a discussion from a panel featuring film academics and journalists; Corrina Antrobus was joined by Chloe Angyal, Alice Guilluy and Simran Hans.

In case you’re unaware, the Bechdel Test was developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, as a joke about how the test for if movies ‘pass’ should be if they have two named female characters who have a conversation that isn’t about a man. It was created 30 years ago, and has, especially in recent years, become feminist film critic’s calling card. However the panel, whom I quite agree with, were keen to point out that the test is merely a starting point. It doesn’t mean a film is feminist and there are many feminist films which wouldn’t pass, like Gravity and 10 Things I Hate About You, that could still be considered feminist. It is, in the grand scheme of all things that go on in film making, a low bar to try and pass, and when films fail it highlights more than anything just how few female characters there are in movies.

Interestingly, it was pointed out that romantic comedies in general are some of the most belittled films in popular culture – because they are designed for women. Because of this they’re seen as low culture or ‘guilty pleasures’. This discrediting of culture for women is a sad trend, but films like Obvious Child suggest that genuinely great and funny movies can be made, not just for women, but about women. It seems it is thought that films about women are for women only, and men couldn’t possibly enjoy them, whilst all other films should be endured by men and women alike. It’s also a trope that you find in comedy, with female comics getting turned down for gigs because there’s already a woman on the bill, or being thought of as just funny to women – as though gender has an impact on what you find funny or not.

But, in 2015, we still have a sexist pop culture. This, the panel argued, means that the perfect feminist piece of film could not exist, because sexism is inherent in the film industry. A part of this problem of there not being one ‘perfect’ feminist rom com is that there is no one feminist. Not all women are the same is very much the point of feminism, but feminists get grouped together under one umbrella of set opinions, despite being composed of different women with different views, experiences, and opinions. What one woman might consider to be a piece of feminist cinema might be another’s worst nightmare. We are all human and taste is subjective; this is still true if you happen to believe that men and women should be equal.

And when we do get rom-coms that don’t appear to tick our feminist film boxes it seems to be more of an issue than when it happens with big blockbusters or action movies, as though only rom-coms should be put under the microscope; as to why this might be I’m afraid I have no answers. Perhaps because rom-coms are the one genre that focus more on women’s stories it shows all the more when these female characters are unbelievable, two dimensional or forever repeating the same blueprint.  

The second film shown was The Philadelphia Story, re-released in cinemas this week and starring the indomitable Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, a woman caught in a love triangle in the run up to her second wedding. Also featuring Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, the film was based on the Broadway musical of the same name and was released in 1940, at the height of the screwball comedy trend. It has great female characters who never stop matching the men in their wit or charm, such as the wise-cracking younger sister of Tracy played by Mary Nash, and the photographer working on a piece about the wedding, played by Ruth Hussey. These are all well developed and realistic female characters that you leave the film feeling like you know in a way that I don’t think you get from a lot of female characters in contemporary film.

The Bechdel Test Fest is going to go on and host more events, celebrating women on film and they’ve got some great events coming up. It’s a wonderful platform and I’m so pleased this is something that’s being discussed in a fun and entertaining way. Check out their Facebook and website.

The Bechdel Test asks that films have more than one named female character. All I ask from films is that they show me real women, in real situations, having real conversations. I want to see something recognisable on screen.

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