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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Sian’s radio recommendation of the week: James Acaster’s Findings

Hello! I am still here and still obsessively listening to radio comedy I promise. This week I’d like to point you in the direction of first episode of James Acaster’s new show on Radio 4, where he details all of his findings about life. This week he looks at wood, aided by Nathaniel Metcalfe and Bryony Hannah, and tells the world what he has found out about it, from clogs to touching wood. It’s wickedly funny and I can’t wait for the rest of the series.

You have four weeks left to listen to it here!

Sian’s radio recommendation of the week: Fresh From the Fringe

This week Radio 4 have put together some of the best comedy from this years Edinburgh fringe festival, all in one handy place. It’s a wide range of different types of comedy, from up and coming comics who you might not discover otherwise to those who have won awards at the festival. Listen out in particular for Rhys James, whose twitter is amazing, Tamar Broadbent and Dane Baptiste. Check it out here.

What If

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is in a dead end job, living with his sister and her son, and his social life has all but evaporated. Life has taught him that love is only an excuse to do awful things, lessons learnt from his parents and a string of failed relationships. That is until he meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan), who seems to be perfect for him.. the only problem is her boyfriend. Wallace and Chantry decide to be friends, but as his best friend Allan (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend Dalia (Megan Park) ask throughout the film – “can men and women really be friends, or do you secretly wanna bang Chantry?”

Often when you watch a romantic comedy, the drive of the plot is the ever approaching realisation of both parties that they need to be together – just look at definitive rom-com When Harry Met Sally. This, as the romantic-comedy has failed and floudnered over the years, can feel pushy and staged. But the dialogue between Wallace and Chantry written by Elan Mastai (and based on T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s play Toothpaste and Cigarettes) is quick, witty and the conversations between Chantry and Wallace feel real and spur of the moment, full of teasing and inside jokes. Radcliffe’s comic timing is spot on, and Chantry’s dialogue is full of comebacks that match that of Wallace, really putting anyone who thinks women aren’t as funny as men in their place. This is a rom-com with actual comedy oozing from all angles – I don’t think there’s an unfunny character in the whole thing.

I did wonder, however, who I was supposed to be rooting for – Wallace and Chantry are supposedly made for each other, but Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) is no bad egg. But maybe that’s the point – that love isn’t an all encompassing force, and there isn’t one solitary person for everyone – it can be a kind of messy affair. At times, the quirkiness did reach overload – do four young women in Toronto really go to a knitting club? Is that a thing? Or is it more movie shorthand for ‘these girls are not like other girls’? Chantry’s animation of a winged fairly girl (really pushing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope to new limits) acts as a link between all the times she’s sad or thoughtful, something which soon wears thin as the animation flies along walls next to her, whenever she begins to question which of the two men at her disposal to choose from.

It’s got some great laugh out loud funny lines, and the chemistry between all of the cast feels very real, but the quirks sometimes err on the irksome.

Also check out the trailer for Horns, Radcliffe’s next film, on what looks set to be a tremendously interesting and exciting career.

Sian’s radio recommendation of the week: The Brig Society

Marcus Brigstocke, who my contemporaries will no doubt remember from the CBBC show Stupid! and radio comedy fans will recognise from The Museum of Everything and The Now Show, is on his second series of The Brig Society, where he is given a thing to be in charge of and talks his way through it, through a combination of stand up and sketches.

In this week’s episode he has a pop at drug dealing, prompting a frank and open (and very very funny) discussion about drugs, legality and usage. Talking about his stint in rehab at age 17 (“I was the youngest person in the country my parents were very proud”), as well as his other addictions and drugs’ impact on art, he manages the ultimate feat: coupling comedy with saying something serious. He’s also helped out by the very funny Rufus Jones, Margaret Cabourn-Smith and William Andrews. It’s cracking stuff.
Catch the episode here.

Radio 4 recommendation of the week: Bird Island

Written by and featuring Katy Wix, Bird Island takes a dry look at life in an Albatross research base in the antarctic. Featuring Julian Rhind-Tutt and starring the magnificent Reece Shearsmith, Bird Island has the measurements just right for melancholic comedy which makes your insides curl up into a ball of embarrassment as you chuckle.
You can catch episode two here and episode three here.