Have Female Characters Really Progressed Since Back To The Future II?
The Debrief: The lead female character gets put in a bin for the whole film for talking about marriage. What a metaphor for women in 2015.
Today is the 21st October 2015, otherwise known as Back to the Future Day. Today at 4.29 is the moment Marty and the Doc arrive from 1985 in Back To The Future II.
This is it. This is the future. Send in the articles on ‘things the film got right’, the realisation that after today Back To The Future will take place entirely in the past, and the people on Twitter shouting ‘but where are the hoverboards!!’ endlessly into the ether.
It’s a great film. No one’s saying it’s not a piece of cinematic excellence or that Michael J Fox isn’t just the very best guy around, and I don’t want to be Debbie Downer at the fun party, but let’s take a moment, if we may, to look at the opening. The film begins with the closing scene of the first film. Marty McFly has returned from his adventure in 1955 and is reunited with girlfriend Jennifer. Doc crashes the Delorean onto the porch, shouts ‘It’s your kids! Something’s got to be done about your kids!’, puts a banana skin in the engine and bundles both Marty and Jennifer into the car.
That’s crucial here guys, both Marty and Jennifer. Somethings got to be done about their kids.
And so we’re off to the future! We’re going forward to 2015 and the girl gets to go on the adventure, too. Very nice. Very progressive.
This is how her adventure goes:
‘With a sonic boom the DeLorean explodes into the future. Jennifer screams. (Not an unreasonable response, under the circumstances: flying car, close proximity to an elderly mad man, the concept of ‘exploding into the future’)
Doc: We are descending towards Hill Valley, California, at 4.29pm, on Wednesday, October 21st, 2015. (That’s today, guys!)
Then these are Jennifer’s lines:
Jennifer: You said we were married, right? Was it a big wedding? Marty, we’ll be able to see our wedding!
Jennifer: I’ll be able to see my wedding dress.
Then the Doc hits her over the head with a hammer.
They safely land the DeLorean, briefly discuss what to do with Jennifer’s unconscious body and put her in a bin.
This isn’t even really a critique of the film. Like I said, I think it’s excellent and MJF is the absolute bomb, but what a beautiful metaphor for the state of the women in 2015; you think we’re coming on the adventure, too, but then oh look, we’re in a bin.
What’s particularly marvellous about our female lead staying conscious for just shy of three minutes, is that it doesn’t even register. Possibly the only other person who has ever noticed what happens to Jennifer is the actress who plays her, Elizabeth Schue. She probably came home from the massively exciting Back To The Future II table read, flopped on the sofa and said to her housemates, ‘Guys I spend the whole time in the bin.’
While 2015 is slightly better than all female characters staying in bins, our expectations for them remains so low that the Bechdel Test, which began life as a satirical cartoon in a comic strip called ‘Dykes to Look Out For’, is now our genuine measure of how women are portrayed in fiction. The test, like Marty and Jennifer, comes from 1985 and proves that almost nothing has changed.
What are the requirements for a film to pass the Bechdel Test? Does the female character have to have an interesting narrative arc, not gratuitously take off her clothes, make a well-timed political quip, do something cool with a gun, explode something, crack a code, do some magic, save the day, harness her powers for good, abseil, rescue a man, provide a positive role model, dismantle the patriarchy, successfully transition from a day to night time look with the addition of a blazer and/or a statement necklace?
No, she just... has to have a name.
And she has to talk to another woman about something that isn’t a man.
Do you have any idea what a shit and modest test that is? How staggeringly low we have set the bar and how rare it is for a film to clear it? It’s not even really a test, it’s a cartoon from the eighties, which it’s why it’s not infallible. Gravity fails, because Sandra Bullock hasn’t got anyone to talk to in space except George Clooney’s ghost, and shit like Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa passes. But it makes its point loud and clear that when it comes to writing decent female characters, something has gone horribly wrong. Need further proof? Research this year by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that women make up 29% of major characters in film and 30% of all speaking characters. While 61% of male characters were defined by their professions, 34% of female characters were. If you’re still not convinced, then in all the top grossing films between the years of 2007 and 2014 only 11% of films had a gender-balanced cast. Doesn’t it make you want to invent a flux capacitor, go back in time, and change the face of the film industry? Or, at the very least, go and sit in a bin and hide?
In 2012, comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, proposed a more nuanced test for female characters. ‘If you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.’
Any guesses whether Jennifer can be safely replaced with a sexy lamp? Oh yes, a lamp. That’ll fit in the bin no bother. Welcome to 2015 guys.
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