When I review a movie, even in casual conversation, one of the data points I try to remember to give is whether it passes the Bechdel test. (I'd like to pretend everyone I know is acquainted with this, but I know that's false.)
Yeah, she calls it a rule, but I use it as a test--I am perfectly willing to see movies that fail the test, it's just one of the things I think about when I'm reviewing the film. Were there fully-realized women characters (at least as fully-realized as the men characters, that is)? Did they talk to each other, or only to the men? Did they talk about something other than men? Women in the real world exist without reference to men; if all depictions of women in a particular person's body of work only show them in their relationships to some man, I'm going to draw the conclusion that they don't think of women as real people. Real people have their own goals, not just a reaction to some man's goals; real people have interests other than what the male viewpoint character wants from them; real people are not just sexual objects to others.
My friend Brooks Moses links to an excellent review by Kate Harding of the recent movie Mama Mia that includes discussion of the male gaze and shows why I think the Bechdel test is important.
To begin with Ms. Harding explains to reviewers who panned it that those eager filmgoers are eager precisely because we want to be bludgeoned by an ABBA-bomb. Er… something like that. That’s the fucking point. If you like spangled polyester costumes and infectious ’70s pop and middle-aged women cracking themselves up every ten seconds, a turquoise-boa-wrapped ABBA-bomb doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all. And if you don’t like that stuff, what the hell are you doing at Mamma Mia!?
Precisely! But there are other reasons to see it: it's about women, by women, and for women, unlike most movies in general release. And a very particular thing that I know I do, and other women do: get together with our friends and act like we're young again. Or still. Or something.
one of the main reasons I wanted to see Mamma Mia! right away was to support the rare film written, directed, produced by, and starring women — women over 50, at that. And the whole thing surely does have a gallopingly feminine sensibility.
Furthermore, it’s a movie that celebrates older girly-girls in a way that invites younger ones — and men — to the party, but never makes it about them. I read somewhere (possibly in comments here) that Meryl Streep said her twentysomething children will be utterly mortified by her performance in Mamma Mia!, and I can totally see that. It’s not just the singing and dancing — she acquits herself perfectly well on both counts — but that the plot (such as it is) hangs on her really, really not acting her age. [...] But mostly, it’s totally believable that once her besties and old boyfriends show up, Streep’s character instinctively starts acting like she’s in her twenties again. That’s kinda what you do.
And that’s exactly what’s so charming — and transgressive — about the movie. A bunch of fiftysomething women dance around in disco-era costumes, and it’s meant to look like a good time, not a pathetic joke.
Exactly: instead of presenting a normal feminine behavior as alien, other, and so threatening that we must turn it into a joke to relieve the tension, this movie invites us to jump right in and starts dancing around too. Mama Mia turns the tables on the usual movie viewer and invites us to look at the world the way (some) women do; if you want to identify with a character, your only real choices are the women!
For my money, the female gaze is exactly what throws so many male reviewers about Mamma Mia! The movie, as Ebert noted, wasn’t made for them. It’s not just that the poor widdle straight men are forced to watch a bunch of chicks doing chick stuff to an ABBA soundtrack, it’s that they’re supposed to identify with chicks doing chick stuff. They’re supposed to share in the joy when they hear old girlfriends squealing together, imagine themselves on stage rocking “Super Trouper” in sparkly polyester, and fantasize about what they might do with a shirtless Pierce Brosnan. They’re supposed to put themselves in the metallic boots — and behind the eyes — of a bunch of women, taking the same sort of gender-swapping imaginative leap women are expected to make, oh, only about EVERY GODDAMNED TIME WE GO TO THE MOVIES.
There's lots more there worth reading, about presenting the young woman without making her the obvious sex object for men old enough to be her father (and literally likely to be), about accepting our aging selves as still sexy whether we keep it natural or use tools like cosmetic surgery and expensive moisturizers, and so forth.