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Art, Freedom, and The Bechdel Test

Hamlet Tennant


"They tell us that art is a mirror—a mirror held up to nature. I think this is a false image...In a society like ours, art is not a mirror but a hammer. It is a weapon in our hands to see and say what is right and good and beautiful, and hammer it out as the mould and pattern of men's actions."
-John Grierson, "Art In Action," 1940

"Dear Mr. Polking,
My answer to your question ‘Does the writer have a social responsibility’ is:
-Vladimir Nabokov, letter to Kirk Polking, June 13, 1969

"In the simplest terms, art humanizes. It opens the circuit of empathy. And once that process happens, it's that much harder to think of people as part of a policy or a statistic. Art reverses the alienation that can creep into society."
-Questlove, "Does Black Culture Need To Care What Happens To Hip Hop," Vulture, May 27, 2014

John Grierson, a Canadian writer and documentary filmmaker, was not the originator of the above cited observation. Leon Trotsky says something very similar in his 1924 Literature and Revolution, framing it too in a "they say," or more specifically, "it is said" formulation, which raises the question, just WHO is it that says, or said, art is a mirror in the first place. Well, as it happens, the instruction to hold, "as it were," a mirror up to nature, is given to the players by Hamlet in Act 3, scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s play named for its title character. So this is Hamlet’s opinion, not necessarily the playwright’s. I don’t know if it was Tolstoy’s. I do know that many think, whether consciously or not, that art should be a mirror, and not just any kind of mirror. Some want a pleasant mirror, in the form of "characters to relate to." Some want to see people like themselves. When unpleasant things are shown, they should be shown instructively: What is Louis C.K. trying to tell us? This notion abuts that of Questlove, who seeks a salve to alienation. For some, the fact that we seek a salve to alienation begs the question as to whether alienation is a necessary facet of our existence. Can we even imagine a world in which it is not at play?

Nabokov’s all-caps "No" to the question of the social responsibility of the artist doesn’t take alienation into account. Those familiar with Nabokov’s other work and his overall philosophy know well his arguably imperial approach to the creative act. His rejection of "social responsibility" is of course tied to his hatred of communism as embodied by not just Stalin but Lenin, and, sure, Trotsky. But it is also tied to philosophical precepts articulated by Bergson and others. Nabokov’s freedom from social responsibility is a freedom of consciousness rather than a form of physical freedom; he articulates this best in his fiction, perhaps, at the end of his Invitation To A Beheading, where his protagonist Cincinnatus rises and walks from the site of his execution and makes "his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him." It is perhaps worth keeping in mind that Nabokov wrote Invitation well before the success of Lolita was able to buy him a substantial amount of material freedom, the ability to house the fortress of his imagination in a Swiss hotel suite, whence he made his 1969 pronouncement to a curious magazine editor who offered Nabokov a commission to write a 2,000-word essay on the above-mentioned subject. Nabokov concluded his response to Polking with "You owe me ten cents, Sir."


"Don’t you know that you are free/or at least in your mind if you want to be."
—Sly Stone, "Stand," performed/recorded by Sly and the Family Stone, May 1969

"Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV/And you think you’re so classless and clever and free/but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see."
John Lennon, "Working Class Hero," 1970

"After this I saw multitudes forced from the land/cleared away for the wool/dispossessed refugees who were told they were free./Free to starve, or to slave, free to choose A or B as we offered: to labor or die./I saw cities explode with this freedom and covered my eyes."
—Chris Cutler, "Freedom," performed/recorded by Art Bears, 1981

"Basically the reason no one talks/thinks about freedom these days is that it is almost inconceivable."
Larry Gross, screenwriter and essayist, on Twitter, June 9, 2014

We keep hearing about this book, by a French fellow, wherein he lays out the facts about income inequality and how bad it is, and we hope that now that the political class knows about this, that they’ll get to work on doing something about it. In the meantime, we’re free: free to post on Instagram and Twitter, free to read recaps, free to binge watch.

"Resistance here doesn't mean revolution. It doesn't mean storming the barricades. Resistance means using art for the things that it does best, which is to create human portraits and communicate ideas and forge a climate where people of different races or classes are known to you because they make themselves known."
—Questlove, Vulture


Over the past couple of years there has been a good deal of lively debate in print and on line about the so-called Bechdel Test. Just as Shakespeare did not himself demand that art hold up a mirror to nature, so too did the cartoonist and writer Allison Bechdel not demand that in order to be deemed acceptable, every narrative work of art, particularly cinematic, that she encountered had to contain a conversation between two women in which the subject of men was not broached. Bechdel had one of her characters make this requirement/stipulation, and the punchline was that, in the specific instance described by the character, Ridley Scott’s "Alien" ended up being the way to go, but the irony was that the two female characters in that film discuss the title monster.

"The category of children’s films has of course always existed. The ‘80s variant is the curious and disturbing phenomenon of children’s films conceived and marketed largely for adults—films that construct the adult spectator as a child, or, more precisely, as a childish adult, an adult who would like to be a child."
—Robin Wood, "Papering The Cracks: Fantasy and Ideology in the Reagan Era," in Hollywood From Vietnam To Reagan, 1986

The above is how Robin Wood, the late film critic and academic, begins a systematic breakdown of the ideological construction of the first three "Star Wars" films, Steven Spielberg’s "E.T.," and more. He is aware of the potential quagmire into which he steps:

"To raise serious objections to them is to run the risk of looking a fool (they’re ‘just entertainment’ after all) or, worse, a spoilsport (they’re ‘such fun’)."

These days, in the discourse of popular culture, nothing is JUST entertainment, but EVERYTHING must be fun. And popular, although the fragmentation of platforms has redefined popularity itself. Still. The difficult stuff, the stuff that doesn’t make the "fun" requirement, gets relegated to a ghetto now called snobbism. (This is one of many reasons why ostensibly feminist culture commentators are more interested in Taylor Swift than Annette Peacock, say.) This leaves us free to debate just how adolescent we’d like our culture to be, e.g., ought we read "adult" books as a teenager would (what did I learn from Updike, what was he trying to tell me?), or should we just give up and read YA as adults because that has its value too, and what ought we be embarrassed by?

"It will scarcely be surprising that they—as it were, incidentally and obliquely—diminish, defuse, and render safe all the major radical movements that gained so much impetus, became so threatening, in the ‘70s: radical feminism, black militancy, gay liberation, the assault on the patriarchy." —Wood

The movements Wood laments the loss, or diminishment of, have seemingly returned, and to the mainstream even. And real milestones have been passed with respect to gay liberation, at least. But there’s been a dilution; the values represented by these movements have been both commoditized and marginalized in that they are only deemed important if the operate within a pop culture context, or matrix, if you will. It’s more comfortable than what we understand a genuine radicalism to be. This is why Questlove, who plays with the house band on a television chat show that recently excised a remark by Shailene Woodley about women’s image issues that the audience found sufficiently alienating to boo the actress, wants resistance rather than barricade storming. Empathy is a great thing, but do we really gain it through pop culture? Or do we just posture and preen about our good intentions? Are we debating, to the point of rage, the color of the curtains, so to speak, while the same interests that have been running our lives forever continue to do so.

"Thus, the project of the Star Wars films and related works is to  put everyone back in his/her place, reconstruct us as dependent children, and reassure us that it will all come right at the end."  

"There seems to be a growing misconception that any film that fails the Bechdel test is inherently ‘bad.’ If a film fails the test it simply means female characters have no meaningful presence outside of their interactions with men. That could be because a film treats women as sexual objects (the James Bond franchise), it could be because the film depicts a few isolated women struggling to find a place in a male-dominated world (The Lord Of The Rings), or it could be because the film is simply telling the story of a group of men (Saving Private Ryan). These examples offer vastly different depictions of women and one could argue for their success or failure as "feminist" stories. What the Bechdel test does tell us is that these films are not interested in showing women interacting with other women, and that is on par with a larger trend in Hollywood."
—Caroline Seide, "The Bechdel Test Is Just Fine The Way It Is," The AV Club, May 1, 2014

Is the website Total Film self-trolling when it publishes a listicle that cites the "do you eat ice cream" conversation in "Little Miss Sunshine" as "passing" the Bechdel Test?

"What the Bechdel Test does really well is provide a bellwether, a general indicator of how the wind is blowing. It's the start of a process. And once the number of films that pass goes up, on the whole, then the real work can begin."
—Charlie Jane Anders, "The Bechdel Test Is More Important Than You Realize," io9, June 4, 2014

Nowadays, nobody wants to destroy Hollywood. That would be ugly. Not to mention impossible. But, it’s "important" to make Hollywood "less sexist." So we can feel more comfortable in our chains or pods or whatever you prefer to call them (free to starve, or to slave; free to pay a hundred bucks for headphones made out of nine dollars’ worth of electronics, in China, by what we choose to perceive as a labor force just somewhat less well off than our own), because we have a better, nicer, more "representative" mirror to dwell on/in.

"Please send me evenings and weekends."
—Gang of Four, "Return The Gift," 1979/2005

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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