Mission: Inequality

What percentage of movies have you seen that meet the following criteria?

  1. contains at least two named male characters
  2. who speak to each other
  3. about something other than a woman

Unless you’ve recently watched Little Women, or Barbie: The Pearl Princess, seems close to 100% right?

We’re approaching the 30th birthday of the Bechdel Test (pronounced bek-dle) which, for those of you who don’t know, is exactly like the test above with a slight variation. In order for a movie (or novel) to pass the Bechdel Test, it must:

  1. contain at least two named female characters
  2. who speak to each other
  3. about something other than a man

The Bechdel Test first appeared in a 1985 comic strip entitled Dykes to Watch Out For by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. According to Wikipedia, “on average, films that pass the test have been found to have a lower budget than others, but have comparable or better financial performance.”


The Origin of the Bechdel Test

Last night I sat down to watch a movie. As Edge of Tomorrow‘s opening scenes unfolded, and Tom Cruise put on his ready-to-flex-some-serious-male-badassery face, I found my mind wandering to the Bechdel Test… just before I found my body wandering away from the screen.

This morning found me entering every one of Tom Cruise’s 43 movies into the Bechdel Test search engine.

Why Tom Cruise, you ask? Well, for starters, I have it on good authority (the highly controversial “Trapped in the Closet” South Park episode) that he suffers from homophobia, which is especially problematic given that he is most likely homosexual; an assumption I surmised from the aforementioned reference, a stylist at Nordstrom who will remain anonymous, and Planet Unicorn.

What we know of him beyond the big screen: three head-scratching marriages, unsolicited medical advice to Brooke Shields, couch jumping, Scientology, etc. depicts a highly motivated, well-intentioned individual with some serious [insert badass face] self-awareness/actualization issues.

I think we both know what this means.

I think we both know what this means.

Basically, the man is a perpetual actor. On and off-screen Tom Cruise pretends to be an American heterosexual male, which could account for the fact that, of the 23 Tom Cruise movies listed in the Bechdel database, only six pass the test.

That’s right folks, only six of Tom Cruise’s movies contain two named females speaking to each other about something other than a man.  Below are some, including Cruise’s top four highest grossing films, which fell short of this litmus test:

  • Top Gun
  • Rain Man
  • A Few Good Men
  • Interview with the Vampire
  • Magnolia
  • Vanilla Sky
  • Minority Report
  • Collateral
  • Tropic Thunder
  • Valkyrie
  • Jack Reacher
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • All four (4) Mission: Impossible films

To be fair, there are several notes on the Bechdel Test website under Edge of Tomorrow defending it’s content. One viewer writes: “May not pass the Bechdel Test, but it really gets a strong female character RIGHT. Rita never loses her agency like so many others do.” Several additional commenters agree with this assessment.

To be fair again, here are the Bechdel Test comments from three of Tom’s six passing movies.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 1.05.46 PM Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 1.15.57 PMScreen Shot 2014-09-25 at 1.17.30 PM









Although it’s never bothered me much that there aren’t more females in the military or running oil companies (will these institutions exist in the same capacity once female intellect is tapped as faithfully as the female body?) the one thing that really frosts my vagipper (pronounced vah-jipp-er) is their lack of representation in the arts. Quick! Name a female classical composer.

As far as I know, in any given geographical area you will find a somewhat equal number of males and females. That said, is there any reason on the planet why art galleries, radio stations, entertainment and book publishing industries shouldn’t offer an equal roster of male and female work?

Here are some stats about female artist representation from Seattle and beyond:

  • What Music Matters most to KEXP? At Seattle’s favorite local, independent radio station… apparently male music. Of KEXP’s top 25 bands played in 2013, 86 musicians were male, and 6 were female. That amounts to .07% (rounding up) female representation. One band out of 25 was female-fronted (Neko Case at #21).
  • According to this 2012 article in City Arts Magazine, “only 5% of the art on display in U.S. museums is made by women, although 51% of U.S. visual artists today are women. In the current edition of H.W. Janson’s textbook, History of Art, only 27 women are represented—that’s up from zero in the 1980s.”
  • This week old article from Slate laments the 9:1 (male to female) ratio of authors nominated for the National Book Foundation‘s 2014 non-fiction award.
  • In the Hollywood film industry, women make up 5% of directors, 14% of writers, 18% of executive producers, 25% of producers, 20% of editors, and 4% of cinematographers, based on a 2014 study published in Screen Daily.

As a music and art teacher, I make it a point to introduce my students to an equal ratio of male to female artists. It takes extra time to seek out female artists who illustrate a given concept, but I do it because I have an equal number of male and female kids in my classes, and I want them all to succeed.

In no way does the quality of the music or art suffer, but my students’ confidence might, should I deny them a proper frame of reference for their dreams.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to treat Tom Cruise as America’s gender equality weathervane. Much like a Hollywood robot; the world’s on-demand, archetypal hetero hero has much to show us about ourselves if we examine his career beyond the immediate entertainment value.

Perhaps the day will come when women in Tom Cruise films are given a psychological and emotional depth equal to and independent of men, then we will know the winds are changing.


Present Perfect

I am blessed with two sisters: one is two years older than I, and one is two years younger. With doses intuitively mindful of efficacy and vital signs, these two women provide me shelter from, and exposure to the realities of life in equal measure.

My younger sister, Aynsley, is a nurse at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. Her work days are filled gathering shreds of human dignity among physical wreckage, and weaving them together over gaping fears of obsolescence. Her accomplishments in the medical field of life improvement are given; the most humane nurse knows that glimpses of the abyss mutate more stealthily and predictably than any infectious disease ever could.

My older sister, Evan, is a documentarian in the midst of producing a film entitled Present Perfect. True to sisterly form, the film studies our society’s questionable approach to aging and death through a most enveloping lens. From the Present Perfect website:

Set in a preschool housed in a retirement home, Present Perfect is a story at once simple and intricate, about the poetry that lies in the day-to-day interactions between the very young and the very old- those at the beginning of life and those nearing the end- and ultimately, what those relationships can reveal to us all about the way we live now.

Still from "Present Perfect"

Still from “Present Perfect”

While traveling through Turkey over the summer, a tour guide pointed out the absence of homeless people. Despite archaic aspects of Turkish society (a woman’s lack of choice in her own marriage, a caravan heralding the circumcision of a seven year old boy) I was stunned by this apparent triumph of civilization.

[Homelessness is primarily urban and inherently difficult to quantify, however recent data suggests that the US has 10 times the number of homeless people per capita as Turkey. NYC has a population of roughly 8 million, with nearly 54k recently documented as homeless, while Istanbul has a population of 14 million with 10k homeless.]

Besides imploding my stereotype, Turkey’s minimal homelessness demonstrates the malleability of cultural landscapes. They seem static because we are standing on them, but in reality cultural landscapes are tectonically shifting positions made of well worn collective wisdom. I imagine a societal norm is born much like a regional cuisine, out of necessity mixed with ingenuity, bubbling up in all it’s messy ethnocentric and communal glory.

If Turkey can show us how to make hummus, can she also show us how to house our people? What would happen to our cultural landscape if everyone had a home?

And what would happen if we were more accepting of aging and death? In Evan’s words:

The inspiration for this film stemmed from a longstanding desire to explore the topic of aging in America. Stepping into most any nursing home, it’s hard to ignore the sense of isolation one feels on behalf of the residents living there, and even harder to reconcile that with the fact that old age will inevitably come for us all. Does it have to be this way


If my experience in Turkey has taught me anything, then I would have to say… no.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Who knows where mindful, mature acceptance of aging will take us? I often wonder if our stubborn refusal to look death squarely in the eye, to absorb it for the intrinsic truth of life that it is, has something to do with our societal addiction to violence and gun culture on one side, and our inability to allow natural death (AND) on the other. A child who desperately needs sleep would sooner thrash about to distraction before laying himself down for a nap.

Present Perfect is a gift, a new and improved recipe, gently stirring us into redeemed humanity.

If you are feeling the groundswell of this shift in collective wisdom, would you consider joining me in supporting this film, either with a donation or by spreading the word?

That we may be free to dance across every stage, here’s to the meaning of life.