[Trigger Warning for discussions of violence against women and rape.]
One of my guilty pleasures is watching crime shows on TV. I explain why I like crime shows in this post, but I am also aware that crime shows have a number of problematic elements. Crime shows are often problematic because of the way they portray, and sometimes sensationalize, violence.
As it is with many topics, feminists have offered a number of views about the use of violence against women as a form of entertainment. Some feminists object to Law and Order: SVU because it sensationalizes violence against women, depoliticizes rape, and paints female victims as liars. Other feminists claim that SVU might have some problematic aspects, but also some redeeming qualities, such as detectives expressing the belief that no woman deserves to be raped. Still other feminists have describe their reaction to SVU as one of ambivalence caused by its mix of progressive and regressive elements.
I recently noticed one episode of Law and Order: SVU that passes the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is named for Alison Bechdel who writes the comic Dykes to Watch Out For. The test is supposed to provide a metric for the development of female characters in a film, TV show or other story. To pass, a film must meet the following criteria:
1) there are at least two named female characters, who
2) talk to each other about
3) something other than a man.
[SPOILER ALERT: Below the fold I discuss the Law and Order: SVU episode “Dirty” (Season 12, Episode 14) and give away the ending]
Indeed, so few films or TV shows pass the test that a website has been created to track those films or TV shows that do pass.
The Bechdel Test is not a measure of whether the film or TV show is feminist. Instead its aims are much more limited. It only tests for the presence of female characters who are minimally well-developed. Jennifer Kesler explains it well:
Many people think the goal is to pass the test, but actually, that’s not it at all.
… These scenes [that pass the Bechdel Test] are stunningly rare.
Make this observation in the context of discussions on how women are represented in the media, and you often get a response like: “Oh, so I’m supposed to shoehorn this stupid scene into my story so the PC police will get off my back?” But that’s a thought process short-circuited. How on earth would inserting a scene as potentially dull as the one described in the comic make a movie less sexist?
The point of the Bechdel test is something else entirely. Upon realizing how rare these scenes are, the average person is stunned enough to wonder precisely why these scenes are so rare?
Answer: because so few movies and TV shows include multiple, developed, relevant women characters who have any part in advancing the story. Imagine how hard it would be to avoid a scene in which two named men chat about something other than women. Why do you suppose that is? Because virtually every movie and TV show contains multiple, developed, relevant male characters who have some part in advancing the story. See?
Female characters are traditionally peripheral to male ones. That’s why we don’t want to hear them chatting about anything other than the male characters: because in making them peripheral, the writer has assured the women can’t possibly contribute to the story unless they’re telling us something about the men who drive the plot. That is the problem the test is highlighting. And that’s why shoehorning an awkward scene in which two named female characters discuss the price of tea in South Africa while the male characters are off saving the world will only hang a lantern on how powerfully you’ve sidelined your female characters for no reason other than sexism, conscious or otherwise.
It’s not that the audience doesn’t want to hear what “women” characters have to say, as one film pro told me… [the article Kesler describes is found here] It’s that we don’t want to hear what’s said by irrelevant, underdeveloped characters who have nothing to do with the plot. If this was the only role 99.9% of male characters were allowed in film, we might get the idea that male characters never say anything relevant, and should therefore just shut up and look hot.
Whether or not your story includes the Bechdel scene says absolutely nothing about whether it’s sexist or not. The measure of sexism is whether your story denies women the opportunity to participate in it.
The point is not to pass the minimum standards of the Bechdel Test. Instead, the point is to include women as participants in the story who help to advance the plot.
Many episodes of Law and Order: SVU fail the test. The show does feature a strong female lead, Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), and she does often talk to rape victims, but these discussions could be considered to be “about a man” since they are usually talking about the assault. Detective Benson often interacts with the medical examiner, Dr. Melinda Warner, but often these interactions are only about the evidence, which could again be considered to be “about a man” for the same reason as above.
Recently, however, they included a plot that was driven almost entirely by the female characters. The episode “Dirty” (Season 12, Episode 14) features Detective Benson teaming up with a detective from another jurisdiction, Detective Saliyah “Sunny” Qadri (Shohreh Aghdashloo), to solve a possible murder/suicide of a of Brooklyn District Attorney, Page Ferguson. Benson and Sunny have a number of interactions about the case and the possibility that someone investigating on the Brooklyn drug squad stole money. The main investigation in the episode is conducted by Benson, with some help from Sunny.
[SPOILER ALERT] Eventually Sunny becomes a suspect, and Benson is involved in a tussle with the feds, over jurisdiction. Again, the person that Benson interacts with is a woman: Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Danielson (Gloria Reuben).
The plot of this episode is driven almost entirely by three women. Benson is the main investigator, the victim in the case is a woman, most of the help she receives in her investigation comes from other women, and the culprit turns out to be a woman. I found the strong presence of women on this episode to be refreshing. These women were interested in their careers and solving the case, rather than talking about men or relying on men to investigate. At least one reviewer disagrees with me and felt cheated because all the detectives were not involved in working this case.
So the episode “Dirty” passes the Bechdel Test, but as I mentioned above, that does not mean it is a feminist episode. I think one point that counts against the episode from a feminist perspective is that the culprit seems to be motivated by her disappointment with “feminist goals.” When Sunny is eventually caught for both stealing drug money and murdering Page, she describes her motives as jealousy and disappointment over a failed career. Sunny is jealous of Page’s success and thinks that Page relied on Sunny’s contacts and and snitches to build her career. Sunny is also disappointed because she gave up having a family for her career, but now finds herself with no family, no future, and a dead career. Sunny hints to Benson that she might find herself in Sunny’s position in 10 years. The explanation for Sunny’s motivation is not very feminist. It relies on tired tropes about the difficulty women have maintaining friendships with other women; a difficulty which is often explained by women’s jealous natures. Further, Sunny’s disappointment is anti-feminist because it suggests that she made a mistake when she decided to focus on her career rather than on having a family: perhaps women should not try to “have it all” because they might end up murderously disappointed if they fail.
So “Dirty” is not a feminist episode, but it is morally complex because it showcases minimally developed women driving the investigation and the plot. A woman is the criminal, and this is rarely seen on TV shows where women are more often portrayed as victims.
Here is the trailer for the episode:
You can watch the entire episode by following this link.
Jennifer Kesler describes how she was taught to write scripts that failed the Bechdel Test when she was at film school.
Kesler also reports on Warner Bros president of production Jeff Robinov who declared, “We are no longer doing movies with women in the lead”.
Kesler debunking the idea that audiences don’t want women as leads in film. Instead, she suggests, audiences don’t take sex-pots seriously, and women are often cast as sex-pots.