Beyond the Bechdel Test: How to Make Hollywood Less Sad Face

viola-davis-800Tatiana Maslany’s recent loss of an Emmy to Viola Davis was, to many, considered a “snub.” Some thought she should win for playing so many different types of people and doing so many different accents over Viola Davis, who became the first African-American actress to win in the drama category for How to Get Away with Murder.

While I love Orphan Black AND How to Get Away with Murder, I couldn’t help but feel like the competition between the two symbolized the changing tides in Hollywood. It’s becoming less of an incredible feat for one white actor to play herself and everyone else, and more incredible for a bold role to be written and authentically played by someone who brings depth and authenticity to it.

Among the few roles that could provide actors of different ethnicities fleshed out characters to play, authenticity in writing and casting is rarely a priority. (Eddie Huang has talked about this in relation to the production of his memoir-turned-sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat.) Beyond ethnicity, there are the countless transgender characters in media, with almost none of those roles going to transgender actors. (Also, is it still “brave” for a straight actor to play an LGBT character?)

Women know what it’s like to be erased from media. Some of the most praised shows and movies in the last fifteen years feel almost absent of women. (I remember watching the movie Snatch and being like … do girls exist in this world at all?) But we can’t criticize how women are represented without acknowledging that women are not a homogenous group. White women enjoy plenty of representation in media, while women of other ethnicities or sexual orientations still feel like they didn’t get the invite.

I read a study recently that revealed that there are almost as many female characters in Hollywood who are aliens or animals than Latina or Asian. (According to the study, in 2014, 74% of female characters in 2014 were white, 11% were black, 4% were Latina, 4% were Asian, 3% were otherworldly and 4% were “other.”) That is the saddest.

The Bechdel test gave us a great start when it comes to figuring some of this out. It makes you realize that some of the female protagonists you loved growing up were basically there to help the male protagonist reach his character arc. Natalie Portman recently admitted this of her “manic pixie dream girl” character in Garden State. (By the way, the same study revealed that only 12% of protagonists in Hollywood are women.) I’m not here to criticize the Bechdel test, or the ingenious Alison Bechdel who created it. I just think we could demand that movies and T.V. shows go beyond women vs. men and acknowledge the many types of identities that are looked over by Hollywood, including different ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations.

When you (and people like you) are absent from movies and T.V. shows, or you’re only there as a token side character, that’s more than annoying. That’s erasing. And when someone like you is finally written into a story, it has to be odd to see them played by someone from a completely different background.

I’m probably not qualified to design whatever that test might be, but open to some suggestions. Have you ever felt left out or misrepresented in media? What do you wish writers or casting directors would try to strive for?



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