The Representation Test: Grading The Top Films of 2014 (So Far)
Earlier this year, we introduced The Representation Test, a new tool for examining the various ways in which films marginalize and underrepresent people. From the lack of women given starring roles to the general invisibility of people with disabilities, the test gives us a way to start a conversation about diversity at the movie theatre – and with the film studios themselves. To contribute to that conversation, I’ve used the test to examine the top five films of 2014 so far (based on how much money they’ve made). These are the most watched new movies of the past six months and, as a result, some of the most culturally influential at the moment (the rankings will continue to change as tickets are bought this weekend). The test is open to some interpretation (as you’ll see below), so please leave comments if I’ve missed something. But regardless, the general picture of Hollywood painted here is a very homogeneous one. Looking at the film industry in this way highlights just how narrow our vision of humanity is on the silver screen, and how much better we can do.
The LEGO Movie
Score: C- (4 points) The biggest movie of the year so far, which has made over $250 million domestically and is based on the popular LEGO brand of toys, does poorly in almost every area of representation (even if it is extremely entertaining). It just barely passes The Bechdel Test (“two named characters who are women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man”) but the women in the story serve only to further the plot of the men. Furthermore, LEGOs are technically “yellow,” but there is only one character in the entire film who can be considered a character of color. The cast of voices confirms this, as Morgan Freeman is the only person of color in a major voice role and he plays ‘Vitruvius,’ who is also the only non-yellow LEGO in the film. The writer and director are both straight white men as well, but at least they’ve acknowledged they can do better in the sequel.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Score: C (4-5 points) Marvel’s Chris Evans starring-vehicle has done well with audiences and critics alike, and I’ll admit, it was fun to watch. But despite major roles for Anthony Mackie, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, the film only manages a “C” on The Representation Test. That’s even if you think it passes The Bechdel Test, which is up for debate (there is one scene where Black Widow and Agent Hill discuss ballistics, but it’s technically in relation to another male character’s death). And with all the violence and fawning shots of muscular men, I didn’t feel it avoided stereotypes of masculinity either.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Score: C- (4 points) Marc Webb’s second Spider-Man film has 1 person of color in a major role, which brings the grand total in his entire series to 2. And though Jamie Foxx is very significant to the plot (as Irfan Khan was in the first), he never interacts with another person of color. Also, though Sally Field is the best aunt on the planet, the film doesn’t pass The Bechdel Test. In fact, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy spends much of the film in the limiting role of “damsel in distress.” The director and all the writers are also straight white men.
Score: C- (4 points) Ken Wattanabe’s presence as a lead character keeps this film from truly failing (you’d think, for a film based on a Japanese classic, they could have found a few more prominent roles for people of color, but I digress). It’s a primarily white and male adventure all the way through though, with women existing almost entirely at the margins.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Score: C+ (6 points) This is technically the highest scoring film in the top 5, but for a movie with so many characters – and with a central plot that is ostensibly about equality and inclusion – it’s disappointing that X-Men doesn’t score even higher. In fact, despite the inclusion of many women with lots of cool powers, this movie actually doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. And though I gave it points for not entirely objectifying the women in the film (they are valued for skills beyond their looks), it’s worth noting how much time is spent panning over Mystique’s body in this film (not to mention the naked woman Wolverine wakes up with in bed at one point). While there are LGBT characters in the comics – including Mystique – there isn’t really a direct reference to that in the movie. And Storm, played by Halle Berry, is the only person of color who gets significant lines in the movie. That being said, there are major characters in the film who are people with disabilities, and director Bryan Singer is openly bisexual, which does separate X-Men from all the other films on this list. Sidenote: Director Bryan Singer is currently facing accusations of sexual assault and abuse.
Score: B (9 points) Based on its current trajectory, Maleficent may end up in the top five very soon (and at least the top 10), which is great news for fans of women-led action adventures. One can anticipate that Maleficent’s success might lead Hollywood to produce more films that not only star women, but include them in storylines that are independent of men. That being said, you might have noticed that Angelina Jolie’s biggest hit to date still doesn’t quite ace the test. I wanted to include it here because it serves as a great example of the many issues we were considering when creating The Representation Test. The film is co-written by Linda Woolverton, gives leading roles to two women and passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, but Maleficent completely lacks any other kind of noticeable diversity. And while it’s true that the film avoids racial stereotypes, that’s because there are no people of color in it with any speaking lines at all (I spotted a few in the crowd scenes). All of which is to say, it’s hard to get an “A” on this test – and that’s intentional. Not every film needs to be about everyone (sometimes, that’s the whole point of a given film), but when is the last time you saw a major blockbuster film starring a woman of color? (Answer: it’s been a while). Or one that wasn’t directed by a white man? (Answer: probably not this year). So you can make individual arguments for why each of these films was cast or written the way that they were, but when taken as a whole, it’s undeniable that there is a lack of inclusiveness in the film industry. The Representation Test is just one way of discussing this issue, holding Hollywood more accountable and making sure a wider variety of stories are told in the future.
Written by Imran Siddiquee at MissRepresentation.org. Follow him on Twitter @imransiddiquee