Vantage Point passes the Bechdel test, but barely.

November 29th, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

Vantage Point (2008)

Last night the Mr. and I watched Vantage Point while we chowed down on our Thanksliving Day feast. (Yes, I realize that Tofurky Day was actually two days ago, but therein lies the beauty of not being married to a holiday – if you choose to “celebrate” it, you can party any mofo day you want. More on that later, though. I have FSMas decorating to do this weekend!)

Without throwing in any spoilers, Vantage Point chronicles the assassination of the US President and the subsequent series of terrorist attacks during an anti-terrorist summit in Spain. The same sequence of events is viewed through the eyes of various characters, including the media, the Secret Service, an American tourist, the local police chief, the President, and the terrorist group. Each “vantage point” offers a different piece of the puzzle, so you’re kept guessing until the final point of view is presented. Clocking in at 90 minutes, it’s a tight, action-packed film; just when the rewind-replay gimmick starts to feel repetitive, the vantage point switches to that of the terrorists, and the whole story is recounted from beginning to end. As long as I leave my feminist hat in the closet, Vantage Point earns an A.

From a feminist perspective, Vantage Point passes the Bechdel test, but barely.

While it’s largely an ensemble cast, most of the primary characters are male:

* All the Secret Service agents are men; Dennis Quaid (as Thomas Barnes) and Matthew Fox (Kent Taylor) are the main “eyes” of the Secret Service, and as the source of the Secret Service’s “vantage point” and the hero of the movie, Quaid can be considered the film’s lead. Another pair of agents share a lesser role, chasing down the local police chief after the assassination and explosions, and there are several additional agents with bit parts.

* Forest Whitaker (Howard Lewis) is the American tourist who captures most of the action on his video camera. He figures prominently in several of the character’s POVs, and is one of the “secondary” heroes of the story.

* Enrique (Eduardo Noriega), the local police chief, is a man. While a bit of a patsy, he also acts heroically, both before and after the attacks.

* Four of five of the terrorists are men. Of these, three of the terrorists have what I consider prominent roles: Édgar Ramírez (Javier), Saïd Taghmaoui (Suarez), and Ayelet Zurer (Veronica). Of all the females in the movie, Veronica is most integral to the plot (and she also commands the most screen time of all the women); however, she’s not given a backstory or her own “vantage point,” since the terrorists share a POV as a group. The only terrorist whose motivation is examined is Javier’s.

* President Ashton (William Hurt) and Mayor De Soto (José Carlos Rodríguez) are both men. (Though, to be fair, the Mayor is only seen introducing the President.) The President is a likable guy, while his staff (again, two men) is most certainly not.

Aside from Veronica, the only other female who takes center stage is Sigourney Weaver as grizzled veteran journalist Rex Brooks. It is through her eyes (representing the MSM as a whole) that we first witness the assassination of the President and several of the later explosions. After the first ten tense minutes (give or take), we see little of Rex throughout the rest of the film. Honestly, I feel a little cheated that Weaver was featured so prominently in the trailers, given her relatively small part in the film.

The movie’s IMDB listing credits 21 male actors vs. nine females. In addition to the aforementioned Ayelet Zurer/Veronica and Sigourney Weaver/Rex, lesser female roles include that of:

* Zoe Saldana as Angie Jones, the correspondent who is actually reporting from the square during the President’s speech. (Rex is coordinating the feeds from a trailer outside the square.)

* Shelby Fenner as Grace Riggs, a technician/assistant to Rex.

* Alicia Zapien as Anna, a young girl separated from her mother (Dolores Heredia/Marie?) during the attacks.

There’s also a female police officer, seemingly directing stampeding traffic outside the square in the wake of the explosions and one female agent (either Secret Service or a local Spanish officer), dressed as a maid in a nearby hotel. These parts are basically ten- and two-second bit roles, hardly worthy of a mention. Several more females are credited on IMDB, but these roles are so slight that I can’t recall the actors at all.

Relatively speaking, Vantage Point offers greater opportunities for female actors than do most action/adventure films. With the exception of Howard Lewis’s wife (whom Whitaker speaks to on the phone; the actress is uncredited), none of the females simply play “…the girlfriend of…” While the cast is by no means balanced to a realistic 50/50, the approximate 30% representation of female characters is better than usual.

And it passes the Bechdel test, but barely:

1. It has to have at least two women in it,

2. Who talk to each other,

3. About something besides a man.

Vantage Point satisfies these conditions early on, when Rex chews out newbie idealist reporter Angie Jones for offering political commentary on the protests (the “sideshow”) instead of dispassionately covering the president and summit (the “main event”): “Save the punditry for someone who’s paid to have an opinion.” This scene includes maybe a dozen lines of dialogue, between two women, about something other than a man. (Or not, if you consider that the dialogue was about a V.I.M., i.e., the President. But that’s a little too cynical, even for me.)

The second conversation, between two women, about something other than a man, also involves Rex; here, she and her assistant Grace talk to one another, again about the news cast.

Other than these two snippets, none of the other six females interact with one another. In contrast, the men discuss a range of subjects with one another: their terrorist activities, personnel matters, the assassination and bombings, their well-being, war and peace, politics, etc. (As her status as a child removes her from the category of “woman,” Anna’s interactions with her mother and the traffic cop don’t count.)

So while Vantage Point does pass “the test,” it by no means aces the exam. Everything considered, I give it a C+. It’s interesting to note, then, that the director mentions in the DVD extras that Rex was initially conceived as a man – which would have resulted in one primary female character (Veronica), and no interaction between any of the women in the film. As they were working on the script, the writer (Barry Levy) and director (Pete Travis) realized – duh! – that they had almost no female characters, hence their re-sexing of Rex.

While I certainly give Travis props for recognizing and remedying his mistake, I’m still amazed that Hollywood makes such mistakes to begin with. Women comprise roughly half the population; no doubt, Travis and Levy (and the like) have mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, wives, etc. And yet.

Are we really that invisible? Where are all the women in these (non-chick) flicks? Confined to the home, barefoot and pregnant, chained to the sinks or draped in burqas? Do they not realize that Hollywood World, with its preponderance of penises, would quickly go extinct?

For once I’d love to see an action movie (or similarly masculine genre) featuring five female cast members for every man. Where men are only allowed representation as boyfriends, husbands, or extras. A film which takes place not in an all-female college, a beauty salon, or some other female-only space, but in the Real World – a world in which you’d expect to see the sexes evenly represented. For once I’d like to take the husband to such a film and show him how absurdly ridiculous films play when they exclude or minimize half the gorram population.

Because Hollywood already does so – but as it’s in favor of men, such slights go largely unrecognized. Not unnoticed, exactly, but unnamed, unchallenged, unchanged. Whether we detect these inequities consciously or not, we all pick up on the underlying message: that women are only useful as wives, girlfriends, secretaries and extras. If we’re good for anything (allowed in the movie) at all.

And so it is that I get all excited when movies like Vantage Point pass the Bechdel test – nevermind that they’re still wildly unbalanced in their depictions of females.

We deserve better, dammit.


Update, 11/29/08:

Dear misogynist fuckwits,

Rather than being “bullshit,” the Bechdel test is the minimum fucking standard that (most) movies should be held to. It’s pretty simple: two women, who utter at least two sentences to one another during the course of 90+ minutes, about something other than teh menses. Like, seriously: two women, two sentences, not revolving around men. That’s a low bar, especially when you consider that almost every damn movie ever made in the history of the world features two+ men, talking to each other, about something other than women. And yet, somehow it’s a huge fucking ordeal for Hollywood to make a film that features two women whose lives do not revolve around men.

I say “most” because, obviously, there will be the odd exception; movies set in all-male spaces, such as an all-male school or such, can be excused for not featuring (m)any female characters, just as movies set in all-female spaces may not have equal male representation.

That said, women do make up a full half of the population – so no, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect to see one woman for every man in movies which take place in gender-neutral spaces, such as a public square in Spain. Perhaps our representation in traditionally male fields such as the Secret Service will be unequal, and perhaps such inequities can be forgiven inasmuch as they represent actual, real world statistics. However, I have higher hopes for films; just as our values shape pop culture, pop culture shapes our values. It would be nice to see so-called liberal Hollywood act in a forward-thinking manner where women are concerned. If you’re threatened by that, perhaps you should build a time machine and regress back to the Dark Ages.

Also, I should point out that I quite enjoyed Vantage Point – if you bother to read my post, I gave it an A. Usually, we feminists have to leave our “PC” ideals at the door when dealing with tv, movies, video games, etc., because we still live in a highly misogynist society. If I were to forgo every film that violates my feminist (let alone atheist and vegan) sensibilities, then I’d probably be stuck with feminist documentaries. So yeah, I liked Vantage Point, and in terms of action films, I give it props for being better than most in terms of female representation. It still falls short, though; doubly so when you hear from the director himself that the second-largest female lead was initially a man. Off the top of my head, I also liked Get Smart, Alien 3, Oceans 11-13 and Paycheck, even though none of these pass the Bechdel test. (Actually, Alien 3 is a good example of a film wherein the Bechdel test may not apply, as it’s set on an all-male penal colony.) Complicated concept, I know, but I can enjoy a film on its cinematic merits while simultaneously finding myself disappointed by its lack of female characters.

And please, before commenting, go here. My blog, my discretion. I pay my own web hosting fees, and I don’t do so in order to give misogynist fuckwits a platform to spew their hatred of women. You’ve got more than enough spaces of your own – this one’s mine.

– A movie-going feminist.

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