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The Cowboy Test



NRO writer and head-injury victim, Kyle Smith, is having a Aunt Pittypat-style meltdown in response to learning about the Bechdel Test for the first time.

Suppose your favorite film critic started sprinkling his reviews with references to the “Cowboy Test” and made it clear that he was factoring into his appraisal of a work of art whether it contained cowboys. La La Land? Manchester by the Sea? Moonlight? All problematic, as these benighted films contain no cowboys. On the other hand, Cowboys and Aliens, Armageddon, and the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music, each of which contains cowboy characters, would easily pass the Cowboy Test and receive a hearty blessing.

Well, first, I would wonder why an 8-year-old were reviewing movies. And also I’d wonder why Kyle Smith was dropped on his head so many times as a child, I’d ponder how tragic it is and how it’s the only explanation for perhaps the dumbest attempt at an analogy of all time.
You would think this approach to movies a bit odd. It is. But no odder than the Bechdel Test, a feminist litmus test that is currently being thrown around by movie critics as an important way to assess the quality or at least the political correctness of a film.
No. I would find it considerably odder.

Today Bechdel is an over-ground artist, a very big deal. In 2014, she won a MacArthur “genius award.”

Grant. I have no idea why this is in quotes.

Hey, and you know what? Tom Selleck’s Matthew Quigley appears almost immediately in Quigley Down Under. Hurrah, this film breezes through the Cowboy Test by the end of the opening scene!

*long long long sigh*

Neither of these two tests gives you any hint as to the worth of a film, and furthermore neither of them tells you anything about a film’s general feminist wokeness.
Well, if nothing else it tells you whether the film-makers view women characters as anything other than saintly wives or sex objects, and mere appendages to the male characters (who actually get to be complex and interesting).

It doesn’t even tell you whether the film is entirely about a woman. Lots of films that have female protagonists fail the Bechdel Test — notably Alien 3; Run, Lola, Run; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (there is actual heated debate on this one, but if it passes it barely does so); and Gravity. The Princess Bride fails the Bechdel Test, as does Finding Nemo, and some argue that The Little Mermaid does, too. (Again, it might barely earn a passing grade.) Lots of blockbusters with beloved female characters fail the Bechdel Test, including the original Star Wars trilogy, Avatar, and all of the Lord of the Rings films.

I’m starting to get the idea he doesn’t understand the purpose of the test. He literally thinks it’s like a cowboy test. I’m sad.

To give you some inkling of how little the Bechdel Test matters when it comes to filmmaking, consider that Sofia Coppola had never heard of it when asked about it in a recent interview. Coppola is one of today’s most accomplished and acclaimed female directors, and all of her seven films prominently feature women, usually in the main roles. Yet her latest movie, The Beguiled, passes only incidentally.

Yet you’re devoting an entire column to it. Something’s not meshing here.

Movies (at least Hollywood movies) are about people on the extremes of society — cops, criminals, superheroes.
Right. Everybody knows women can’t be cops, criminals or superheroes. In fact, why do women need to be in movies at all?

These extreme characters tend to be men, and men tend to be the ones who create them.

Only men write “extreme” characters, they only write them to be male, and only men should be represented in film. These are interesting theories!

When I began reading this column I thought it might be difficult to exceed the dumbness of the deeply dumb cowboy test analogy, but somehow Smith managed to do it, by wrapping things up with the assertion that, really, women just aren’t very interesting, don’t make exciting art, and, well…read for yourself.
It might be true that there would be more women prominently featured in movies if more women were writing and directing more movies. But it might also be true that the reason there aren’t as many women making films is that women’s movie ideas aren’t commercial enough for Hollywood studios. To be slightly less reductionist than the Bechdel Test, women tend to write movies about relationships, and men tend to write movies about aliens and shootouts. Have a wander through the sci-fi and fantasy section of your local bookstore: How many of these books’ authors are female? Yet these are where the big movie ideas come from. If a woman wants the next Lord of the Rings–style franchise to pass the Bechdel Test, then a woman should come up with a story with as much earning potential as J. R. R. Tolkien’s.
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