In my last post, I talked about how frustratingly difficult it is to find modern wide-release movies for adults that embrace mercy as a critical theme.
This week, I want to celebrate the positive, taking a look at a few relatively recent wide-release movies that get mercy right. I'm also going to expand the net to some favorite books and short stories, because . . . well, I'm a short story writer. It'd be silly not to talk about books on a writing blog.
Something I particularly appreciate is that in most of these stories, the recipient of mercy has genuinely done something horrid. Showing mercy and compassion to a dying, destitute Fantine is absolutely laudable, but it's much, much harder to show mercy to the kid who just blew up your entire planet.Captain America: Civil War (2016).
Since this one just came out, I don't want to say too much for fear of spoilers. Suffice it to say that a character embraces forgiveness over vengeance in a way that feels fully earned, without any of the weird macho "I forgive you and the horse you came in on" posturing of a lot of other movies. What's more, because we love both Cap and Iron Man, we genuinely want to see them reconciled rather than watching them pound each other to a bloody pulp. It's a lovely thing when a movie makes you wholeheartedly root for mercy rather than appealing to that nasty bloodthirsty part of your heart that just wants to see the bad guy die in a thousand horrific ways. Even if we think that either Cap or Iron Man is dangerously wrong, we can't help empathizing with them both.X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).
On the one hand, I kind of wish this movie had embraced mercy for its own sake rather than taking the approach of "if we let Mystique assassinate this horrible person, the world will become a nightmarish dystopia." On the other hand, I get that a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster needs epic stakes, and "prevent the world from becoming a nightmarish dystopia" is easier to sell than "save Mystique's soul." Even taking the movie on its own terms, it's a far more interesting story to save the word by sparing the life of a truly odious human being than by rescuing a saintly Professor X type (or, heaven forbid, yet another story where they save the world by blowing up a doomsday device). It may not be all the way to loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you, but it's darn close, and that's a rare thing.Les Miserables (2012). The list of merciful films that kicked off these blog posts
had the 1935 version of Les Miz,
but the musical is always going to have a special place in my heart, and this is, after all, about recent movies. (The 2012 adaptation is especially welcome in light of the 1998 abomination that ends with Valjean witnessing Javert's suicide and skipping away with a huge smile on his face.) The Bishop of Digne's mercy toward a Valjean who certainly didn't deserve it at that point, Valjean showing compassion and love to Fantine and Cosette rather than looking the other way, Valjean saving a stranger from imprisonment and condemnation at the expense of the life he's made for himself, an antagonist who is essentially the personification of justice without mercy--they all combine to make one of the most stirring testaments to mercy that I've ever seen.The Phantom of the Opera (2004).
At its heart, Phantom
is Gothic horror, and Gothic horror loves heroines whose mercy can get through to a monster. (See also Mina Harker; her redemption of Renfield is one of my favorite parts of the novel, and it sadly tends to get passed over in adaptation.) The Phantom doesn't let Christine and Raoul go because Raoul beats him in a duel or because Christine screams at him until he realizes that she will never love him, but because Christine shows him love and compassion for the first time in his life--and that makes him realize how wrong it is to imprison her.
Of course, one could point out that Gothic stories should have allowed women to kick butt as well as being merciful saints. This is absolutely true--but it's a two-way street, and I'd like to see more men being merciful saints in addition to kicking butt.
(Side bar: I'm going with the 2004 version because it meets the criterion of "wide-release movie," not because I'm trying to make a statement about whether it, the 2011 live version, or the original cast recording is better.)
I'm casting the net on merciful spec fic stories to include classics as well as recent fare, because otherwise this list is going to be embarrassingly short. Either mercy is rare as a major component in spec fic (which would surprise me, since literature can take more risks than wide-release movies can) or I've been reading the wrong books."The Other Foot" by Ray Bradbury.
Ray Bradbury's fiction runs the gamut from joy to whimsy to melancholia to horror, so it's no surprise that mercy works its way in there, too. His final novel, Farewell Summer,
had a reconciliation between the town's rambunctious trouble-making boys and the crotchety old man, but I unfortunately can't remember any details. Everything about the end of that story is eclipsed in my memory by the scene where the old man and the lead boy have heartfelt conversations with their penises (no, really).
But the theme of mercy comes through most starkly in "The Other Foot," one of the few beams of light in the almost oppressively dark anthology The Illustrated Man.
An all-black colony on Mars discovers that white settlers are coming, and the colonists are prepared to get revenge by instituting some reverse Jim Crow laws--until they discover that Earth has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust and the lynching trees have burned to ash. There are racially problematic elements in this story, to be sure; as this essay
points out, there are issues with the feel-good white wish fulfillment stories of black people "transcending" the wrongs done to them and forgiving white people willy-nilly. But Bradbury has also written lesser-known stories that refuse to let white people off the hook. If you're interested in reading some of these stories, check out his realistic fiction anthology The Cat's Pajamas.
In addition a downright vicious revenge story about a white man who rapes and murders a black woman and draws the wrath of some local carnies, it features a story about a cold-hearted white man with no regard for the black housekeeper who essentially raised him; Bradbury admits in the anthology's introduction that this character represents his own worst fears about how he'd treat his housekeeper if he met her again. Taken in light of Bradbury's other stories, "The Other Foot" is a plea for mercy that he's not entirely certain any white person, including himself, deserves.Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.
Up until the last chapter, Ender's Game
is a bizarre non-example. It's one of the only works I can think of in any medium that starts out by embracing empathy without compassion--Ender completely loves and understands his enemies so he can crush them into the dust. (Yes, he thinks killing the buggers is a game. That doesn't change what he does to Stilson and Bonso.) Like its opposite, the compassion without empathy that we see in "poverty porn,"
this has little to do with genuine mercy. In the end, however, we get to see Ender using his love and empathy to save lives rather than end them, and the buggers show mercy and forgiveness to him as well.
Although I'm talking about adult media here, I have to give an honorable mention to Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver.
YA books tend to bring in mercy as a major theme, in part because their target audience is in the process of learning that there are few card-carrying villains in the world. Before I Fall,
a cross between Mean Girls
and Groundhog Day,
is my favorite example of this. Popular, bitchy Sam Kingston enters a repeating time loop that causes her to reevaluate the way she treats her family, her teachers, and her peers. Too often, when we see the "mean kid learns not to be mean" character arc, it ends with the protagonist going from one kind of bully to another; instead of taunting and humiliating nerds, she taunts and humiliates her shallow former friends. Before I Fall
doesn't shy away from how unconscionably cruel Sam and her friends can be, but it also constantly reminds us that they're acting out on very real pain of their own. In fact, the loops that make her feel worst about herself are the ones where she lashes out at her catty best friend or jerk boyfriend in ways that would have been played as stand-up-and-cheer moments in lesser books. Sam's growth isn't complete until she learns to show mercy to all her peers, no matter how undeserving.
Am I forgetting any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments!
In my previous post about the Bechdel test,
I mentioned that there was a fourth type of story that can be an acceptable Bechdel fail: a story where masculinity and/or the marginalization of women are critical themes. If your story is all about different definitions of what it means to be a man, most if not all women are only going to exist as foils for the male characters. A lot of crime novels by writers like George Pelekanos and Richard Price fall into this category; they're about criminals and the cops who chase them, but they're also about seeing who's biggest and all the different rulers you can use to get those measurements. Similarly, if your story is about the fact that women tend to be separated from other women or reduced to their relationships with men, you're going to demonstrate that by . . . separating your female characters from other women or only having them talk to each other about men. Several episodes of Mad Men
flunk the Bechdel test spectacularly, but it's clearly by design, to the point where more than one critic has described it as "TV's most feminist show."
I'm mostly going to be focusing on stories about masculinity here rather than stories about the marginalization of women. Chances are that if you're going out of your way to write a story about the marginalization of women, you're also going to go out of your way to write the women well. We'll get to that in a minute. I want to talk about the question of masculinity first, because things get incredibly
tricky there. For one thing, some writers claim to be about "definitions of what it means to be a man" when they're actually about "definitions of what it means to be a human being;" the male writer doesn't realize that the issues he thinks are specific to masculinity are actually pretty universal. Joseph Campbell is our most facepalm-inducing example here. When asked what a Heroine's Journey might look like to complement his Hero's Journey, he replied, "Women don't need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize she's the place people are trying to get to." So . . . personal and spiritual growth and struggle are unique to men, apparently.
This one of the more egregious examples of this mindset, but it isn't the only one. If you think your story is uniquely male, try talking about the themes with some of the women in your life. If they're nodding enthusiastically and sharing their own experiences, it isn't uniquely male. They've been there.
But some stories really do work better with men. Breaking Bad
is a good example here; it just wouldn't have the same punch without Walter White's sense of thwarted masculinity bouncing off Jesse's feelings of impotence and Hank's macho posturing. As mentioned, crime novels and shows like The Wire
fit here as well--criminal groups usually have a culture of toxic masculinity, and the cops can be held up either as a positive counterexample or a cynical mirror group that's nearly as toxic as the crooks. Also, the more we have stories like these that deconstruct traditional notions of what it means to be a man, the more we need stories to build up new visions of masculinity in their place. As male-dominated as stories tend to be, we still need
good stories about men and manliness if we're going to have examples of how to be a man who doesn't adhere to some strict macho role.
So let's say you're writing one of those stories, but you're worried that women are absent or underused. Are there any themes other than masculinity that the women can represent? This is one of the areas where Breaking Bad
drove me bananas, as much as I loved it. One of the crucial themes was masculinity, but another crucial theme was family, so the relationship between Skyler and Marie really should have been more important. The show flirted with this in early episodes but basically shoved their relationship (and most attempts at character development for Marie, for that matter) under a rug. The show frustratingly failed the Bechdel test more often than not. It didn't have to. Skyler couldn't act as a parallel to Walter on the theme of masculinity, but she could have acted much more strongly as a parallel or foil to him on the theme of family. (I'm curious about whether Anna Gunn would have gotten more or less hate mail in this alternate reality . . .)
You may still find yourself in a situation where men are ruling the roost and flunking the Bechdel test because of your story's themes. There are plenty of examples of this happening--The Godfather
and all those crime novels come to mind, although The Wire
doesn't thanks to Kima and her girlfriend. (And possibly Ronnie. Do Ronnie and Kima ever have a conversation that isn't about a man?) Unfortunately, I can't get into a lot of detail on these kinds of stories because I don't enjoy them very much. Men don't tend to read Jane Austen even though she's a great novelist, and if they do read her, they don't tend to enjoy her as much as women do. I wonder if I'm the only woman who secretly thinks The Godfather
is hella overrated because it's too darn butch for me. If you're writing something aggressively masculine, you risk alienating half your potential audience. That's fine--everyone knows you shouldn't write something with the sales figures in mind--but please know it going in, because I'm tired of the conventional wisdom that everyone enjoys boy stories.
Ahem. Anyway. As I was saying, if you're absolutely in a situation where the men are ruling the roost because of your story's themes, though, your best bet is to go out of your way to make sure your women are interesting characters with agency.
Of course, you should make sure that all of your characters are interesting--no one sits down at their desk delighted at the thought of writing a really boring character today--but if you have an engaging female character from the start, you'll gain a lot of trust and traction with your women readers. The Wire
gets a lot of flak for its female characters, but to my mind it does this right; I may not typically enjoy macho stories, but I'm one of those annoying Baltimoreans who will talk your ear off about The Wire.
Kima's an obvious reason why--I don't know if I would have had as much initial buy-in with the show if Kima hadn't been such a fantastic character, with a personal life and strengths and flaws just like all the men--but even minor characters who really do exist solely as foils for the men tend to pull this off beautifully. Our Barksdale gang Mother of the Year winners Brianna Barksdale and De'Londa Brice mainly exist to show some of the poisonous ways that family affects gang life, but you can understand how each one sees herself as the heroine of her own story--and Brianna in particular is as nuanced and interesting as any of the male criminals. Perhaps best of all, when a first season episode gives us a fairly typical scene of how disposable women are in gang life--a stripper, Keesha, overdoses at a party and her body is thrown in the Dumpster--it goes in a completely different direction than these scenes usually do. Rather than being used as a cheap shock moment, or something that kicks off a man's soul-searching journey of self-discovery, it leads to another woman's
soul-searching journey of self-discovery as gang girlfriend Shardene realizes that Keesha's fate could have been her own. She ends up taking actions that critically change the course of the first season because, like Brianna and De'Londa, Shardene is the heroine of her own story.
So is everyone, including your female characters. Even if your story is a necessary Bechdel fail, the best way to keep it from being sexist is to treat them that way. Your sole female character may only be onscreen for twenty pages of a three hundred page novel, but if you know exactly who she is, why she's there, and what she thinks about the events going on around her, you'll be
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go rewatch The Wire.
Recently, I read a post by a certain cantankerous conservative writer who had discovered the Bechdel test
for the first time. I don't know if he genuinely misunderstood the purpose of the Bechdel test or was just drumming up outrage, but his basic reaction was what you'd expect: "The SJWs want to stop you from reading Melville and Shakespeare because they don't pass a feminist purity test!"
Yes, that's ridiculous. We know that isn't what the Bechdel test is about. The trouble is that sometimes, it's hard to grok what the Bechdel test is
about, at least in a way that makes it useful for writers. As others have pointed out, the test is more useful to analyze patterns of female presence in media than to assess whether a specific piece is feminist or sexist (this essay
does a nice job of laying out that argument). This is handy for critics, but as writers, we are
trying to figure out whether specific works are feminist or sexist--specifically our own. As someone who's actively trying to build more diversity into her work, I can understand why even well-meaning male writers sometimes scratch their heads over whether it's OK for their works to fail the Bechdel test, since Gravity
and Saving Private Ryan
do it and are fine (yes, some people complain about Saving Private Ryan,
but they're trolls). While 90% of Bechdel fails are straight-up lazy (why was the galaxy far, far away swimming in testosterone until this past December, and why do Skyler and Marie have so little to talk about other than their husbands?), some are fine or even downright necessary. Which ones?
For my money, acceptable Bechdel fails fall into two major categories:
- False negatives--works that technically fail the Bechdel test, but whose awesome female characters have very, very good reasons for not talking to each other (or whose single awesome female character has a good reason for not talking to other women). Gravity is probably the most frequently cited example here, but my personal favorite is "The Yellow Wallpaper." When an influential feminist work is a Bechdel fail, you know that it was never meant as a one-size-fits-all litmus test.
- Stories that are male-dominated by necessity. Saving Private Ryan is a good example here; it would be pretty darn hard to sneak women into a movie about a platoon of men in World War II.
I'm going to talk about false negatives in a later post because I love that kind of hair-splitting insanity, but that's more of an intellectual game than a useful discussion. Here, I'm interested in talking about male-dominated stories. I can think of four kinds of male-dominated stories that make for perfectly acceptable Bechdel fails. One of them--stories in which masculinity and/or the marginalization of women are major themes--has so many caveats that it's going to be the subject of Part Two. I'm detailing the other three below. Each one has circumstances in which it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the failure, and each also connects directly to a similar but more woman-focused story that we don't see enough.Adaptations.
If you're riffing on source material that doesn't prominently feature women, your adaptation might not, either. A short story riffing on Hamlet
from Claudius' point of view is probably going to treat Gertrude and Ophelia as separately as the actual play does.But . . .
the more you depart from the source material, the less justifiable this becomes. A straightforward riff on Hamlet
is one thing; Hamlet IIIIIIIIN SPAAAAAAAACE!
is another. If you're dramatically changing the setting, plot, or theme of the work you're adapting, you can probably stand to gender-flip a few characters. The same is true of adding subplots. 1 and 2 Samuel don't pass the Bechdel Test, but both Kings
and Of Kings and Prophets
do because the writers added subplots for the women as well as the men. If the work has both male and female characters and you're only interested in fleshing out the men, ask yourself why.My wish list . . .
Really, the "but" paragraph covers this one. I'd love to see more adaptations of the classics that engage the women, particularly if it's an adaptation written by someone who actually has a decent grasp of both the source material and the way women talk to each other. It would also be terrific to see more interesting gender flips. If no one ever gender-flipped characters in adaptations, we wouldn't have Kara Thrace. I don't want to live in that world.Stories with setting limitations.
I mentioned Saving Private Ryan
above. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
is another good example. Sometimes your story is set in a time and place that only features men.But . . .
this only goes as far as the historical accuracy of your story. A realistic story about a group of World War II soldiers trying to find another and bring him home? That's a completely justifiable Bechdel fail. A story where the soldiers are fighting clockwork Nazis? Less so. When the only historical fact you're setting in stone is the race and gender of the people who are likely to be involved, you're on shaky ground. My wish list . . .
The obvious answer here is more stories about women's equivalents to these male settings (wouldn't it be great to have an Orange is the New Black
set in a women's prison for every Shawshank Redemption
set in a men's prison?). What I'd love even more, though, would be more stories about what the women were doing while the men were off at war during these historical periods. Why have we not had a series about the women getting their Rosie the Riveter on during World War II? Why is it that I can't think of a single movie about what the women were doing during World War II except A League of Their Own?
For that matter, what about all the women during the Middle Ages who had to handle their households during the Crusades? The idea of a woman as the head of the home had real teeth eight hundred years ago.Stories with a small cast or narrow character focus.
Short stories are a good example here. If you're writing a very short story about two brothers, you might not have any other characters at all. Similarly, some novellas, TV episodes, or short movies barely have a single conversation that doesn't involve the protagonist; if the protagonist is a man, it's going to be a Bechdel fail.But . . .
if there are only a few characters, can any of them be women? There are some ways that the relationship between brothers is different from the relationship between sisters or a brother and sister. If your story focuses heavily on those things, it's going to be about brothers and fail the Bechdel test, and that's OK. If it doesn't, consider gender-flipping a brother.My wish list . . .
Again, this is pretty well covered under "but." It would be terrific if the default for small-focus stories wasn't "a couple of men" or "a few men and maybe one woman." The Shining
is one of my favorite books, and it certainly has a small cast, but there's no reason Dick Hallorann couldn't have been a woman. There's not a specific reason for him to be a woman, but then, there's not a specific reason for him to be a man, either, so why not gender-flip him? When in doubt, why default to men?
And that's what the Bechdel test is all about, Charlie Brown.