Tuesday, October 16, 2012

I Killed Davey Moore (and You and Father Zosima were my Accomplices)

There's a great Bob Dylan song called "Who Killed Davey Moore?" (Apparently none of the youtube clips are embeddable, but here's the link if you'd like to listen.) It's a reaction to the death of the boxer Davey Moore in 1963 after sustaining brain injuries in a match against Sugar Ramos. Each verse is sung from the point of view of someone who arguably was at least partly to blame for the result: the referee (who didn't stop the fight), the "angry crowd" (who cheered it all on), his manager (who set up the fight and set into the fight), the "gambling man" (whose money helps bankroll the boxing industry), the media (who cover and popularize dangerous sports), and, finally, his opponent that night (who says he was just doing his job, and chillingly concludes with the line "Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’ / It was destiny, it was God’s will!").

All of them have their excuses, and they sound reasonable to us because all of us have done the same or similar things. I've paid money to go to sporting events where people got concussions, I've texted while driving, I've shared links to people doing dangerous-but-entertaining stuff. None of those actions, by me or the characters in Dylan's song, are in themselves decisive. But the refrain from Dylan's song is haunting: "Who killed Davey Moore? Why and what's the reason for?" Everyone involved played some part, and yet no one "killed" him. But the inescapable fact is that Davey Moore died, and it wasn't a natural death. I think Dylan is saying that we all killed Davey Moore. That's a very sobering thought, if you let it sink in.

On a less life-or-death note, I was actually thinking about this in regards to the Bechdel test. If you haven't heard of it, it's basically the most minimal test imaginable for whether a movie (or a work in any other medium) might actually portray women in a substantive way. It has three requirements: 1) There must be at least two women depicted;* 2) the two women must talk to each other; 3) and their conversation must be about something other than a man. If all three are met, then the movie passes the Bechdel test! Doesn't sound too hard--and it is definitely meant as a bare minimum test: passing definitely does not guarantee the movie is any good or even feminist at all. And yet, it's sad how many movies don't. Like, tons. (See this fun and quick video for a bit more history on the test and a few dozen examples of movies that don't pass, and a followup that discusses which of the 2011 Oscar nominees pass.)

Why do so many movies fail the Bechdel test? Or if they do pass, why is it so often only just barely? Could be that most movie writers/directors/producers/CEOs are sexist. Maybe because the public demand for more male-centered stories is greater so that's what the free market tends to produce; this in turn could be because people don't care about women. Might be because female actresses are harder to come by (somehow I highly doubt this). Perhaps because I don't speak up and ask the question or even think about it when I go to the movies. In short, it's a systemic problem. I don't think anyone involved is consciously sexist, actually asking themselves "How can I avoid women having any real voice in this film?" And I don't think it's bad at all to have a male-centered movie--we can't point at any one movie that fails the Bechdel test and cast the blame on it.

But perhaps at some point a director has created enough movies that all fail the Bechdel test, we can start validly asking what's up. Or maybe that director just happens to be more interested in talking about guys, and that's OK. And if my guess about female-focused stories being less profitable than androcentric ones is correct, should we (or any third person) get to tell directors and others involved with making films that they should risk their livelihoods by making movies that won't be profitable? Maybe. But I think we should begin by recognizing the beam in our own eye and ask whether we as consumers of movies are part of the problem or whether we're among the people seeking out and supporting movies that pass the Bechdel test--and indeed that go beyond that mere totem and also truly present women in a real, three-dimensional way.

Are we killing Davey Moore, or are we working to make the world better? Whether it's physical safety of others, the balance of power between the sexes that we're seeking to improve, or any other worthy cause, let's get out and do it. Sure, your role in the problem by itself may be infinitesimal, but take responsibility for it and fix it. Whatever you do, don't resign yourself to the status quo and claim the way things are is simply "God's will" and there's nothing you can do about it.

* Some formulations also require that the two women be named characters.

4 comments:

  1. I do not quite understand what's going on there, I just know that simbolmu means peace ...

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  2. So I never commented on this one, but I really liked this post. My issue is, how do I find these movies? I don't even know many independent movies which meet this test!

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  3. Diana, there's a handy list of movies on BechdelTest.com! The ones with a smiley face next to them pass. Pick a few to watch over Christmas!

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