Monday, 30 October 2017

Mindhunter, I Hate to Love You...

I have no pictures of speeding
cars or sexy dads. Just
crisp-based meals.
There are times when doing something that isn't technically right, makes it all the more appealing. You know the kind of thing, nothing too dodgy, but not ideal behaviour either. Speeding on an empty motorway. Eating an evening meal that consists mostly of crisps. Having a crush on a mate's dad. We've all been there. We all know the thrill of the wrong. It can be intoxicating.

But let's pause proceedings for a moment for a quick history lesson. *Feminist klaxon sounds with gusto* Let's refresh our memories about the Bechdel test. You know you want to. 

In 1985 Alison Bechdel devised a handy guide about how to spot that a film or TV programme wasn't especially troubled by female representation. Let's play it now! Look at a TV programme or film's character list and ask yourself three questions...
  • Are there more than two female named characters? (i.e actual names, not simply Secretary, Murder Victim or Prostitute 3)
  • Do they talk to each other?
  • Do they talk about anything other then men?

If the answer to any of these questions is NO, then it does not pass the Bechdel test. It's likely it was written by men, about men, for men. More than likely commissioned by men anyway. Any female characters are there to back up the male story. The narrative is not concerned with their lives, motivations or experiences. To some that might be preferable, but for me, it's a bit wrong. I'm rarely interested and I find myself turning over. 

Now, first off, the Bechdel test is not science. It's just an interesting way to assess whether the gut feeling of 'this is a bit blokey' has any weight. And it's hardly a measure of equality. Seeking out two female characters isn't really 50/50 representation, unless you're watching Closer or Abigail's Party. All this does is provide an indication of a certain vibe. In my house, the phrase, 'Well this isn't very Bechdel' can oft be heard. It's a way of shorthanding the shortcomings of some TV.

And yet. Like crisp butty meals and your mate's sexy dad, something that 'isn't very Bechdel' can drag you in and hook you tight. Sometimes a TV programme comes along that doesn't tick any of the 'This Is A Fair Representation' boxes but it is compelling anyway. Something pops up on the telly and keeps you enthralled, regardless of the rightness of its make up. This week, that something is Mindhunter.

Oh Mindhunter! You are Netflix's latest big thing. You look good, you sound good, you have a gripping premise. But my God, you've decided to be as inverse to Bechdel as humanely possible. I hate you but I love you. I am so conflicted. Argggh. 

For those in the dark, Mindhunter tells the fictionalised story of two FBI agents in the '70s, who recognise the value in learning about serial killers by - wait for it - interviewing serial killers. It depicts the conception of the current understanding of criminal profiling, and shows how the FBI changed their views from, 'Let the evil monsters rot' to, 'Hmmm, we might learn something from these men and use it to stop others'. It makes for a good concept.

Grrr. The testosterone of it all.
Before you even think about the three Bechdel questions, however, it can be a tough watch. Routinely the murder victims are women. Grisly crime scene photos of tortured female corpses are bandied about, whilst rooms full of male cops and male FBI agents try to solve the seemingly unsolvable. The cast is overwhelmingly male. Early on, an interesting female character introduced. She even has a name. Debbie! She's not 'Victim', 'Whore' or 'Corpse'. Excitingly, Debbie is a Post Grad. sociology student, working towards her PhD, and happy to challenge the serious but boyish FBI agent she meets in a bar. Hurrah. Sadly for Debbie, the rest of her scenes throughout the series involve her being naked, or being in bed, or having sex, or talking to the FBI boyfriend about his cases. She becomes the sounding board for him at home, so the viewers get to hear what he is thinking away from the office. (A modern day Joyce Barnaby, if you will.) He has 'nice sex' with her so we can see he is not into 'bad sex' like the serial killers and rapists he is interviewing, even when he might act like them to get them to trust him. She serves a purpose for his story. 

There is one other female character that is a lot stronger, narratively. Dr. Wendy Carr. She is introduced in episode three and works on the cases along side the male characters. Even then the programme doesn't pass the Bechdel test. Dr Wendy Carr doesn't talk to another named female character about anything other than a man. It's infuriating.* 

But, but, but... as much these thoughts and irritations bounce around my head as I watch, I am utterly hooked. I haven't binged it because I want to make it last. So far I've done an episode a night for the past week. I don't want it it end and I'm nearly done. It's been great. Yet for all that, I hate that my latest TV obsession feels so backward - I know it's set in the '70s and things weren't so peachy for us gals back then - but even so. 

In a society that were truly equal, watching a classily-made-high-production-values-dramatic-retelling of a sexist time in history involving violence against women, wouldn't bother me. Not if it was done well. And I think Mindhunter is done well (except for the way Debbie's character got sidelined so quickly). But in a climate riddled with horrors like T***p and Weinstein, scary domestic abuse statistics and violent plots against women that try to make a difference, there feels something wrong in sitting back, chewing it over, but not pointing any of it out. I guess I'll just have to keep banging on about this shit for a while longer. Soz about that but bear with me. One day this might be the stuff of pure fiction, and then we can all enjoy it as such.

Have a lovely week, folks.

*OK, episode 5 has one scene with Wendy's girlfriend about her career choices. They mostly talk about her FBI colleagues though.

Stop Press: In the final episode, there is a scene between Dr. Wendy Carr and DA Esther Mayweather, about the way a child rapist should be prosecuted. Yes, it's about a man, but the conversation widens to discuss the impact the case will have on the work of the FBI. One Bechdel-friendly scene in ten hours. Slim pickings. And yet when series two drops, I'll be binging it once again. I'm so bloody conflicted.

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