Bechdel and Mako Mori: Team-up or Deathmatch?

In the wake of the international success of Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie, Pacific Rim, there has been a lot of chatter about the characterisation in the movie. Specifically, people have been talking about the characterisation of Mako Mori, the only female character of note in the movie. Many people have condemned her as a weak, ineffectual protagonist, while others have hailed her as a great example of strong representation of female characters in movies.

I myself fall in the latter camp because I loved the character and I was able to look beyond what false trap that the character generates and consider her within the context of her culture and her own dialogue. You can read my thoughts on Mako in my review of the movie here.

One of the fallouts of Pacific Rim has been that a Tumblr user came up with the “Mako Mori Test” to evaluate female characters in movies. You can read more about it here. The test is a response to the fact that Pacific Rim fails the much more popular and long-established “Bechdel Test” but, for that user, was indeed a good representation of a female character, as I’ve already said. Clearly, the older test has some limits and the newer proposed test seeks to address those deficiencies.

So the question becomes, how do the two tests fit in with each other? Are they in conflict or can they be used together? That’s what this editorial is about.

To recap for the benefit of those who don’t know, here are the “requirements” for a work of fiction to pass the Bechdel Test:

  1. It must have two named female characters.
  2. These women must talk to each other.
  3. Their conversation should not be about a man.

And here’s what the Mako Mori Test posits:

  1. It must have one named female character.
  2. This character gets her own narrative arc.
  3. Her narrative arc should not support a male character’s story.

When you think about it, it all sounds really straightforward and obvious doesn’t it? I’m sure that many of you would jump at the chance to offer up examples of various (popular) works of fiction, or rather entertainment, that meet the guidelines as presented above.

Personally, I’ve never really considered this. As an amateur movie critic I do make a point to talk about any notable female characters in movies, but it is not something that I really consider. I am an unfortunate byproduct of an entertainment culture that glorifies the men, and gives women second billing as props for the male characters. In such an environment, it is often easy to ignore the quality deficiencies of an entertainment product, no matter what format or medium it is.

HungerGamesKatniss01Off the top of my head, I can recall two movies that would pass both these tests. The first is last year’s The Hunger Games, an adaptation of a post-apocalyptic young adult novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins. The second is a Bollywood flick by the name of Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, a contemporary movie in which 3 women who are conned by a dapper young rogue decide to con him in turn.

In The Hunger Games (review), we have the protagonist Katniss Everdeen. We also have her young sister Primrose, and the resident of Panem Effie Trinket who becomes Katniss’ friend and mentor during the period of the current Hunger Games. We see these women several times during the movie, talking about things other than men or about men. The conversations between Effie and Katniss are most commonly about the entire Hunger Games process and the ones between Katniss and her sister are about how Primrose has to look after her mother while she’s gone. And of course, being the protagonist, Katniss automatically passes the Mako Mori test.

In Ladies vs Ricky Bahl (review), we have no less than four women each of whom talks about something other than men at least twice during the course of the movie. And we often see them together, all four, without any men nearby. Or at least, any named men who are major characters in the movie. Together, all four of them offer a variety of narratives and each of them is a character in her own right, with her own story, etc.

Both movies happen to be among the best movies I’ve seen ever since I started reviewing movies in mid-2011. Perhaps using the example of Ladies vs Ricky Bahl is a cheat of sorts, given how many female protagonists it has, but then again, I think that is a big strength, particularly given how much attention each of them gets and how distinct they all are.

LadiesVSRickyBahlLadiesTo go back to the tests, my own take on everything is that we shouldn’t merely look for a quantity, but also the quality. For me, this is what each test exemplifies. The Bechdel is concerned with the quantity of female representation, and the Mako Mori test is concerned with the quality of that female representation. Additionally, the former has a wide focus on the same, while the latter has a specific narrow focus. And this is why I think that these tests should be considered together, rather than the Mako Mori being a replacement for the Bechdel. They simply address different things.

Friend and author M. L. Brennan talks about the shortcomings of Pacific Rim and the application of the Mako Mori Test over on his blog in quite detail, which you can read here.

As so many people have said elsewhere, Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is a fantastic character, badass and capable in a completely non-sexualised manner. This is the true strength of the character. In a culture overburdened with and groaning under the weight of women being objectified everywhere and anywhere, characters like Mako are very, vewy few and far in between. The same goes for Katniss and the four women in Ladies vs Ricky Bahl: Ishika, Dimple, Raina and Saira. Although, I will add that Ishika is sexualised in a couple scenes but then, if we consider every “pool bikini” scene to be a demeaning scene, then perhaps that’s when we go into the territory defined by overzealousness and overcriticality.

la_ca_0621_pacific_rimThere is another reason why both tests should be considered together: It is fantastically easy to game the Bechdel and pass, without the female characters doing anything meaningful. Imagine the following made-up scenario:

In the science fiction movie Aliens on Earth, we have two women scientists Cynthia Abernathy and Marjorie Hill. They are both minor characters (and also the ONLY female characters in the movie who are not related to the strapping action hero), but they have a scene all to themselves in the middle of the movie, in which they are trying to do an autopsy on an alien corpse. They identify the alien corpse as belonging to a female of the species (don’t ask why, just plot reasons), and they comment on this and discuss it. This happens across a period of some 90 seconds in a movie that runs for 120 minutes.

Done. Bechdel passed. The test does not take into account that in and of themselves, the characters are meaningless. In typical Hollywood fashion, both scientists would be horrifically murdered by the supposed alien corpse and this little scene would play into getting a bunch of male characters really angsty so that they then go on to kick some alien ass to hell and back.

Where’s the quality of these characters? The girlfriend(s)/wife(ves) of the hero would suffer a similar fate as well, or would be relegated to the background. Aliens on Earth would pass the Bechdel with flying colours but fail the Mako Mori spectacularly.

Which is where the proposed test comes in. Yeah sure, my example and made-up scenario is an imperfect one, but then, that’s the point. It is that easy to game the Bechdel. But not so easy to game the Mako Mori I don’t think. As an example, take The Avengers, which has three named female characters in a starring role with actual screentime: Pepper Potts, Maria Hill, and Natasha Romanoff. Despite the presence of three characters of significance within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these women never talk with each other and so they automatically fail the Bechdel by that fact alone, let alone that their conversation together must be about something other than men. Additionally, unless the three of them were bonding about their pre-teen years, they really couldn’t have had a conversation devoid of men since the movie is packed to the hilt and beyond with male characters.

But then you apply the Mako Mori to it. And suddenly, you see that Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, is a character who holds her own against the other characters. She is badass and capable in all the same respects as Mako is. She has her own narrative arc in which she exposes the weaknesses of other male characters and despite everything that is thrown at her, she rises to the challenge spectacularly and she clearly wins through. And at no time does she play second fiddle to any of the gents, nor is she demeaned at all. Voila, Mako Mori passed.

What it all boils down to is this:

As creators of entertainment and fiction, we should always be able to look at our works with a certain objectivity. We should keep things like the Bechdel and the Mako Mori in mind, because doing that serves as an acknowledgement to any and all potential readers that yes, we were open-minded in our approach to how we are representing them and/or their friends and family in our works. Sure, its easy to take the simple way out and maybe not even have any significant female characters in your work because you don’t think you can do the character justice or because you don’t want to (for the hell of it) or because you refuse to bow down to the “feminazis” (a more useless and anger-inducing term was never invented). But then, we can’t grow as creators. We can’t challenge ourselves. And surpassing challenges is how we better ourselves.

Also keep in mind that despite everything I’ve said here, these tests are just guidelines, nothing more. They shouldn’t dictate what we like and don’t like, or what we should write and shouldn’t write. That is not their purpose as far as I’m concerned, though I’m sure that many people would argue the opposite.

PacRimMakoMoriThe true purpose of these tests, other than passing judgement on pop culture and the entire entertainment industry in all its forms, is to gain and give perspective to what we are consuming and creating. It adds a context that we might otherwise ignore or just not realise, ever.

And that’s when these tests go beyond being tools of criticism, and to tools of creation.

At least, that’s what I take away from all of this.

What about you? What do you think?

Posted on August 26, 2013, in Editorial, Movie Reviews, Movies News, News, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great perspective! Maybe we should think about a meta-test that combines elements of the Bechdel test and your own Mako Mori test (say, three requirements, but in an x OR y configuration).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Let’s not forget about Dredd and the strong female leads of Judge Andersen and Ma Ma. Looks like a pass on the Mako test to me and pretty close on the Bechdel. In the narrative, any attempt of sexualization of the two were nixxed severely, without the help of a male.


  3. Autostraddle did a filter of the top 100 movies of 2012 using the tests both together and separately:

    Dunno why The Avengers were included, though. Even doesn’t list it as passing.

    Anyway, I agree that the bar is somewhat raised by combining both tests for film.


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