Beyond the Bechdel Test: ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2012)

Credit: The Weinstein Company Credit: The Weinstein Company

By JORDAN ECARMA

This column is what happens when you’re a conservative feminist who loves movies. The Bechdel test is pretty basic: Does this movie have a scene where two women with names talk about something other than a guy? The point of the test is not “movies that pass this are feminist”—it’s “this is the absolute base point of whether or not women are their own people in this movie.” I attempt to go a little further each week with a deeper analysis. 

The film: “Silver Linings Playbook” is a special little film that’s hard to nail down. Is it an offbeat indie flick, a romantic comedy, Oscar bait, or some combination of the three? Bradley Cooper leads, but Jennifer Lawrence steals the show as Tiffany. Portraying the emotionally damaged young widow takes Lawrence through a rainbow of emotions, every one of which she nails.

The conversation: “Silver Linings Playbook” is yet another example that shows how (intentionally) low a bar the Bechdel test is and how easy it is for a film to pass it (even though many still don’t). Tiffany’s sister, Veronica (played by Julia Stiles), asks her a question over dinner about her dancing. The sisters briefly scuffle over sibling rivalry, as Veronica is clearly the “perfect” sister who has her life together. It’s a very quick moment comprising just a few lines of dialogue, but it gives “Silver Linings” a clear pass.

The real deal: Lawrence’s Tiffany is a step forward for women in film because she completely destroys the Madonna-whore dichotomy and any other binary that has limited how women are portrayed. As she tells Pat, Tiffany is a (self-named) “whore” for sleeping with most of the people at her office while she was coping with her husband’s death. She would have had to die or otherwise be punished if “Silver Linings” were filmed back in the days of the Hays code—so thank goodness we’re living in the 21st century.

When Tiffany meets Pat (Cooper), they are both dealing with mental illness and the loss of their respective spouses. Tiffany’s police officer husband was hit by a car while he was helping someone change a flat tire; Pat split from his wife after he found her in the shower with another man.

Nikki, Pat’s ex-wife, is an intriguing influence because the audience never really sees or knows her character—she is viewed only through Pat’s or Tiffany’s eyes and never actually speaks in the film. And yet Pat is losing weight, getting in shape, reading books and trying to connect with his family and Tiffany to be a better person for Nikki.

Tiffany has made mistakes. The kaleidoscope character demands Lawrence’s full range, and she delivers. Tiffany is broken but on the mend—and never beyond repair. She is never portrayed as having diminished worth as a person because she fucked her way through her office. She screams and swears like a sailor at one second and becomes soft and nurturing the next; she’s warm, tough, charming, angry, bitter, droll, all depending on the moment. It’s incredibly freeing to watch a woman onscreen who gets to be all of these things at once.

“Silver Linings” is also a great film for portraying a wide variety of female characters. Besides Lawrence’s multi-faceted Tiffany, audiences get to watch a loving mother who is the heart of the family (Jacki Weaver), a controlling type-A wife (Stiles’ Veronica), and a manic pixie dream girl (Brea Bee’s Nikki). None of these women are anything alike—and that’s a good thing.

Cooper may be the film’s protagonist, but women direct the story, whether it’s his cheating ex-wife Nikki influencing him from afar or Tiffany dragging him to a dance competition. 

Jordan Ecarma is a former journalist now living the millennial dream: getting paid for writing Facebook statuses (that is, digital PR). She watches her use of the f-word (“feminism”) around conservatives and the c-word (“conservatism”) around feminists. Find her under @JordanEcarma.

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