The Second-Best Movie Ever Made Fails the Bechdel Test. It’s Even More Feminist Because It Does.
Image via YouTube screengrab
By ZACH and NATALIE NOBLE
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.” Guest writing today, a husband-wife duo attempts to go a little further with a deeper analysis.
Marge Gunderson is a hero.
She’s more of a hero because she barely ever talks to other women, and when she does, all they talk about is dudes.
The Coen brothers’ classic “Fargo” is a beautiful example of a movie that fails the Bechdel test and, yet, through one of film’s most unique, endearing and strong characters, communicates a message that is distinctly feminist.
The straight-talkin’, friendly, seven-months-pregnant Marge is a police chief solving a bizarre murder case. She’s set up as both powerful—chief of police!—and weakened—preggers!—as she navigates a world defined by Midwestern manners and male egos.
It seems pretty darn sexist at first blush.
The periodic reminders of Marge’s pregnant-ness show a physical handicap associated with being female. Her kind, humble demeanor contrasts in a stereotypically feminine way against the pride-driven men around her.
And then there’s the Bechdel test.
Marge does talk to a few other women throughout the film, but in Bechdel-failing fashion, the topic is always men. She talks to a pair of hookers … about the men they entertained. She talks to a high school friend … about Mike Yanagita, the man with the greatest seduction skills in cinema history, aside from Anakin Skywalker.
Almost all of Marge’s conversations are with men, most of whom are driven by some kind of distinctly male pride.
Jerry Lundegaard kicks the whole mess off with a cockamamie kidnapping scheme. His motive: Restoring his manly, “I can provide for my family” pride after years of his father-in-law’s put-downs.
Mike wants to appear a success and woo Marge.
Even Norm, Marge’s teddy bear of a husband, is competitive: He desperately wants his painting of a mallard to be featured on a postage stamp. In the film’s final scene, Marge comes home from her harrowing murder case and, instead of having Norm congratulate her for her excellent police work, she has to reassure Norm that he’s awesome because he bagged the 3-cent stamp. “It’s terrific,” she tells the guy who stayed in his pajamas the whole movie. “I’m so proud of you.”
But here’s the thing …
By deploying disarming charm in such a flawed masculine world, Marge demonstrates that a real, nuanced woman can be both uniquely feminine (pregnant! reassuring!) and totally capable.
And of course she’ll still whip out her gun, or her “not taking your crap” stare, when the situation warrants it.
Image via YouTube screengrab
Movies don’t need to pass the Bechdel test, meet quotas or even explicitly reject stereotypes to deliver powerful, positive, feminist messages.
(Though it would probably help to have more ladies in cinema.)
Marge is a hero precisely because she uses stereotypically feminine approaches to solve the problems that men created. She’s not some bland, artificial, physics-ignoring butt-kicker who succeeds despite being a woman. She’s a warm, genuine woman with limitations, quirks and a strong moral backbone who succeeds while embracing her womanhood.
Her feminism is equity feminism—stressing the importance of equal rights and opportunities for men and women—rather than the gender feminism that seeks to erase all differences between the sexes.
She solves murders, catches the bad guy and affirms uniquely feminine traits.
The fact that she did it while being pregnant?
That’s just icing on the feminist cake.
*The best movie ever made is “The Truman Show.” – Natalie
Zach Noble is a journalist who has covered everything from the OPM hack to a rescue dog’s retirement party. He’s been wrestling to reconcile his bleeding heart Catholicism with his pragmatic libertarianism since that freshman year love affair with Ayn Rand. He tweets erratically as @thezachnoble.
Natalie Noble is such a super lady.
Like this part:
"By deploying disarming charm in such a flawed masculine world, Marge demonstrates that a real, nuanced woman can be both uniquely feminine (pregnant! reassuring!) and totally capable" and Natalie’s bio made me chuckle. Sounds like Trump wrote it 😉
What, exactly, are "uniquely feminine traits"?
Fargo is about the wasteland that is contemporary American culture, a world where — beyond petty vanities, sporting distractions, small-minded hedonism, and greed — the only meaningful point to life seems to be bearing children. Marge, pregnant and optimistic, is the only character not hobbled by her own vices, unless you count gorging on buffet food. Is that enough in a vacuum? Is there more to life than a little bit of money? Not in the landscape of Fargo. Rather than feminist, by asserting that child-bearing is the only human act that creates meaning, it could be argued that the movie is radically anti-feminist.