“Feminist Critique: Come On Film Industry!”

12 comments Written on March 15th, 2016     
Filed under: Testimonies and Stories
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Rev. Cathy Kaminski is the lead pastor of Trinity Community Church in Cincinnati, OH. Before being called into ministry she received a Bachelor of Science in Film & Television from Boston University. She loves movies, but wishes the industry could be better. And she’ll keep fighting for that reality.

“Does that movie pass the Bechdel test?” my professor asked.

The what? Blank stares from the hordes of freshmen taking Film 101.

“The Bechdel test. It’s simple really. Only three criteria: 1) have more than one female character, 2) have the two characters talk to each other at some point in the movie, and 3) is their conversation something other than a discussion about the male characters?”

More blank stares. I’m not sure how many of us had ever looked at a movie this way. I mean, that’s ridiculous, of course a movie would have more than two females…and talk to each other…and discuss something other than men…right?

I have always loved movies. Cheesy, mainstream, arthouse, it didn’t matter to me. I love the way all films, no matter the genre have the capacity to make me think and point me to God. I strongly believe that all artistic expression has the potential to reveal our imago Dei, (our core nature and identity as image bearers of God). Pain, joy, suffering, resilience, conflict, reconciliation, brokenness, triumph, these are elements of any good story. Good stories reflect the human journey and thus reflect our Creator.

Yet, from the moment my professor posed this simple question I began to look at movies in a new light. Is there a disproportional amount of mainstream movies told through the lens of the male viewpoint? And if so, what is the effect? Our Creator formed a beautifully diverse people and when we tell stories through one point of view, we miss out. Not only that, but it reduces the “other” to flat, foil characters whom only serve to propel the male story forward. And this isn’t just a male/female bias, sadly people of color and minorities are also marginalized in this capacity. And I believe we can do better.

Recently I watched the movie Risen,

and was a little taken aback. Why? Well call me foolish and naïve but I expected a story about Jesus’s resurrection to include women! After all show me one person in all history who had greater impact on the empowerment of women? Jesus was RADICAL in his treatment, interactions and view of women. He broke down barriers, gave women a voice, disregarded social norms in order to give women value and purpose. He called them friends, disciples, and allowed their testimonies to transform the world! Jesus gave women a seat at the table when most never even let them in the house.

So upon watching a film about the resurrection and the days that followed, I was tremendously grieved that this fundamental story of my faith had ONE, I repeat ONE female character. And to boot, their interpretation of Mary Magdalene painted her as a one-dimensional prostitute who served as a means to connect the other male characters to the greater story. Needless to say I was outraged. Again you may ask: why?

Beside the fact that NO WHERE in scripture is Mary Magdalene portrayed in this capacity, this understanding of a “composite Mary” takes the witness of Mary of Bethany, (you know Mary and Martha, Jesus’s close friends, sisters of Lazarus), the woman saved from adultery (John 8), the woman who anointed Jesus with oil (Matthew 26), and Mary Magdalene (woman who had seven demons cast out of her in Luke 8), all into ONE CHARACTER! Which, if you really think about it, devalues the magnitude of their stories. And in Risen, Mary Magdalene was basically a tool the story tellers used to connect the Roman soldier to the real disciples. (Italics used to underline the absurdity of such a statement: Mary Magdalene WAS one of the disciples!)

I’m sorry, but I expect more. And so should you!

For years I struggled with the idea of feminism. I thought it meant somehow disregarding or devaluing men. But with that understanding I missed the whole point. Feminism is about recognizing the value of women, seeking equality, and empowering women because ALL HUMANITY misses out when our world is skewed to one point of view. I miss out if a story is only told through a female view point. And I miss out if a story is told from only a male’s.

So again, EXPECT MORE! Tell better stories. Recognize the lens in which stories are told and seek out more complex, diverse representations of humanity. Because we need diverse stories. We need other viewpoints. We need to be aware when we pigeonhole people and take away their voice and importance. We will all be better if we do. We will all see a more whole picture of God when we do.

I still love movies. And I haven’t given up on the film industry. But I will keep challenging them to be more. Be better. And I hope you will too.


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12 comments ““Feminist Critique: Come On Film Industry!””

I try to look at my son’s children’s programming this way as well… who are the main characters, how are they portrayed, what stories is he learning to value? I wonder if we applied the Bechtel test to our sermons (or something similar that attended to stories told, viewpoint, etc.), how well we would do.

Great reminder of a valuable resource, Pastor Cathy!

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Thanks Jo Ann!  What struck me was how desensitized I was to the single point of view story.  It’s so normal to have only strong male characters.  Thank you for being a good mom and for the challenge to be aware in preaching!  So true

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Hi Cathy

– thanks for this. And yes! So much. It’s so ridiculously all around us – tv programmes, books, movies. Yes, we might miss out if a story is only told from a woman’s view – but honestly, when/how often has that ever been the case? Last week at the church I attended, the sermon was on Luke 8: 43-48 – the woman healed from bleeding. Funnily enough, the (male) preacher, felt the need to make sure the men in the congregation could relate to the story by adding a few caveats and making sure to reference the men in the situation… I wonder if he does that the other way round? So claim the term feminist with pride, point out why it’s needed (and why it’s not anti-men), and preach, sister!

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So true Alice.  And sadly, when there is a film/book/show set from a women’s perspective it gets labeled as such.  It becomes a niche sub category.  Which in turn decreases the reach of the audience.  I hope male and female preachers alike are sensitive and thoughtful.  Jesus was!

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You make me more aware!  Thank you for this.  What can we do about it?  How can we fight it?  I’m sure people will say “oh sure, you christians want movies about Jesus and it’s still not enough”  But WHY can’t Hollywood/film makers get it right?  The trailer said, in commercials around here, “staying true to the bible story”.  Clearly not!  How discouraging.  Our church took the Junior High Group to see it…I was planning on a senior high excursion…But I’ll wait for the DVD and do a study on Bechtel and biblical facts along with it:)

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Thanks Lisa.  And please hear this: it is a decent film and great as a catalyst to have conversations about faith, but it strikes me how desensitized we are to this type of film making.  And it’s across the board, not just Christian films.  I loved this year’s Oscar winner for best film: Spotlight.  But Spotlight did not pass the Bechdel test.  It’s the norm.  I just hope we can support, advocate for and endorse those rare films that DO empower the voices of women and minorities!  That is how we help.  We change the criteria for what makes a good movie!

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My daughter is a filmmaker, and so it’s with embarrassment that we watch most “Christian” movies due to their lack of artistry or even theological nuance. We had heard good things about Risen, so my disappointment at hearing this is great. Hoping, maybe even praying, that someone out there has the skill and desire to tell cinematically pieces of the biblical story “right.”

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Thank you for you comment Debbie.  I too have great hesitancy when I watch a “Christian” film.  More often than not they could do better from a cinematic point of view.  And on that front Risen was better.  Good story line, decent acting, potential to reach more than the standard Christian audience.  However, it is a standard practice in film to focus on the story through the male lens.  For whatever reason if a film is shown through the male point of view it is considered norm.  If shown through the female point of view it is a chick flick or another sub-genre.  And the “composite Mary” has been told since Pope Gregory in the 5th century.  As most people even somewhat exposed to Christianity and they will probably tell you Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  But I’m still hoping too!  And at least we can have conversations and good dialogue from poorly written films!

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Thanks for this Cath my friend! I was struck (again) in preparing to preach during Holy Week by the fact that when Jesus had the greatest good news the world had/has ever heard he entrusted it to a few women first and told them to share it with the men. The story of Easter was intentionally first told from a woman’s perspective. So this year I decided to have a woman in our church preach Easter 2 (April 3). It’s not solving problem, but it’s a start. In particular, a generation of teens and young adults in our church are growing up hearing a woman preach regularly. This is huge and something I never experienced growing up. Thanks for helping us all develop a better picture of stories and calling us up to something more beautiful and more complete.

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And thank you Ben! Thoughtful pastors like you empower people around you. Men and women alike!

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Great post. This is the first I’d heard about this because I gave up on all of the “let’s tell a Bible story” movies after the continued practice of casting white actors/actresses (usually with some kind of English accent) to portray people of African and/or Middle Eastern descent…So given that they can’t seem to get their casting right when it comes to ethnicity, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at this absurdity, right?!

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I’m with you Cathy. I wanted to write an article about the very same thing after I saw Risen! I have a background in performing arts and a deep love for art history and film. I thought the cinematography was beautiful and was glad that not all the disciples were white, but only 1 woman? Oy. And to portray Mary with the old trope made me role my eyes. But you know what? It’s not just the film industry. The visual arts have long portrayed biblical women in a bad light. Rather than doing actual research about the culture of Jesus’ day and having people and scenes reflect historical accuracy, artist seem to paint tropes and caricatures. Hagar and Bathsheba are youthful seductresses lounging in see-through closes. Sarai is a wrinkled old nag. I wish I was proficient at another medium so I could help turn this around for the church! Thanks for your thoughts.

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