I finally got to see the Avengers today, and a fine romp it was too. I’m still chuckling now about the encounter between Loki and the Hulk, and the movie has much to recommend it. It has good characters, excellent explodiness, very snappy dialogue, and some very smooth cultural references. I know nothing about the Marvel universe, but I really like the Incredible Hulk and I think he’s done very well in this movie, as is the Stark guy. Thor was a bit bland, and Hawk Eye both incongruous (a bow? really?) and a little weak, but Black Widow was excellent, and even Captain America had charm despite his obvious inherent blandness. So that’s four good characters, an excellent script, some genuinely awesome action scenes, and a plot that mostly made sense. I’m willing to forgive Joss Whedon the flying aircraft carrier madness because a) it’s pretty cool and b) it was probably some Marvel stupidity anyway, so whatever. Though FYI to super-spy agencies planning on building a massive flying double-decker invisible aircraft carrier: more than four rotors is a good idea. Try eight. Also, maybe there’s a new truism of movie-making here: plots that occur on a massive flying invisible aircraft carrier will be a bit silly, because I thought the whole shenanigan in that part of the movie was a little unbelievable. I don’t in general like it when the bad guy’s scheme is so devious that it relies on 88 layers of mistakes by his otherwise intelligent opponents (“I know! If I get myself captured and trick them into taking away my weapon and placing it in the dungeon right next to an unstable ammunition supply, and then they simultaneously build a hoverbike in the same room – which I know they’ll do – and the hoverbike relies on beta-particle generating fusion power for its locomotion – which I know it must – then surely the resulting chemical reaction will kill them all and free me from the indestructible prison I know they will put me in!”)

But otherwise it was excellent. Though I must point out that the wiggly monster-thingy from the preview that appears in the final battle, though 78 spiny shades of awesome, does appear to be a bit of a copy of a certain monster from a Final Fantasy movie I watched. But as Chumbawumba said, there’s nothing new under the sun, and provided it explodes in sufficiently technicolor glory I don’t care. And anything that gets punched by the Hulk does, so all’s well that ends well (unless you’re the spiny beast from beyond space and time – it doesn’t end well for them).

I was reminded while watching, however, that a while back I put up a post about Game of Thrones passing the Bechdel test, and that this post was inspired by the observation that the Avengers fails the Bechdel test, so having finally had a chance to see the movie, I’m in a position to make a judgment about this burning cultural issue. As a reminder, the Bechdel test requires that two female characters must have a conversation about something other than a man.

In this simple sense the movie fails the Bechdel test, but this is for a very simple reason: there are only three female characters in the movie, only one of them is a significant lead, and they basically don’t meet. Most assuredly, it fails the “where have all the chicks gone?” test, but there’s a very simple reason for this: it’s set in the Marvel Universe, a comic book world designed for teenage American boys, and so there are very few lead characters who are female. The only chance for any woman to interact with any other woman in this movie is in the first half of the movie when Black Widow is on the bridge of the USS Stupid Flying Invisible Aircraft Carrier, and there is one other female agent who might be able to engage with her – but that agent’s role is so tiny that she gets maybe three speaking parts and is largely irrelevant through most of the movie.

I think a more relevant question is whether Joss Whedon should have considered putting women in more secondary roles – e.g. Agent whatisface who gets killed, or the physicist guy who does something. Alternatively, and more radically, Whedon could have considered making one of the five core cast members a different gender. I’m not sure how Black Widow could be made a boy given her name, but Captain America and Hulk are both gender neutral names. Come to think of it, a female Hulk would be fascinating on so many levels of feminist inquiry, it would make the average teenage nerd’s head explode. It would probably also lead to the movie being shit-canned as “too politically correct” before it even got to the funding stage. And Marvel would no doubt not have supported it.

I guess the moral of this is that the Bechdel test really only applies to movies set in genres which allow women to have meaningful roles.  That pretty much rules out much of the super-hero genre and a lot of sci-fi too. Bechdel tests are an irrelevant second order concern when women can’t even be portrayed in strong roles in a genre, and in fact the female characters that Whedon did put in this movie really shone: Black Widow was awesome, and the nameless female agent on the bridge was very competent and cool. Sadly, everyone else was a bloke. So, more important than giving Black Widow the chance to workshop her mass-murder issues with a couple of her girlfriends, is actually giving her female colleagues. Once the American comic universe has risen to that level of sophistication, we can upbraid Joss Whedon for not having the all-female murder crew talk about something other than the men they’re going to kill…

The Bechdel test is sometimes presented as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for a movie or tv show to be not sexist. For example, in this blog post, “the opinioness” subjects the  new Avengers movie to the test and gives an explanation of its importance as a test. The Bechdel test is explained there pretty simply: two female characters have to have a conversation with each other about something other than men. Apparently in the Avengers the female leads don’t speak to each other at all, not once in the movie.

Maybe I’m just being pesky but I have a strong suspicion that A Game of Thrones would pass the Bechdel test with flying colours. I’m pretty sure that Danaerys has had a conversation with one of her maids about the woman healer, and of course many conversations about her dragons; that Cersei has talked about her daughters with Sansa, and also about Arya; that Sansa and Arya have talked about their mother; possibly that Shea and Sansa have talked about Cersei. I think it happens in every episode. This is a testament to the strength of the female characters in this tv series, and comparing it with this report on the Avengers really makes me think that Joss Whedon, for all his many talents, is a bit of a grand-standing puffball.

Writing about Torchwood made me think of a conversation I had with a colleague about the show. She is your classic role-playing nerd, computer geek and all round otaku. When I mentioned – somewhat breathlessly – to her that I had watched 5 episodes of amazing Torchwoody goodness, she immediately launched into a tirade on how the first 3 episodes were great and then it turned shit[1].  She then revealed that she had watched all 3 seasons, and gave a blistering critique of the homophobia in the show. I checked with a friend, and it turns out the show’s writer is gay. So homophobia, probably not so much[2]. Now, I didn’t get a hint of this and aside from one small section of episode 4 which I thought was a bit kooky, I thought the last 2 episodes of this arc held together very well and, even if not satisfying everyone’s definition of perfect, could hardly be called shit.

I also recently had a big argument with a friend about the Lord of the Rings Movies[3], and was reminded (just coincidentally) of an old role-player in Australia who was so hell-bent on believing that these movies wrecked the books that he was 100% sure that Gandalf said “Run you fools!” in the movie, i.e. that his famous phrase had been corrupted “for the sheeple”. I had to force him to watch the movie to point out to him that he was wrong.

And I realised – I think nerds have a quite antagonistic relationship with their cinematic and literary idols, in which we are happy to lap up their good work but are really critical of  even the smallest failings, failings of course which occur in a very complex and difficult medium beset by forces beyond the creator’s control [i.e. producers]. I think nerds go out of their way to find fault with their idols, with the creators of new work, and with re-imaginings of old work. I think this is part of the grognard movement – which seems to hold that, the more people D&D tries to attract, the worse it must become – and is also linked to a strong tendency to reject any work which attempts to popularise any aspect of our sub-culture, and any creative figure who wants to be approved of by the mainstream.

I think this is the product of years of being abused by the cool kids, and in many of us it has led to a “Nerdier than thou” attitude which refuses to allow for the kind of compromises which any artist or creative person has to make to get their work liked by more than 3 guys in a room (who aren’t going to pay anyway, because they can use bittorrent). We’re like the Metallica fans who didn’t like the Black album because we found this band first, don’t you know, and who are all these middle class 14 year old girls who like that song and how dare Metallica try to become popular? It’s okay for us to sell out and get a windows certification so we can keep working [4], but how dare Joss Whedon consider doing the same!!? He’s the standard bearer for our paaaaiiin…[5]

… and as a consequence I think quite often nerds criticise otherwise good works, which may not have been perfect but deserve some respect anyway. And this leads to an attitude of refusing to share our life’s interests with people who don’t “get” something as plainly “obvious” as rolling 4d6 for strength, keep the best 3. Which just keeps us separated from the rest of the world, wondering why they don’t want to understand the fat kids who’re sneering at them…

fn1: Which, can I mention, is a really common English thing – you mention to your interlocutor that you like something and, even though they may never have even met you before, they immediately launch in with “what you like is shit”. I have had this sooooo many times since I came to London and it is sooooo thoroughly offensive.

fn2: yes yes, I know, gay people can be latent homophobes, but I prefer to have solid evidence of this before I make such accusations, because they’re really mean-spirited.

fn3: I will be coming back to this, because the claim they spoilt the books really gives me the shits

fn4: I haven’t done this, btw, but I would if I had to

fn5: which, incidentally, shows pretty clearly how our relationship with our idols is coloured by this history of social rejection – why should we even care if our feelings and worldview have a standard bearer? Except that when we were kids our weird and somewhat off-kilter interests were sneered at…