With the new film The Maze Runner opening this weekend, First Coast Connect pop culture philosophy contributor Nicolas Michaud has thoughts on the portrayal of men and women in popular media.
There has been a recent trend of showing young women as heroes in films like The Hunger Games, Maleficent and Divergent. The Maze Runner, a new film based on a popular book series by James Dashner, will return young men to the starring role. In fact, The Maze Runner almost has no women in it at all.
Because of this, The Maze Runner doesn't pass the Bechdel test, the gender bias test that asks us to consider if books, films, and TV shows do three things:
- Does it have at least two female characters?
- Do they talk to each other?
- When they talk, do they talk about something other than men?
It takes only a moment to realize that most of our films do not come even close to passing the Bechdel test. This is why having a string of films like The Hunger Games series and Divergent has been a good thing, because these films show young women that they can be powerful people who deal with problems beyond relationships with men.
On the other hand, The Maze Runner is an excellent opportunity to show men caring for each other in deep ways. After all, we are talking about a book and film about a group of young men stuck together, having to work together to survive with only one women to whom they can bring their emotional needs. Would it be unreasonable that these young men might come to love and trust each other? Would it be unreasonable that they show that love? Or are we so deeply afraid of male homosexuality that, even in books and in films that only have men in them, we still cannot allow those men to develop deep, explicit, and clear loving relationships with each other of even a heterosexual kind?
In other words, once we know that the film fails the Bechdel test (which is a serious problem given how few films do pass), might we also evaluate the way The Maze Runner portrays men? It does seem that male relationships as we see them in TV and film often are empty of care, supportiveness, and deep feeling, which is not true of real life. Are men in films allowed to say “I love you” without a “man” at the end, or a swift “don’t worry, I don’t really love you like that” punch in the shoulder?
Might we argue that in our films and books we have very little room for the "homosocial" when it comes to men, even when there aren’t any women around? By homosocial, I mean relationships between same sex persons that can be understood as non-sexual, yet are deep and fulfilling. We seem comfortable with women in our films having deep relationships with each other, as long as they only talk about love-life challenges revolving around men. And we seem, similarly, only comfortable with men having deep relationships with each other if the relationship is clearly platonic, lacks vulnerability, and the men have some good reason to be with each other like escaping a maze, dropping a ring in a volcano or watching a football game. Depicting men sitting down and talking about their feelings with each other seems to make us too uncomfortable, and certainly would not sell many theater tickets.
So couldn't we ask this of our films in a male version of the Bechtel test:
- Does the film show men interacting with each other in ways that are non-competitive?
- Does the film show men interacting with each other in ways that show emotional vulnerability?
- Are the men allowed to explicitly demonstrate love toward each other?
In the same way that we see tragically few films that pass the Bechdel test, implying women only matter when they are with men, there are very few films where men are allowed to say "I love you" and show genuine need for each other in a vulnerable way.
The Maze Runner hasn’t come out yet, but my guess is that it will be reduced to another instance of men having to compete with each other, sprinkled with a few masculine shoulder punches and back slaps to show care. And the one woman in it will be reduced to being our only hope that any of the men might develop a deep relationship with anybody.
But, hopefully, I'm wrong.
Nicolas Michaud is an author and editor of numerous pop culture and philosophy books.