SALT LAKE CITY — An enduring criticism of modern cinema is that “full-time moms” are underrepresented in movies. The criticism extends to Disney movies, which have their own Wikipedia page listing movies in which moms are absent or "bad surrogates."
But what if this apparent lack of happy, stay-at-home-mother roles is part of an even broader theatrical problem? A theory captured by something called the Bechdel Test suggests a substantial portion of contemporary films fail to portray any women with adequate emotional depth.
However, there are others asserting that moviemakers are doing justice to the time-honored tradition of motherhood every time a romance culminates in a happily-ever-after resolution.
The question of how Hollywood portrays motherhood appears to be an eye-of-the-beholder proposition — it just depends who you're asking.
The Bechdel Test
Film professor Brad Barber thinks motion pictures could and should do a better job of highlighting characters with strong maternal qualities.
“There haven’t been a lot of documentaries or movies that have told extremely compelling stories about moms,” said Barber, a graduate of the USC School of Cinema-Television and recent winner of a regional Emmy Award for the documentary series "Beehive Stories."
But Barber doesn’t stop there — he actually broadens the scope of the discussion by suggesting any shortage of realistic “mom roles” on the silver screen is actually a symptom of a much larger epidemic involving Hollywood’s generally skewed depiction of women.
“I tend to see (a lack of stories about moms) as part of the bigger problem of there not being enough stories written about women in general,” he said.
To illustrate the point, Barber referenced something called the Bechdel Test or Bechdel Rule. Initially arising from a feminist comic strip in 1985, the Bechdel Test is a fairly straightforward tool for gauging the realism of any given movie’s portrayal of women. There are only three prongs required for a film to “pass the test”: (1) The movie has to have at least two [named] women in it (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man.
If that sounds like an easy enough test to pass, think again.
On the website BechdelTest.com there is a detailed database of 3,479 films. Among that lot no fewer than 46.1 percent of the movies flunked the Bechdel Test — including such pop-culture staples as “Shrek,” “Wall-E,” “The Dark Knight” and three of the four “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.
“Sadly, there’s not a ton of films you can think of that fulfill that (criteria),” said Barber, who teaches at BYU. “I think that’s something that needs to change. It’s something I talk to my students about a lot: representing women more realistically, having stories and roles for women that are more engaging and don’t just service the male central characters — which right now is just too often the case.”
Brad’s wife, Susan Krueger-Barber, is also an artist whose paintings explore feminine themes like how women change when they become mothers and the complex issues surrounding motherhood. In recent years, her artwork has been shown in Southern California at exhibits with names like “Postpartum Provocation” (2009) and “JACARANDA” (2012).
“I think that movies could do a better job, (showing) that women are more multifaceted than usually is portrayed in films,” Krueger-Barber said. “The women are usually in the background; they don’t have as much of a three-dimensional place in the movie. When I think of women in narrative movies, I think (the story) is searching more for cardboard cutouts than for fully-fleshed people.”
A middle ground
The director Greg Whiteley (“New York Doll,” “Resolved”) is ambivalent on the issue of whether movies portray full-time moms with adequate depth or frequency. But Whiteley does believe that if there aren’t a lot of leading mothers in scripted films, a plausible explanation could be the storytelling archetypes screenwriters often turn to.
“It becomes tricky when you’re making a story because there are certain archetypes that help with your story,” Whiteley said. “It helps to have a hero, it helps to have a villain. I think what makes a bad story is when those archetypes become set in a two-dimensional plane, and I think one way someone becomes three-dimensional is when a bad character does something good, and vice versa.
“The strongest people I have ever known in my life have been women, but they don’t necessarily fulfill archetypal Hollywood definitions of strength — they’re not wielding an M-16, they’re not getting into bar fights. That strength is being exhibited in other ways.”
Taking a long view
As director of issues analysis for the American Family Association, Bryan Fischer is renowned for his staunch Conservatism — especially on social issues. Against that backdrop, Fischer often finds himself starkly at odds with the Hollywood status quo. But regarding how well movies portray stay-at-home moms, Fischer chooses to accentuate in positive terms the common ground he shares with filmmakers.
“A significant number of Hollywood movies include stay-at-home moms — if not in the plot line, then in the way the movie wraps up,” Fischer said. “A lot of times, in the last reel the main characters wind up happily married, taking a walk with the Mom pushing their child in a baby carriage. Hollywood is reflecting there the dream most women have of what they want their life to look like.
“I saw a survey recently indicated that 71 percent of working moms wish they could give their full energies to creating a home for their husbands and children. Movies mirror that reality a lot more than most people realize.”
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at [email protected] or 801-236-6051.