What do you think about before you go to bed?
When I was 7 years old, I had four bedtime fantasies mapped out in my mind, scene by scene. That way, when I drifted off to sleep, I would lucid dream through my own thought-movie.
These thought-movies were documented in my Lisa Frank journal: me as Nancy Drew, being told to “get off the case!” via a threatening note slid under my door; me as a Parisian chef, telling the newcomer to the cuisine game they “had to pay their dues in this town”; me “coming on down!” on “The Price is Right;” me as Hermione from “Harry Potter.”
At 7 years old, I theorized it wasn’t normal for me to have the world’s worst telenovela to deliver me to sleep. My suspicions were confirmed when I asked my older and cooler cousin, Elizabeth, the same question: What do you think about before sleep? Elizabeth dropped her pingpong paddle and pulled me in by my Limited Too poncho, lowering her voice so that Uncle Dave couldn’t hear us under the dulcet tones of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.”
“Boys,” she said without a hint of irony. “Boys — and how they notice me.”
This was a novel idea. Out of my five daydreams, only one involved a man — and that man was Harry Potter. I promised myself to keep my eccentric thought-movies forever, but maybe this exchange wasn’t that meaningful: Elizabeth and I also promised to give up going to the bathroom for Lent immediately after this conversation.
But the older I got, the more disturbed I became at the rate at which my monolithic childhood dreams diminished. Yes, I understood growing up meant developing more realistic goals, but why were more and more of my daydreams becoming about obtaining male attention? Why was the thought-movie in which I solved the mystery of the old ranch phased out for one in which I became a magician’s assistant? And why did that magician resemble my high school calculus teacher, Mr. Frey?
I told myself that it was because now, before I went to bed, I wanted to save brain space for the SATs, APUSH, or AHWEFJ — Acronyms Are Hard to Write Even for Jokes. But the fact remains that I — a needlessly self-confident kid, with the best mom and aunts as role models — responded to the conditioning that a woman’s ultimate aspiration is to be involved with a man.
Why did this happen? Was this merely an addendum to the process of growing up, like how “The Care and Keeping of You” inexplicably lands in one’s bedroom? Was it because middle school friendships were entered into the same way one enters a poker game: an ante and responding to the text “who do u like?” Or was it something else?
This past summer, I learned about the Bechdel Test, written by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Three simple rules help evaluate the portrayal of women in movies: The movie has to have at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man.
It sounds simple. Two named women — looking at you, “Woman in Bathroom #3” — each having one or more lines of dialogue, discussing anything but a Y chromosome. But the more I looked at my favorite childhood movies, the more I noticed how few of them passed this low bar: “Toy Story.” “The Lion King.” “Atlantis.” ”Aladdin.” Films that are specifically marketed to girls during their critical period, the stage in development when characteristics, habits and skills are easily acquired. What messages did these movies impart on me during this crucial window?
Take, for example, “Beauty and the Beast.” I certainly inherited Belle’s affinity for reading while walking through crowded suburbs — dangerous — and long-haired men — more dangerous. But the film fails the Bechdel Test. All conversations between Belle and Mrs. Potts, the only two named females, are about the Beast, who, by the way, looks better as a wolf than he does a human. But that was already slated to be the topic of next week’s column.
Imagine you’re a woman in a Bechdel-failing world for a day. Twenty-four hours without a word to your roommate about what you had for dinner, or a comment to a classmate about last night’s reading. Instead, every conversation is about your boyfriend, ex, brother or father. Either that, or the conversation never occurs because you never interact with another female in the first place.
In the real world, women converse, sharing ideas, commentary and aspirations. So why do we support movies that pretend these conversations don’t exist? And what effects do the elimination of these conversations have on young girls?