Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency – had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.
But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.
In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our awareness of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.
It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.
When discussing the presence of women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:
a) shows a female character alone;
b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;
c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on her physical attractiveness.
Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because, to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality, as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.
There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:
a) Are they shown in isolation?
b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?
c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?
Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race – or along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour – can provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze – those facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story – is similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.
While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.