I watched The Girl on the Train (2016) today and found myself very perturbed by how my personal reaction to the film didn’t square with the reception it’s been receiving so far, so I thought I’d write a few of my thoughts down to see if I can’t clarify things for myself.
I found that despite the central position given to the three main female characters, the film came off sounding ultra-conservative in terms of its treatment of gender. While trying to rationalise this sentiment I, of course, went to look up the Bechdel Test to see how the film stacks up against the 3 main parameters of the test:
- Are there at least 2 named female characters?
- Do they talk to each other?
- Do they talk about anything other than men?
Yes, there are more than 2 named female characters. In fact, there are 3 main female characters – Rachel (Emily Blunt), Megan (Haley Bennett), and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). And there are also 2 key side characters – Rachel’s friend, Cathy (Laura Prepon), and lead female detective on the missing-person-turned-murder case, Detective Riley (Allison Janney).
Yes, some of them do talk to each other. Rachel converses with Cathy, Det. Riley, and Anna.
Yes, they talk about things other than men:
- Rachel and Cathy discuss her alcoholism
- Rachel and Det. Riley discuss Megan’s disappearance
By all accounts, it does pass the Bechdel Test. Actually, BechdelTest.Com itself clearly states that Girl on the Train passes the test.
But anyone who uses the Bechdel Test will be quick to tell you that this test first came about as the punchline to a comic strip that came out in 1985, and when used, must be used with a pinch of salt (Garcia et al. 2014; Balasubramanian et al. 2015, 830-831).
So let me suggest how I would modify these parameters to account for my overwhelming sense of how ultra conservative the film is when it comes to its treatment of gender issues. I think whether or not a film such as Girl on the Train fulfills the Bechdel Test needs to be weighted against whether the female characters that fulfill these requirements are main characters or supporting cast. Once you throw that monkey wrench into the works, everything starts to shift.
- Yes, all 3 main female characters are named
- Actually, only 2 of the 3 female characters talk to each other
- And when Rachel and Anna finally have a substantial exchange of words with each other, it is about the cheating man they share between themselves
The second modification I would make to the Bechdel Test is with regards to the content of an exchange. When looking at content, we must bear in mind that the English language is such that you can’t treat it like mathematics and count by pronouns whether or not these female characters are talking about a man. Words exist in a web of semantic context. Thus, to my eyes and ears, it felt as if the bulk of the essential concerns that drive the film, boil down to these central characters’ relationships with men.
Before going further… READER BEWARE, SPOILER ALERT…
Ok. Let me explain my abovementioned claim:
- Rachel’s defining characteristic is her alcoholism. As the narrative progresses, we are made privy to the fact that the main reason for this stemmed from her inability to conceive. Her barrenness fueled her alcoholism which she believed caused her to lose her husband, Tom (Justin Theroux).
- Anna’s defining characteristic is that she is a mother. And later we learn that she is the third party that came between Rachel and her ex-husband, Tom. The presence of the baby now becomes simultaneously the wedge driving Tom and Anna apart because she is too exhausted being the perfect mother to play the wife, and that which keeps Tom bound to her despite his numerous extramarital affairs.
- And the main thing about Megan is that she refuses to have a baby with her husband, Scott (Luke Evans). Later, we find out this is because she lost her baby in a tragic accident when she was 17 which resulted in her baby’s father, Matt, leaving her.
Thus, the main concern that seems to possess these women is the idea of motherhood, but motherhood as the essential bedrock of a functioning nuclear family, motherhood as a means to hold on to their man. Not motherhood in and of itself. (And personally, even if it was all about motherhood, that’s still a pretty narrow definition of what it means to be woman.)
This notion is further seconded by how Rachel’s primary impression of both Anna and Megan is that they are “whores” and interchangeably whorish given the similarity in their appearance and behaviour. This is seen in how, as mentioned above, the main exchange between Rachel and Anna is about how Tom is cheating on Anna with Megan. And Rachel’s only direct interaction with Megan is when she calls her a whore while in a drunken stupor that causes her to mistake Megan for Anna.
Here ends my take on how the Bechdel Test can be applied to to The Girl on the Train in a more nuanced manner which shows how poorly it stacks up in terms of representing females as strong independent characters.
I do have some follow up points about the narrative too. The word that kept coming to me over and over again as I stepped out of the theatre earlier today is how incredibly convenient everything is.
I think it’s clear from the trailers that one of the main sources of tension in the film is the unreliable first person narrator because of her alcoholism and how that plays into the whodunit murder case.
What I didn’t expect though is the cheap 180 degree about-turn in the narrative that transformed Tom from a beleaguered man stuck in an unhappy marriage to a raging alcoholic wife, into a maniacal, false-memory implanting, abusive douche. I would have much preferred a nuanced characterisation of men and women stuck in bad situations to the simplistic split between the sexes that had all the men playing physically and emotionally abusive@$$hole$, and the women playing pitiful victims.
Yup. That’s it. Thoughts? Comments? Think I’m talking nonsense? Feel free to comment in the comments section below. Thaaaaanks.