If there’s any lingering doubt that The Bechdel Test is hopelessly out of date and no longer the standard by which films with even the slightest feminist lean (or, at the very least, films with a basic respect for the complexities of female characters) should be judged, Jeff Wadlow’s Kick-Ass 2 handily puts the final nail in that critical coffin. This week’s follow-up to Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 adaptation of the Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. comic book series is violent, vile, and ugly on its own, but the application of the so-called Bechdel test has the reverse effect that it should – the film passes, and it’s instantly even more violent, vile, and ugly.
If you’re unfamiliar with the test, it’s simple enough to break down. First attributed to American cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 via a character in her strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” the Bechdel test originally had just three rules to determine whether or not a film (at the time, the test was only applied to the cinematic arts, though that’s changed over time) portrayed women in a diverse enough manner and didn’t possess a gender bias (which has often been interpreted as a test to see if a film has a feminist lean to it, though that was never its intent). Those rules are as such:
- It has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
The test now also regularly includes a fourth rule that both women must be named characters. Even with that interesting variant, Kick-Ass 2 still passes the test a number of times, but to unsettling ends that make the women of the film feel even less dimensional and compelling than if they just chatted about guys all day. It makes them sound like women-hating harpies who only know how to interact with each other when physical violence is not only possible but also very much present and when calling each other such charming names as “ax wounds” is the general expectation.
While the Kick-Ass films attempt to answer the question of what would happen if “regular people” decided to be superheroes, Wadlow’s film gleefully shrugs off a frightening amount of the real world trappings of the original. One element of the film that is at least somewhat believable is that young Hit-Girl, aka Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) hasn’t adapted to high school very well. Still reeling from a promise she made to her dead dad in the first film, Mindy regularly skips school to brush up on her crime-fighting technique and to actually go out and, well, fight crime. Her social life is nonexistent, and when her guardian (and her dad’s ex partner) Marcus (Morris Chestnut) finally puts his foot down and demands she act at least a bit like a normal girl by way of a pre-arranged sleepover with some cool, older girls, it’s understandable that Mindy acquiesces.
What’s not understandable is how quickly Mindy takes to her new lifestyle – including a stint on the school’s dance team. Mindy’s new friends aren’t nice, and their leader Brooke (Claudia Lee) soon turns against her young charge when her popularity threatens to usurp her own power. Soon, Brooke’s arranged a “date ditch” that ends with Mindy, suddenly helpless, left alone in a local forest (also, sure, Jeff Wadlow, there are just tons of forests around New York City that Mindy and her moron date could quickly drive to). Brooke humiliateds her in front of everyone by saying they are there to “celebrate what a total loser [she] is” and by assuring Mindy that “you’re not special.” Awful stuff, but Bechdel Test approved.
In a plot point cribbed straight from Mean Girls, Mindy exacts her revenge the next day in a big, big way. The massive blowout between the ladies (and this is a blowout of actual physical proportions involving a “sick stick” that makes her three nemeses immediately vomit and vacate their bowels) happens in that hotbed of teen insecurity – the cafeteria. It’s so reminiscent of Mean Girls that it’s practically satire (imagine our surprise that no one screams, “you can’t sit with us!” during this interaction), but it’s also a sequence that involves the girls hurling barbs at each other that include, you guessed it, that adorable use of “ax wounds,” a stray “you’re an evil bitch,” and even one demand to “slit your wrists now.” Again, awful stuff, but Bechdel test approved.
Still not content to set women back, Kick-Ass 2’s conclusion pits young Hit-Girl against the monstrous Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina) in a shocking physical battle that also involves ol’ MR asking the fifteen-year-old she’s fighting if she’s “ready to die.” Hit-Girl snaps back with a comment about Mother Russia’s “total shitstain [she] calls a face,” then she calls Mother Russia a cunt in her native tongue. It was sort of all over for me at that point. Yes, they’re battling each other to the death, we’ll take some shit-talking, but this is new levels of just plain shit.
While you could make the argument that filling a film with women who are all tough-talking hardasses has its own merits – maybe these women really are strong and independent as Brooke says they are – the manner in which the women of Kick-Ass 2 speak to each other is so vile and so hateful that even when they are engaging in the briefest of chats about men (Brooke introduces young Mindy to a One Direction rip-off band called Union J, unleashing a burst of sexual interest in the young superhero), it’s the only time the ladies speak to each other in a manner verging on interesting, engaged, and respectful.
That’s a tremendous failure of succeeding at The Bechdel Test. And if we’re looking to it to ensure that there’s not gender bias in a film, Kick-Ass 2 still makes it plain that its creators have some sort of bias against women at large – namely, they seem to think they can’t interact without wanting to literally injure or kill each other. Sweet.
(We could also spend plenty of time unpacking Kick-Ass comic creator Mark Millar’s comments that “comics aren’t for women” or his completely boggling lack of understanding as to what rape “means,” but that’s for another day, or at least another piece – check out Kristy Puchko’s recent piece over at Cinema Blend for some intelligent discourse on the latest Millar kerfuffle.)
It’s important to note that there is exactly one Bechdel Test-passing moment in the film that’s not horrific (and while both characters involved in it are not named, I’m still willing to give it a pass). After Justice Forever’s first baddie bust, Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) hustles a group of young sex slaves into a van, packing them off to a battered women’s shelter. The group’s de facto leader, while grateful, bemoans that they have no money and are thus still lost – Night Bitch responds by handing her a giant bag of money they’ve recovered from their own captor’s coffers. It’s a nice moment, but it’s not nearly enough to save either Kick-Ass 2 or a test some see as a litmus for gender bias.