On Oct. 14, when “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” was released online on HBO, it promised to chronicle the life of the activist-actress. But all too soon — just after the opening credits — the film fell into a narrative trope that has become increasingly common in the biographical documentaries of accomplished women.
I had expected a film about Fonda, but found one where men literally define each of the five acts, until the final one. Act one is named “Henry” for Fonda’s father, act two is “Vadim,” for her first husband, and so on. Each segment focuses on its namesake and his impact on Fonda’s life — how each man scarred her, inspired her, supported her. The last act, which begins with fewer than 20 minutes left of the 135-minute film, is named Jane: As if, after I had seen her relationships to men, I could finally understand her.
This way of telling stories is just like another trope in cinema: the male gaze. As Patricia Erens, editor of “Issues in Feminist Film Criticism,” explains it: “In short, men act and women appear,” or, in this case when women are the central subject, “Men act, women react.”
In the growing genre of female-focused documentaries with mainstream appeal, “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” is hardly alone in its choice to make personal affairs with men a major focus of its drama. Consider “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (2017), which takes five steps forward, but one step back. Lamarr’s multiple husbands form a significant throughline of the occasionally gossipy retelling of a serious woman’s life.
As more of these female-focused films emerge — often championed by digital-savvy players like Hulu, Netflix, HBO and Amazon — like “RBG” (2018), “Being Serena” (2018) and “Gaga: Five Foot Two” (2017), the pattern is clear. Though these films portray strong feminist leads who are media-trained, political and influential, a significant portion of screen time is still devoted to men.
Making matters worse: Male biographical documentaries aren’t returning the favor to women. Men are celebrated for their accomplishments with little attention to the women who supported, nurtured and helped them. Accomplished women, on the other hand, must give ample credit to the men in their lives — much in the same way women are often asked to express gratefulness in everyday settings or downplay their contributions.
That’s why we need a new method of evaluating biographical documentaries. In popular movies, the Bechdel Test serves this purpose: Alison Bechdel first popularized it in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” in the 1980s, but its origin has been traced back to Virginia Woolf’s book “A Room of One’s Own.” In order to pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must have three things:
Documentary films are the next frontier of a gender parity test. After all, “most successful documentaries these days are structured like feature films,” says media scholar Alexandra Juhasz.
Given the patterns that have emerged from recent female-focused documentaries, I propose the following criteria for this new test:
Documentaries about men also need a rubric:
Let’s put our test to action. Take, for example, “Anita” (2013), which wouldn’t pass. While Hill’s life is plotted from her Senate hearings to her decades of women’s rights activism, the documentary’s resolution hinges on Hill finding a supportive partner as much as it does on her present-day work. That means that it fails question two, because “Anita” ends when the protagonist finds love. For a cynic, the message sent: Don’t worry about Hill, she now has a man.
In “Gaga: Five Foot Two” (2017), the singer-songwriter’s lack of a partner at the time of filming is an underlying cause of worry. The musician-slash-businesswoman, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, opens the documentary by lamenting a fight with ex-fiance Taylor Kinney and discussing her “bullshit” threshold with men – lest we forget for a second that Gaga is thinking about the men in her life, regardless of what is happening in her huge career. In this documentary, much drama is derived from the search for a husband; the answer to question two, sadly, is no.
This trope, of plotting a feminist woman’s life around marriage and finding a supportive partner, is nothing new; in fact, it borrows heavily from literary works by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and was played with in Jeffrey Eugenides’s on-the-nose-titled novel. If anything, it shows just how stilted our cultural narratives are.
For the women with supportive male partners, their documentaries often give their significant others outsized credit and revel in romantic details. In “RBG” (2018) — a stunning examination of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career — her husband, Marty, is portrayed as an almost perfect man. He is endlessly encouraging and loving.
But beyond that, he is partially credited with her meteoric ascent. He plays a role in her nomination process for the Supreme Court and takes a backseat in his career in order to let Justice Ginsburg shine. He even cooks much better than she does. “RBG” fails the test because Marty makes up more than 8 percent of the film.
Marty is strikingly reminiscent of the supportive husband sculpted in “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” (2017). In the documentary about Didion, who’s often celebrated for redefining narrative journalism, her husband, John Dunne, is presented as a major player – as much in her career as in her personal life.
Dunne is also similar to documentarian Lauren Greenfield’s husband, Frank Evers, in her newest film, “Generation Wealth” (2018). In the film, Greenfield occasionally turns the camera onto her own family: When she does, she makes clear just how thankful she is of her partner, who enables her career.
And Evers, in turn, is the same archetypal man as Alexis Ohanian in “Being Serena” (2018). Serena Williams positively gushes about Ohanian throughout the film, while Ohanian chooses to discuss topics such as founding the online dialogue platform Reddit while on camera. When he comes on screen during Williams’s workout, a sappy Leon Bridges song plays, kicking off a two-and-a-half minute segment about their partnership in a 24-minute episode. Yet another documentary fails our test.
In an interview with The Lily, “RBG” co-director Betsy West says Marty Ginsburg is an exemplary husband, admiring the justice for her brain. Plus, she says, the story tugs at heartstrings. “Who doesn’t love a romance? And it’s an unusual story for its time. It’s a feminist love story.”
But the inclusion of romance also serves a purpose that is mired in gender assumptions. It allows for high-achieving women “to be humanized” and makes their “outstanding work in whatever field potentially more palatable,” Juhasz says. “The films are agreeable, and the films can’t be agreeable if the women aren’t agreeable.” This tracks with how women are portrayed in fictional film and underscores the Bechdel Test’s point:
While the subjects themselves, whether Ginsburg or Didion or others, might believe that their relationships are a documentary-worthy aspect of their lives, I wonder how much of that is humility long ingrained within them that then becomes solidified as their lore. And while the subjects might express humility and gratitude themselves, the directors and editors make the ultimate decisions. It’s time to ask whether the relationship drama surrounding such high-achieving women is truly relevant to telling their stories — at least to the extent that we currently regard it.
Perhaps if mainstream documentaries depicting the lives and careers of men did not largely erase women, then this portrayal of women’s achievements would be of less concern. This tendency exists not only in documentaries, but in fictional movies with male heroes, and dates far back in cinematic history.
In the film criticism text “From Reverence to Rape,” Molly Haskell argues that male-centric films (which, let’s face it, is most), especially from the 1930s and 1940s, downplayed women and their roles in relationships. “[T]he wife becomes a killjoy, distracting not only the hero but the audience from the fun and danger. Marriage becomes the heavy,” Haskell writes.
But do male-centric documentaries really fail the test? This year’s “John McCain: For Whom The Bell Tolls” does. In it, the late senator’s two wives are hardly discussed, save for when he leaves the first for the second. The first shot of the film shows him with his second wife, playing fetch with his dog, but she doesn’t speak.
And as the film delves into his career trajectory, the late Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the hero of his own story. There is no mention by him of how Cindy McCain supported him on the campaign trail, shaped his views or worked as chair of a multi-million-dollar company. While his wife and ex-wife speak extremely highly of McCain, there’s little acknowledgement of what they did for him.
In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (2018), a biographical documentary about Fred Rogers, the beloved television host’s wife almost functions as a plot device: While she gives insight into Rogers’s character, there is no biographical context on her, nor an exploration of her contributions. Thus, this film fails on both questions. I don’t believe Rogers would approve.
Refreshingly, the directors of “RBG” believe that documentaries about men should talk more about their wives because when someone rises, the spouse typically plays a major role. “For so long, women were just the silent partners,” West says. “Often the only way to express brilliance was through their husbands.”
But as of now, there isn’t parity of credit. Documentaries ought to show women’s credentials, their victories, their drive, their obstacles, their historical context, their impact, their legacy, their values. Instead, the message documentaries are sending is this: Every successful man is self-made. But for every successful woman, it takes a village — made up of men.
It’s time a new kind of Bechdel Test changed our standards.