Fans of feminist film, or any lovers of media with strong female characters, might have a hard time justifying why they love certain movies. But the Mako Mori test, named after a Pacific Rim character at the center of a controversy, is attempting to change the conversation about what constitutes "strong women" in film.
It's no secret that Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro's $200 million love song to Japanese pop culture, was a risky venture from the start. With a multicultural cast, Hong Kong used as the main setting instead of New York or L.A., the only real star being a Black Brit many Americans had never heard of, and a storyline full of borrowed tropes that many anime fans felt were ripoffs rather than homages, the sci-fi action flick has fought an uphill battle to draw attention.
But despite what seems to be an infatuated, deeply loyal fanbase—last weekend saw an entire online fan convention, JaegerCon, complete with an appearance from del Toro himself—Pacific Rim has encountered trouble from an unexpected source: the Bechdel Test.
When Allison Bechdel's comic Dykes to Watch Out For introduced the concept of the Bechdel Test to pop culture in 1985, the female character espousing the rule wryly commented that the last movie they'd been able to see in a theatre was 1978's Alien. Why? Because she won't pay money to see a movie unless it has:
1) Two named female characters
2) who talk to each other
3) about something other than a man.
Nearly three decades later, the Bechdel Test has become almost a household phrase, common shorthand to capture whether a film is woman-friendly. But despite how well-known the Bechdel Test is, the vast majority of Hollywood films still utterly fail to "pass Bechdel." Even though the test is alarmingly simple, most Hollywood films don't even come close—and in fact, screenwriters are actively taught not to write films that pass the test.
So the films that are more likely to pass the Bechdel Test are also films that tend to be bucking mainstream trends, and often are more culturally sensitive in general. So it makes sense that many fans had high hopes for Pacific Rim before it arrived. But despite the general cultural awareness that has garnered the film praise, it falls dismally flat on the subject of women. As Vulture noted in a scathing review of the film's male-dominated landscape, the only women in the film are the main character, "Rinko Kikuchi, and two women who get no more than five lines each.”:
Once again, this is a movie where 56 actors appear in the end credits crawl. Only three of those are women we see talking onscreen.
Many of the film's detractors have cited this factor as the film's fatal flaw. Writing on the Bechdel Test forum for the film, moviegoer Alex expressed a feeling shared by many of the film's would-be fans:
I wanted to love this movie so much. It wasn't Transformers-style "hot chick poses with car" crap, it had POC representation, it was multicultural and wasn't America saving the world, the main male lead treated the female lead with respect from the start (she didn't have to "win/earn it" or anything)... but a spectacular, face-to-floor fail on the Bechdel Test.
In July, the Metro UK used Pacific Rim as the centerpiece of an article on the Bechdel Test as a measurement of representational failure, and "why Hollywood is a man's, man's, man's world."
But in fandom, where most of the cultural commentators are women, Pacific Rim is beloved, as is its female star, Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi. Kikuchi's character, Mako Mori, seems to be almost universally uncriticized on Tumblr, where she stars in fanart, gifsets, headcanons, fanfiction, and routine gusts of praise from female fans who love that her character is neither sexually objectified nor given a narrative arc that revolves around a man.
In the film, Mako struggles to asserts her independence despite the protectiveness of her stern father figure, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). She is strong, smart, and perhaps most remarkably, her goal of fulfilling her dream of being a Jaeger pilot is a major part of Pacific Rim's storyline.
On Thursday, Tumblr user spider-xan wrote about what Mako means to her as an Asian woman, in the context of the film's failure to pass Bechdel:
It’s really easy to throw away a film because of that test (which is flawed and used incorrectly in a lot of ways) if you’re a white woman and can easily find other films with white women who look like you and represent you... But as an East Asian woman, someone like Mako — a well-written Japanese woman who is informed by her culture without being solely defined by it, without being a racial stereotype, and gets to carry the film and have character development — almost NEVER comes along in mainstream Western media. And honestly — someone like her will probably not appear again for a very long time.
In response to this post, and in the process of running down numerous arguments for why the Bechdel Test can't and shouldn't be the only measurement by which feminist films are judged, Tumblr user chaila has proposed the Mako Mori Test, "to live alongside the Bechdel Test":
The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story. I think this is about as indicative of “feminism” (that is, minimally indicative, a pretty low bar) as the Bechdel test. It is a pretty basic test for the representation of women, as is the Bechdel test. It does not make a movie automatically feminist.
The application of this test might enable interesting discussions of feminism surrounding films which typically seem to be steamrollered by their failure to pass Bechdel. For instance, while Avengers barely managed to have two women on screen at the same time, much less conversant with each other, it had a female character, Black Widow, whose narrative arc was a major driving force of the plot. Using the Mako Mori Test as a measurement of whether Avengers is a feminist film or not points the focus away from the film's small quantity of women and towards the way Black Widow is demonstrably capable of commanding her own storyline.
Chaila also pointed out that Pacific Rim also passes one major variant of the Bechdel Test, the Bechdel Test for People of Color, with flying colors: it contains two non-white people who talk to each other about something other than a white person—something that's even rarer to find in Hollywood than successful applications of the Bechdel Test:
Again, I’m not arguing that this should supplant women interacting, or that the fact that people of color interact means we should be quiet about the movie’s other flaws. Not at all! But the Bechdel test is NOT the be-all, end-all test for feminism.
But not everyone is in favor of extenuating the power of the Bechdel test, which is hitherto unrivaled for its basic stark illustration of how difficult it is to find movies that feature women as characters independent from male storylines. Writing the day before Chaila's proposal of the Mako Mori test, Tumblr user galesofnovember fumed about "anti-Bechdel backlash:"
[I]t bugs me that people are falling all over themselves to insist that the Bechdel Test is flawed, etc because a cool, socially progressive action movie with an awesome Asian woman protagonist doesn’t pass it. Yeah. I loved Pacific Rim too. I love Mako Mori too. That movie makes my heart soar and I love [its] commitment to make a socially progressive action movie and it still sucks and is still sexist that nowhere does this movie portray a relationship between women.
But ultimately, even if the Mako Mori Test fails to catch on and become a part of the public discourse, conversations about the efficacy of the Bechdel Test will endure. After all, extremely sexist movies can pass Bechdel while still contributing to a harmful message about women. On the other hand, if only one woman at a time can be allowed her own mature, nuanced narrative in a film, then the Mako Mori Test might ultimately enable the status quo rather than critique the widespread "man's world" pattern of filmmaking.
Then again, if "the status quo" gives us more fascinating female characters like Mako Mori, we're not too inclined to object.
Illustration by rhezm/deviantART
Correction: This article originally stated that Pacific Rim's main setting took place in Tokyo. The main setting is actually Hong Kong; Tokyo features in flashbacks.