things to think about

today i am thinking about: THE BECHDEL TEST
October 18, 2011, 11:08 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yesterday I went undercover as a frum Jew. I put on a long black skirt and stockings, made sure my knees, elbows, and collarbones were covered, and went down to Kingston Ave. It’s kol hamoed Sukkot, which is to say that it’s basically a 24/7 party. All the families are out and about, enjoying each other, eating snacks, and there I was, Lubavicher ground zero, toodling about in my skirt.

I was there to, of all things, see a movie. I somehow ended up on a listserv for a whole world of observant Jewish women’s arts. Women are forbidden from performing? singing? in front of men. My impression is that this has historically meant that women just don’t get to do much of that, or maybe that’s just my outsider bias. But I saw an ad for this movie, The Heart that Sings,  and I watched the trailer and I was won over. A musical! About frum girls! How could I not?

The movie itself is a touching and movie-musical-worthy story about a young Jewish woman (Miriam), a Holocaust survivor, who ends up the music and drama teacher at a summer camp for rich and pampered Jewish girls. Will she pull off the annual camp show? (Yes.) Will she finally resolve her past? (Yes.) Will the other counselors grow to like her? (Yes.) You know. It’s all wrapped up in frumkeit – long skirts, Yiddishy language, watching Miriam wash before eating, music praising and praising Hashem but also encouraging the girls that whatever their dreams are, they can do it if they pray. The story itself unfolds differently than the standard “nerdy teacher who wins in the end”; the girls end up liking and trusting her because they feel bad they have been so mean after all she has been through, rather than because she finally wins them over in a montage. She wins over the camp at large only after she is the beneficiary of a real miracle. There are dance numbers, and a hundred songs, and a couple of Holocaust flashbacks.  The film itself was beautifully shot with all of the lighting and period-accurate props you could hope for.

The movie is the work of this fierce woman, Robin Saex Garbose, who – as she put it yesterday, after the screening – saw a niche market and realized it needed to grow. She has a serious theater background in the secular world, although clearly has become more observant. She was teaching classes for frum girls, realized they needed a place to perform and build as artists, and so she made that space vis a vis two feature length films. Two feature length films!

I kept thinking, though, how good this is. How awesome it is to see women making their own art, for each other, and taking each other forward. This movie passed the Bechdel test higher than almost any movie I have seen – not just because there were no men, but because women actually talked about themselves and each other caringly and all got to be real characters. It was no Fiddler situation where the women are only characters inasmuch as they get married or have opinions about marriage. These were observant women, acting religiously, having adventures and singing about being strong and taking risks and so on and so forth.

The Q&A was super interesting inasmuch as 1) clearly the women and girls present were REALLY GLAD that this movie existed, leading me to believe there is not yet much content out there; 2) the concern that showing frum girls bullying each other might somehow reflect badly on the frum community, as if somehow those of us out here in secularlandia really expect that these things don’t happen everywhere. The filmmaker also, in passing, talked about the difficulty of finding conflicts that still reflected the morals she wanted to espouse, saying that (for example) she would never be able to do a film of a girl going off the derech (ie, becoming less traditionally observant.) It’s a huge bummer – I can only imagine how that could be a really interesting and thoughtful film, even if it ended up with her coming back into the fold.

This is the part where of course, it’s easy to roll your eyes – oh lord, those fundamentalists and their propoganda. But really, look at any other teen movie – the tropes are just as strong, the plots just as predictable. Of course nothing revolutionary is going to happen. Teen movies are about reinforcing the prevailing morality, not analyzing or deconstructing it.

I liked The Heart that Sings. I liked that it passed the Bechdel test so well. I like that it gave girls a chance to think about what they could do. I liked that it was a film about girls learning and growing and not a film about girls worrying about dating boys. And I like the idea of women doing it for themselves – I hope that this goes even further, that more girls and women make movies, that we get to hear more voices and more stories and the nuance that goes along with it. Because that? Is feminist. And I? Am not nearly enough a part of that community to be passing judgement.


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what?!?!? YES?!!? (still reading, totally titillated just by your lead!!!!!)(between this and the related FB pic, you are my MVP for media this week!!!)(have now used all punctuation budgeted for month of october you have led to my grammatical doom)

Comment by eliza ridgeway (@elizaridgeway)

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