Women make better films and better friends

News that movies with decent female speaking roles do better chimes with my experience of social events

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The really elemental challenge facing the cultural studies expert, or so one had always assumed, is to work out why ordinary people enjoy the books, films and music that come their way rather than why the cultural studies experts think they do – that is, to examine the cultural process from the bottom up rather than from the top down. As cultural studies nearly always consists of very clever people laying down the law about the tastes of what are assumed to be slightly less clever people, this approach invariably carries the tang of novelty. The literary critic I A Richards, an early exponent of the technique, caused a sensation in his Cambridge lectures of the 1920s by employing the methods of the mass survey in an attempt to establish what gave particular cultural artefacts their sheen not from the vantage point of the theorist but from the angle of that much neglected entity, the audience.

No doubt Richards' shade hovered approvingly over last week's much-trumpeted study of the Hollywood movie industry which contrived to demonstrate that the most profitable films are not macho epics in which anaconda-armed men run around blowing things up, but those featuring well-rounded female characters. The analytical benchmark followed by FiveThirtyEight, the number-crunching blog which analysed ticket sales for 1,615 films released since 1990, was what is known as the "Bechdel test": a form of assessment established by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which turns on whether the film features at least two women who have a conversation with each other that is, on the one hand, about something other than a man and, on the other, doesn't have a man lurking in the background while it proceeds.

According to FiveThirtyEight, the total median gross return on investment for a film that passes the Bechdel test was $2.68 for each dollar spent, while the total median gross return on investment for films that failed it was a mere $2.45. This led the site's spokesman, Walt Hickey, to claim that "the data doesn't appear to support the persistent Hollywood belief that films featuring women do worse at the box-office". All the evidence, in fact, suggests that films featuring what cinema sociologists call "meaningful interactions between women" are the gateway to a better return, although, as our sister paper i shrewdly pointed out, the test is by no means a secure guide to gender equality. The solitary girl-on-girl conversation that distinguishes American Hustle is a chat about nail-polish.

A certain kind of male cinema-goer will naturally be keen to contest these findings. But my own immediate reaction – that there are plenty of profitable films which feature men talking to each other – was blown away by a moment or two's sober reflection. For the male "buddy movies" that are historically such a feature of the big screen – Midnight Cowboy, say, or Withnail and I or The Blues Brothers – turn out, on close inspection, to be less about men talking than about men remaining largely silent. Withnail, for example, is not so much conversation as a riot of immensely stylised banter in which what doesn't get said is substantially more important than what rises to the surface, while John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers exchange some of the most minimalist lines known to Hollywood.

And from the wider cultural perspective, the FiveThirtyEight survey merely confirms a truth that historians of literature, drama and music have suspected for ages. This is that, broadly speaking and allowing for certain kinds of genre differentiation, the flame of "culture" is pretty much kept stoked by women. The history of the British novel since the early 19th century, for example, is a perpetual triumph for Scheherazade and her handmaidens – written, increasingly, by women and, especially as the board school reforms of the late-Victorian age began to speed up the drive towards mass literacy, read by women as well. The early surveys of national reading habits that began to appear in the 1930s reveal a clear gender divide: women were found to read all kinds of different books; men tended to settle either for the classics or detective novels.

As for the importance of women to modern publishing, very few male novelists can have missed out on the moment when the design department decides to "soften up" (shorthand for "humanise") a rather austere-looking hardback book jacket for paperback publication on the excellent grounds that, as the majority of books sold in this country are bought by women, then it is advisable that they should find their covers appealing.

The fact that women read more books than men and, as the evidence of book groups demonstrates, like talking about them, used to be explained away on the grounds that women have more leisure time and, if men weren't working themselves to death, then they, too, would have space for the finer things in life. This may have been true in the past – it was certainly true of the Victorian bourgeoisie, for whom novel-reading was one of the main recreations, and the heroines of fiction are always accompanied to their country retreats by trunks full of books from Mudie's circulating library – but you doubt very much whether the rule applies in the high-octane trade-off between work and childcare duties that is the 24/7 early 21st century.

In fact, all the evidence suggests that what we have here is not the result of circumstance but a bona fide secondary sexual difference: that women, when it comes down to it, are more interesting than men, more culturally attuned, more alert to the quiddities of the world around them. Dinner parties, for example – in fact, any kind of social activity involving equal numbers of both sexes – are always a torture to me because of the gender abyss that instantly opens up between the participants. The men bore on about their jobs, the value of their houses and the weekend's sport, while the women talk about the books they have been reading.

This is an exaggeration, of course, borne of too much social misery caused by men, but its echoes resonate throughout much of the culture, both high-brow and low-brow, of the past century. "But what were all the women doing?" a critic once wondered, having come to the end of the unrelentingly male-dominated The Lord of the Rings, in which a handful of female characters (Arwen, Galadriel, Eowyn) can be glimpsed tantalisingly at large amid the maelstrom of swashbuckling blokes. Tolkien is rather sparing on the minutiae of domestic life in Middle Earth, but it seems highly probable that they were reading poems to each other, pencilling sketches of the plains of Rohan, painting miniatures of their children – anything, in fact, to achieve a little cultural satisfaction while the men were busy beating each other up.

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