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(DISCLAIMER: This piece contains spoilers.)
It’s been nearly 30 years since Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For prescribed a three-point check to determine if a movie gives voice to complexly crafted female characters, or just features a smattering of skirts in a man-fueled tizzy.
Quick primer: in order to pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must:
- feature at least two women,
- who talk to each other,
- about anything other than dudes.
"22 Jump Street" is just one of the more recent movies to fail it.
But instead of labeling a movie F for Bechdel Test Flunker, we as audiences can move the dialogue into a positive realm. We can be proactive, using the Bechdel Test not as a catch-all critical condemnation, but as a jumping-off point for larger conversations about the role women play in popular films. When films fail, why do they fail? Do they need to fail? And what would be gained or lost by including just one scene involving two women talking about something that isn’t a man?
So, let’s Bechdel the heck out of "22 Jump Street," shall we?
What Is This Movie?
On the surface, Bechdel-ing a dude-on-dude buddy comedy seems like a big ask. The poster contains Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s sunglass-faced skulls sandwiched around two slices of gold-plated gun. Is there room for a sister in all that machismo? The surprising answer is, yes.
Tatum and Hill are Jenko and Schmidt, a pair of undercover cops who busted drug dealers at a local high school for the 21 Jump Street police program two years ago. The case was, as you might have guessed, a huge success. Now the force is reinstating the department at a new address, 22 Jump Street, and sending the boys back out to do the exact same thing, but at college.
A lot’s been said about the lengths "22 Jump Street" goes to feminize the franchise following the 2012 version, a movie so testosterone fixated that a key plot point revolves around the villain Mr. Walters (played by Rob Riggle) getting his dick shot off. And we get to hear all about how his dickless crotch is holding up in the sequel -- apparently it’s a vagina now! Plus, fodder for jail-rape jokes, but the rapist isn’t who you think it might be. (It is. It’s Mr. Walters.)
Tatum’s Jenko and Hill’s Schmidt are themselves more sensitive this go-around, particularly to gay slurs, and their oft-anointed bromance goes for the touchy-feely in a way that actually resonates as warm and satisfying. The plot, at times, feels like it’s cribbing a romantic comedy crossed with an episode of "The Babysitter’s Club." So yay! It’s not just a slapstick shoot-‘em-up; "22 Jump Street" is a cornball hug-’em-up, too.
But, Does It Feature Women?
It’s cool to cast your male characters in typically female roles, but what about the ladies? What about the ladies? The movie features two really fantastic actresses (Test #1, check!): Jillian Bell (ungodly funny on "Workaholics") as Mercedes, the dorm-room sulker eventually revealed as the mystery drug dealer the guys seek, and Amber Stevens ("Greek") as Maya, Mercedes’ roommate and Schmidt’s love interest.
There are a bunch of things "22 Jump Street" does right:
The women have personalities. Maya is an artist. Mercedes is a psychopath. (Okay, so they sort of have personalities.)
Maya is legitimately interested in Schmidt, human to human. Mercedes can throw a very impressive right hook that makes serious contact in flattening Schmidt’s face.
Mercedes gets a bushel of laugh lines. Maya does not, but she doesn’t necessarily need to. That’s not who that girl is. And let’s not forget that her character is specifically written as a woman of color. (THIS HARDLY EVER HAPPENS FOR ROMANTIC INTERESTS IN MOVIES ABOUT WHITE BROS BRO-ING TO THEIR MAXIMUM BRO-TENTIAL.) Sure, she’s conceived that way to set up legit conflict between Schmidt and Ice Cube (Schmidt’s boss/Maya’s father), which itself is important mostly so that Ice Cube can trash an entire buffet of scrambled eggs and breakfast meats (and I’m totally on board with that).
So we’ve got talented actresses who garner a good deal of screen time in a Hill/Tatum joint. So far so good.
But, Does It Pass The Bechdel Test?
We know we’ve got two girls who speak. Do they speak to each other? Yeah, they do! About Schmi - uh oh.
So, no. Close, but no.
There are three key scenes between Mercedes and Maya:
- Schmidt and Maya wake up the morning after a night of drunk sex to find Mercedes staring daggers into Schmidt’s eyeballs.
- Schmidt and Maya wake up the morning after a night of drunk girl talk to find Mercedes again staring daggers into Schmidt’s eyeballs.
- Maya defeats Mercedes by smashing her over the head with a metal fish? (IS THAT FISH A METAPHOR?? No. No, I don’t…think so?)
In the aforementioned scenes 1 and 2, Maya and Mercedes talk about how Mercedes doesn’t like Schmidt but Maya does like Schmidt; Mercedes insults him, Maya says something along the lines of, “Hey!” and that’s that.
In scene 3, Maya says nothing to Mercedes before bashing her head in. The scene is still notable, though: Maya’s father (Ice Cube) has been taken hostage by Mercedes, and Jenko and Schmidt are busy hunting Mercedes' bankroller. It's on Maya to save her dad. Ice Cube is the damsel, and Maya, the knight.
Would It Have Been Easy To Pass The Test?
Yes. Maya and Mercedes retain an important, plot-pertinent connection beyond the Schmidt relationship -- Mercedes rooms now with Maya, but previously she roomed with the drug dealer whose death spawns Jenko and Schmidt’s investigation. Who died. Surely there must be something Dead-Girl-related that Mercedes and Maya would discuss, something that could either provide a tip-off for Schmidt’s end of the investigation, or introduce another red herring.
What Would’ve Been Gained?
What would happen if we saw Maya and Mercedes’ relationship when Schmidt isn’t around? Would that be interesting/funny to see? Too tangential, or good support for the already-existing story beats? Jenko and Schmidt are the driving force behind the action. This is their movie, and I imagine that a big challenge for the filmmakers might have been, “How do we keep the movie moving forward when the plot already forces the audience to follow the male characters on their separate plot lines?”
The movie is pretty long for a comedy as it is (120 minutes). Still, "22 Jump Street" might’ve gained from giving more opportunity for interaction between the key female characters. If one of the aims of the comedy is to equalize a guy-guy friendship on the same terms as a girl-girl friendship, where’s the female parallel of a bromance to hold it up to?
Seeing the female characters together would have added depth to the lead love interest and the lead villain, the two most important characters in the film other than the leads. Instead, this is what we got: the male-ideal girlfriend (chill, gorgeous, DTF and smart) and anti-social psycho-killer. (Oh, and Queen Latifah is Mom. She gets to make an N.W.A. joke, which is a delight.)
There’s a fourth unspoken element of the three-part Bechdel Test, and while I hardly can speak for Bechdel, I humbly submit it for consideration: Do women drive the plot forward?
Maya and Mercedes may have very little to do with one another on screen, but they do both take decisive action to progress the story, far more than most action movies or male-focused comedies do. That makes those characters relevant in a big way, even if they’re not perfectly constructed.