Introducing: The Percy Award

Last year, when I saw Alison Bechdel talk, she introduced me to Stigler’s Law of Eponymy – “No rule is named after the person who came up with it.”

Stigler did not invent that law.

In the spirit of Stigler’s Law, allow me to introduce you to the system I’ve come up with to test how feminist a film is: The Percy Award. There’s only two criteria…

1) There is at least one woman with a plot that doesn’t revolve around: a man, femininity, beauty, or being a mother.

2) There are (roughly) at least as many female speaking roles as there are male speaking roles.

If a film accomplishes both of these, it gets The Percy Award. Let’s break it down:

1) There is at least one woman with a plot that doesn’t revolve around: a man, femininity, beauty, or being a mother.

Most of the time women are given same two roles, over and over again. They’re mothers or lovers – the virgin or the slut. They exist to dispense sex or nurturing, to be lusted after and fulfil societal expectations. They can always be described in relation to a male – “the love interest”, “the sister”, “the ex”.

Women in films exist to dispense sex or nurturing, to be lusted after and fulfil societal expectations. They can be described in relation to a male – “the love interest”, “the sister”, “the ex”.

And on the rare occasion that they do more than just prop up a male character’s plot, the fact that they don’t fit the typical feminine archetype will be their plot (think Merida in Brave).

To fulfil this criteria, the woman also needs to actually be given a storyline, which is pretty important*. We’re defining a “plot” here as “A story with a beginning, middle and end (in different scenes).”  Megan stealing the dogs in Bridesmaids isn’t a “plot”, but Annie dealing with the closure of her bakery is (and while it involves a man, it certainly doesn’t revolve around one).

* Note that I’m not saying “main characters” or “central storylines” – that would eliminate every film with a single male protagonist, and a film can still be feminist while having one protagonist who is male.

2) There are (roughly) at least as many female speaking roles as there are male speaking roles.

Our population is made up of (roughly) 50% men and 50% women. You would expect representation in film to be roughly the same, but in 2013 only 30% of speaking roles were female, and only 15% of protagonists. The further back you go, the worse it gets.

As a writer, whenever I need a character to deliver a throwaway line or piece of information, my first instinct is always for that role to be filled by a man. Shop-keeper, hotel clerk, doctor – unless a character needs to be female, they’ll be a man.

This ties into the first criteria as well. If a writer sits down and asks themself “Okay, let’s put a woman in – what would a female plot be about?” then they’ll repeatedly draw from the same well. Men can have any plot in the world; women need to have a woman plot.

Male as the default is a dangerous and unhealthy attitude. You’ll see it all the time – if a character doesn’t have to be female, then they won’t be.

Also note – we’re not counting the number of lines, just whether or not they have lines at all. This is for the same reason that “roughly” is specified. You should be able to work out whether a film is deserving of the award without having to sit down and rewatch it with a pen and paper.

You’ll find that the vast majority of the time, it will quickly become obvious whether a film is going to come close.

In Bridesmaids, for example, female roles include: Annie, Lillian, Helen, Megan, Rita, Becca, Annie’s mum, and Rebel Wilson. Male roles include: the policeman, Lillian’s father, Jon Hamm, Annie’s boss, the fitness instructor, and Matt Lucas.

There are probably a few more scattered around, but Bridesmaids? Totally deserves The Percy Award.

Finding worthy films is extremely difficult. That’s why it’s not a “test” – it’s not a pass/fail system, and it’s not something that a movie can accomplish with one throwaway line (I love the Bechdel Test for looking at trends, but I just don’t think it’s the best standard for evaluating individual films).

Getting a Percy Award is an accomplishment – if a film manages to give a woman something to do outside of base gender expectations and it shows a roughly-equal representation of both genders, then that’s (sadly) a genuinely rare feat.

So let’s celebrate it. What films can you think of that deserve The Percy Award?

Arguments

In my experience, every genuine disagreement I have with someone ends up coming down to one of three things:

  1. Differing core beliefs“Look, when it comes down to it, I would rather someone productive and unhappy died rather than someone unproductive but happy.”
    “Oh what? I would always rather someone unproductive and happy died.”
    “Well we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
  2. Conflicting information. “I can’t believe Julian Blanc was barred from entering Australia – sure, there are some sleazy pickup artists, but that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be allowed to come here just because of his job.”
    “Actually, he had videos in which he explicitly encouraged men to choke strange women as a way of hitting on them.”
    “Oh. Yeah, okay. I now fully support his visa being revoked.”
  3. Miscommunications. “So you really think that the idea of God is impossible. There’s not even a one in a hundred hundred billion chance that he exists?”
    “A one in a hundred hundred billion chance IS impossible. That’s the same odds as guessing every password you encounter, exactly correctly, first time every time. That’s not going to happen – it’s impossible.”
    “Well no, that’s not impossible. Impossible is something that could never happen.”
    “Like what? Impossible, by that definition, doesn’t exist. There’s nothing that could never happen – only stuff that’s so unlikely that we call it impossible. But sure – by that definition, God is totally possible (but so is literally everything).”

(Those are all real arguments I’ve been a part of.)

I think of myself as an extraordinarily good communicator. I make my full-time living from writing, all of my hobbies involve communication in some way, and I used to be a great math tutor specifically because of my ability to make complicated concepts quite clear.

But I would say something like 90% of the arguments I’m a part of come down to miscommunication. Quite often, they come down to semantics – the way I’m using a word (or the way I interpreted it) is unusual. Maybe it’s just that my social circles are mostly made up of people with similar opinions and information to me. Maybe I only remember the Type 3 arguments because they go on the longest (when you’re arguing different premises, it’s amazing how much time it takes you to realize that).

“If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

So I’m wondering if there’s something about me that means I communicate things strangely, so tell me – think back to the last 5 or 6 arguments you had. With your spouse, your friends, your co-workers, anyone. Did they fall neatly into those 3 categories? And if so, does one stand out as being the main cause of these arguments?

I just want to check if I’m an asshole.

Witch

Originally written July 2012, rediscovered a few minutes ago.

Tessa was fifteen when she killed her first human.

The phrasing always struck her as odd – technically, Tessa was as human as the barber that she murdered, but her coven insisted on it. “Now you’ve been doing really well with cats and dogs, pet, but you’ve got to step up to the next level. Anyone can stamp on a hamster; killing a human, now that’s where the skill lies.”

And so, under the tutelage of her grandmother’s mother, Tessa had booked an appointment with the barber, last one of the day. She had even let him practice his craft, just as she was about to practice hers, then once he was done cutting the young lady’s hair, she had picked up his own scissors and cut out his heart.

The new haircut felt symbolic, in a way – she’d decided to go quite short, which she’d never done before, and honestly the coven frowned upon. “Witches don’t have short hair,” her aunt’s wife had once told her in private. “It doesn’t sit well with the cackle.”

But looking at herself in the barber’s mirror, his heart still pumping in her hand, spraying the slightest bit of blood over her face, she liked the new her. It was almost pixie-ish; it had that sense of mischief, and it definitely made her look older.

She had slipped the still-beating heart (one of the earliest tricks she had mastered when slitting the throats of her neighbour’s neverending supply of seeing-eye dogs was preventing the heart from realising it had left the body and had no blood left to pump) into her purse, stopped to admire her new look one final time, and left a note on the window on the way out – written in blood, of course. It wasn’t until she was three blocks away that she stopped in horror – Tessa realised she’d forgotten to pay for the haircut, but by that point it was too late to go back.

Her mother disapproved of her activities in general; one of the rare few in Tessa’s family who had no magic in her veins, Tessa’s mother had never really seen what the appeal was. After three years of washing blood out of her daughter’s clothes, Tessa could tell that her patience had started to wear thin, but it wasn’t until tonight that the final straw was broken.

“You forgot?? You forgot to pay? Tessa, I understand that this is important to you, but when you said you were going to murder the barber I didn’t think that you were going to steal from him as well! Have you considered his poor widow? And what about his children? You know young Gerald in the grade below him – yes, the shared last name isn’t just a coincidence, that’s the barber’s son! It’s not bad enough that he’s lost his father, but thanks to you the expense of a funeral is going to be just that much harder to meet.”

Tessa tried to stand defiant, like she’d seen other young witches do when the target of a tirade, but she was still new to the scene, and couldn’t stop her lip from trembling and a pair of tears leaving her eye and rolling down to the end of her nose.

“I…I…”

Tessa’s mother stopped. If Tessa had been watching, she would have seen a flash of concern cross her mother’s face, a chink in the armor of anger that she could potentially have exploited. But Tessa was too busy inspecting her shoe, and wishing she still had a long, matted fringe that she could hide her face behind.

“I forgot! There was so much to remember…the ritual, the spells, the note…”

The moment of compassion passed, and Tessa’s mother started her rant anew.

“No! No, that is IT young lady. I let you host the annual meet again last year, I let you borrow my spices for your little spells, but I did not raise a thief. You can go to one more meeting, but that is it – after that, I want you to tell your friends that you are grounded. You are not allowed to be a witch any more.”

Tessa stared up at her mother in horror.

“But…but…mum!”

“No buts young lady, that is final. I don’t want to see another toad in this house. This weekend when your father gets home, he is going to take all of that hocus pocus to the dump. No more witching.”

Tessa’s lip started once more, and the tears began to well up in greater numbers. Lost for words, she ran up to her room and slammed the door, leaving her purse besides her.

From behind her, she could hear a scream, and the squelch of a human heart hitting the floor.

“And I told you that I didn’t want to see any more of these in the house!”

Mrs Pembrose’s Talent

Originally written July 2012, rediscovered just a few minutes ago.

“Oh dear,” she tutted, shaking her head from side to side. “Oh dear oh dear oh dear.”

Everyone has a Talent. Some are more obvious than others, some find years to find, and presumably some die without ever having discovered their Talent at all. Mrs Pembrose had been 45 and a half before she’d discovered hers – she thought she’d never discover it. She’d lived her life quite happily beforehand, getting married, having two children (quite young, as was the trend these days) – a son and a daughter – and seeing them off to college and a family of their own respectively.

But then, one day when she was at home, she had dropped her address book, tutted, and said “Oh dear.”

It was crystal clear, the second the words escaped her mouth. It was odd, really, that she’d never uttered that simple phrase, those two words in conjunction before, but as soon as she did, she knew:

She’d found her Talent.

Her husband had found her in that same position when he returned home several hours later. She was just sitting there, and it appeared at first glance that she was muttering to herself. Her husband briefly wondered if she had gone insane, especially when she looked up, with that gleam of excitement in her eyes.

But then she had simply said “Oh dear”, and he understood. She’d found her Talent.

Mr Pembrose had discovered his talent quite young. It wasn’t one of the Talents that everyone hoped for – acting, dancing, stockbroking – but it was solid, and he enjoyed it. He had a Talent for middle-management, and armed with this knowledge, he’d soon found himself a lovely middle-management position, where he cheerfully worked, no ambition for advancement, no fear of demotion. His bosses appreciated his skills, his employees were glad to be working under someone who was perfectly suited for their positions, and he didn’t have to worry about playing the brown-nosing game, he just had to go to work each day, and be one of the best middle-managers in the country.

The usefulness of Mrs Pembrose’s Talent was less obvious. In those first few days, she was so excited about having found it that she simply sat at home and repeated “Oh dear” to herself over and over again. She called her family, her friends, her children, they all shared in her joy, celebrated with her. She organised a Talent party, as custom encouraged, and everyone brought her small presents. Mrs Pembrose’s father, known for his sense of humour, bought her a small figurine of a deer. Her children bought her a set of business cards with her name, number, and catch-phrase on it.

And at the end of that first week, after the initial excitement was over, Mrs Pembrose set out to see if there was any way she could use her Talent to make a living. She’d worked most of her life as a secretary – work that she enjoyed, but had never completely fulfilled her. She knew that there was a career that she was so perfectly suited towards out there, waiting for her, and so her stint as a secretary felt like a time-killer until her Talent came along.

But now, now she knew what she was capable of, what she could do best. But how to implement it?

Mrs Pembrose tried finding voiceover or acting work – anything that required the line “Oh dear” delivered, she excelled at. She could say it happily, sadly, disapprovingly, orgasmically – name the adjective, and she could say “Oh dear” perfectly. But “Oh dear” situations are few and far between – knowing what she was capable of, interested in making use of such a unique Talent, a few advertising agencies specifically wrote campaigns to utilise it, but after a month or two work dried up. “Oh dear” ads were done with, and the cyclical nature of advertisements meant that they wouldn’t become fresh again for another decade or two.

She managed to get a few interviews – the news was always interested in unusual and individual Talents, with most channels dedicating a brief segment at the end of their news slots at the less popular times to showcasing weird Talents, but once she had worked through the networks, she was again without anything to do.

And then it occurred to her – there was no job out there waiting to take advantage of her strange Talent, because it wasn’t a skill that people were expected to had. Jobs grew out of not only necessities, but also talents – if someone could do something well, they would typically try to work out how to use their talent to better society, and more importantly, earn them money.

And so it was that Mrs Pembrose got a job as a professional Disapprover.

Corporations would call her in to disapprove of ideas. They’d present her as a neutral observer, or an expert in a particular field, and once an idea was explained to her, she’d pause, tilt her head to the side, and say those two words:

“Oh dear.”

Mrs Pembrose never got sick of seeing how people reacted. Some of them were indignant, some of them were disappointed, some of them seemed to be expecting it, sighed, and packed up their presentation without another word. A few, when she was just starting out, were skeptical, but after a few weeks on the job she worked out the exact tone of “Oh dear” to give out, the tone that conveyed a lack of interest in the idea, no room for argument, a hint of disappointment, and an unwavering sense of authority.

She was a huge hit – companies were hiring her to disapprove of anything and everything, from plans for expansion to new stationery suggestions to annual performance reviews. Individuals starting hiring her, for jobs as varied as fortune-teller to divorce lawyer.

One job consisted of setting her up as a fashion guru, approving of one company’s designs but not the other. She was surprised, six months later, to see some of the garments she’d nodded at (or, on a few occasions, given an enthusiastic-and-impressed “Oh dear” to) selling for many hundreds of dollars at her local clothing store.

The work started sporadically, but became more and more consistent as word spread. Of course, as word spread, she had to be careful not to be recognised – she had awkwardly turned up as a “bee-keeping expert” to one job, only to discover that the target of her “we’re-interested-but-you’ll-have-to-lower-the-price Oh dear” was a previous client. At one job shortly afterwards, she’d felt suspicion coming from her target, but she had (rather impressively, she thought to herself at the time) quelled it with an “Oh dear” of “Your suspicion is absurd”.

It didn’t always work, of course – the best-delivered “Oh dear” can’t always change someone’s mind, but delivered in the right way to someone who already has some doubt, especially when the messenger is imbued with implied status, knowledge and power…well, an “Oh dear” can go a hell of a long way.

After a year, Mrs Pembrose was making a reliable, if not exhorbidant income. She enjoyed her job – there was something about knowing your Talent, knowing that you were one of the best at what you did (and with her extremely specific Talent, probably THE best that ever was and ever would be) and having other people appreciate it. She understood now why Talented people were always the happiest ones at Talent parties, the ones celebrating the newly-Talented the most.

As part of her job, she’d had to start putting on disguises, voices; she’d even attended one or two sessions pretending to be a rather heavily-bearded man. It added a bit of variety to what otherwise risked being an overly negative job – disapproving of things all day every day ran the risk of getting her down, but the costuming element ensured that she was never bored.