Iron Man 3, The Bechdel Test, and Rilo Kiley

I saw Iron Man 3 this weekend and absolutely loved it (there is only the tiniest drop-off in quality from the spectacular first film). As I do with movies that I enjoy, I searched for podcasts to listen to the critical reactions of the viewing public. The guys at Overthinking It mentioned that Iron Man 3 successfully passes the Bechdel Test because two women (Pepper Potts and the ambivalently evil Maya Hansen) manage to talk to each other about something other than men or romantic relationships. Well, they do mention that Maya’s boss is a man who may be working for an international superterrorist (certainly worth mentioning), but they also discuss things like the impact that US military funding has had on their projects. I don’t regard passing the test as any sort of Sisyphean task, but I’ve also never been on the lookout for it. I’m sure that its existence is evidence that Hollywood could spend a little more time thinking about these issues when it comes to scripts. So… points to Iron Man 3 for passing the Bechdel Test.*

You know who doesn’t get points for passing the Bechdel Test? Boorish lout Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. She’s got a man on her mind and she aint’ afraid to talk about him.

I discovered “Does He Love You?” this week and the song absolutely floored me. There’s so much good going on here. The spring morning melody, Lewis’ magnificent voice, the theatricality that ramps up with each passing verse. “Does He Love You?” is a one-sided conversation between Lewis and another woman with whom her relationship is unclear. They share a lover and Lewis certainly plays the mistress, but are they friends? Lewis calls her a friend (for what that’s worth), and there is some evidence of a prior relationship:

Let’s not forget ourselves, good friend. You and I were almost dead.

The third verse provides little clarity, but a strange role reversal occurs. Upon discovering the affair, the wife calls and confesses to the mistress that she only married out of desperation. Lewis, perhaps as a consolation, offers up the pained admission that despite the affair, she will never have sole possession of her lover. Whether that fleeting loyalty stems from true love for his wife or from familial duty, Lewis knows she can’t be enough to trump the emotion.

The music leaves no ambiguity as to the pain of both confessions. I love how it peaks on the line he will never leave you for me followed by the addition of the strings (at the 4:03 mark) for maximum dramatic effect. A lesser group could have played this for melodrama, but Rilo Kiley avoids the overwrought through strong songwriting and just enough restraint.

*Editorial note with SPOILERS: A friend has commented that I’m setting an incredibly low bar for Iron Man 3 by praising it for passing the Bechdel Test. Let me be clear – I am praising Iron Man 3 because it’s awesome. I have set a low bar, but that is also a part of what is notable. The superhero genre so frequently relies on retrograde depictions of women that it’s barely even noteworthy. Iron Man 3 successfully engages in minor genre subversion by giving Pepper Potts agency outside of the immediate world of Tony Stark and even though she spends some time as a damsel in distress, she also saves the day in the end.

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