The Mako Mori Test is Here to Fill Another Spot on Your Feminist Film Criticism Toolbelt

Feature image via monstersandcritics.com

It’s no secret that Hollywood isn’t the most female-friendly place. It’s extremely difficult to find a movie with a capable, interesting, three-dimensional female lead. That’s one of the reasons that this summer’s movie Pacific Rim has struck such a chord with Millenials. One of the movie’s protagonists is Mako Mori, a Japanese woman played by Rinko Kikuchi and who co-pilots the film’s main Jaeger (a giant monster-fighting robot) and ultimately helps to save the world. However, some have criticized the movie for failing to pass the Bechdel test, which is often unilaterally used to determine if a movie is feminist or not. In response, a new test has been devised based on Mako Mori and her role in the film. A test that is meant to work with, not in place of, the Bechdel test to give us a better look at feminist trends in the movie industry.

Ever since a fateful day in 1985 when Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel decided to make a joke about the lack of meaningful female relationships in films, it seems that we’ve had only one way to measure if a film is feminist or not. In that comic strip, one of Bechdel’s characters said that she only goes to movies that meet her three simple requirements. Out of those requirements the Bechdel test was born. For a movie to pass the Bechdel test:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

While this seems like an easy thing to do, out of Box Office Mojo’s top 100 grossing movies of 2012, only 46 passed the Bechdel test. 49 didn’t, and I was unable to find information for the other five.

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But a movie passing the Bechdel test doesn’t automatically mean it is a feminist film. Both The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Pt. 2 and the Oliver Stone movie Savages pass the test, but I doubt many would call either feminist. Similarly, Pacific Rim didn’t pass the test (it has two named female characters, but they do not talk to each other in the movie), but many women find the film, and specifically Mako Mori’s story, to be very empowering and inspiring. One of the main narratives of the film is Mako’s desire to become a Jaeger pilot and overcome the childhood trauma she faced when a Kaiju (giant monster) destroyed her hometown of Tokyo. This idea that Pacific Rim still offers a strong, feminist role model and story for women inspired tumblr user chaila to come up with her own test to “live alongside the Bechdel test (not to supplant it…).”

The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.

Mako Mori is one of the film’s heroes. She’s a survivor, she’s clever, she’s both mentally and physically strong, she isn’t objectified and she has the most awesome Kaiju-killing moment in the entire film. While it’s true that she doesn’t talk to another woman in the course of the movie, she has her own distinct narrative and goes through the traditional hero’s journey arguably just as much as any other character in the film. Surely there’s some merit in that.

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From what I could tell, it seems like movies passing the Mako Mori test are a lot rarer than movies passing the Bechdel test. It seems easier to have two women have a superficial conversation in passing than to give one woman her own story that doesn’t revolve around a man. This isn’t to say that the Mako Mori test is more indicative of feminism than the Bechdel test, it just measures one more factor out of many. (Arguably, it’s still possible for a movie to pass both tests without being particularly feminist.)

While almost half of 2012’s top 100 grossing movies passed the Bechdel test, by my count only 23 passed the Mako Mori test. However, due to how new the Mako Mori test is and how little discussion there has been about it, whether a movie passes or not is still very subjective. For example, movies where the narratives seem to mostly revolve around a group narrative, like The Avengers are hard to grade. Similarly, does a movie like Skyfall where M, the female lead of MI6 has a narrative about trying to keep her job and maintain control of MI6, pass? It’s hard to say, as that arc seems to heavily revolve around and support both James Bond’s return to espionage and Raoul Silva’s revenge plot. Surely as there is more discussion on the topic, a clearer consensus about what passes and what doesn’t will be reached.

Neither the Bechdel test nor the Mako Mori test is meant to test if a film is feminist or not. They’re not even meant to test if a movie is good or not. They are both just measurements in what should be a detailed examination of characters, dialogue and story. Furthermore, to focus on whether or not each individual movie passes each test ignores the trends that are going on in Hollywood. Instead of looking at Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and saying that it passes the Bechdel Test, we should be looking at the fact that less than a quarter of the top movies in 2012 passed both tests at the same time. Some have seen the Mako Mori test as a reason to bring up renewed criticisms of the Bechdel test, saying that it is mostly useless because of how low a bar it sets. But that low bar is the point. If the majority of movies can’t even pass the most basic requirements for female character interaction, there must be something wrong with the system that produces them. GLAAD has recently coined yet another test for queer and trans representation, the Vito Russo test; it has similarly low numbers for passage. Although it may not have been examined yet, one suspects that the movies passing the Bechdel, Mako Mori, and Vito Russo tests are very few and far between.

As the original tumblr post said, this new test isn’t meant to replace the Bechdel test, it’s meant to give us another tool in our efforts to examine the sexist trends that exist in the movie industry. And the more tools we have, the better equipped we are. Since women make up a little more than half of the population, it makes sense that we should want to see characters and relationships that reflect our lives. We must remember that neither one of the these tests should be used as an end-all be-all. Instead we need to use as many measuring sticks as we can get our hands on. The more knowledge we have about how female characters are treated in the movies we watch, the less likely we’ll be to ignore it when they are pushed to the side.

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Mey is a lesbian Latina trans woman living in Idaho. Her areas of expertise include comic books, trans issues and pop culture. She has an English Degree, a cat named Sawyer, a tumblr that she uses a lot and a twitter that she only uses occasionally.

Mey has written 152 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. Thumb up 17

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    I think the Bechdel Test is a thing precisely because it shows how and why a film like Pacific Rim can have a interesting female lead while also being one of the most dudely films I’ve watched in a long while. I went and watched Pacific Rim specifically because I was told – again and again – and it’s great with its female characters and I was really, really disappointed with it. What’s most disappointing – and most shocking – is that there are no women on screen besides Mako Mori and, for a couple of minutes, a Russian woman. The film has a huge cast but you still get to see more alien monsters on screen than women! It keeps having these impressive wide shots of labs and military bases and construction sites etc with hundreds and hundreds of extra – and every one of them seems to be a man. I might be misremembering the film because I only saw it once, but I swear every single person in those kids of shots is a man.

    The people who made this film thought that people could sympathize with a female main characters – which is admirable and vaguely feminist – but they also seemed to think women can’t be scientists, engineers, construction builders or soldiers unless, like Mako Mori, they’re forced into it because they must avenge their family (and notice too how none of the male characters need trauma as a motivation, they’re all just brave and passionate about their work and / or want fame).

    • Thumb up 3

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      So, disclaimer, I just saw this movie a couple days ago and fell totally in love with it, so I wanted to respond to your criticism.

      I totally agree with the first part of your comment – I think it’s easier to recognize when there are fully-fleshed and well-rounded female characters, but the fact that the rest of the cast is almost always male is far more under the radar. That’s what I think the strength of the Bechdel test is – it points out an issue that often is never even recognized.

      That being said, Mako’s motivation does not stand out as unusual. Of the main characters, we really only see motivation for maybe three – Mako, Raleigh, and arguably Chuck Hansen who just wants fame. Mako’s backstory is more flushed out than the others, and I don’t think it’s fair to just assume that her somewhat-vengeance-driven storyline is anti-feminist. I also wouldn’t qualify it as “having to avenge her family” – that’s clearly part of why she wants to fight, but she also wants to fight because she’s the best (and the most compatible).

      I don’t think it’s a perfect feminist movie, of course (would it have been impossible for her to speak to Sasha, the Russian woman? or to have one of the scientist/techs be female?). But I think pretty strongly that what it lacks in female presence it makes up for in having one of the best female characters in mainstream action movies – far more than just a Strong Female Character.

    • Thumb up 3

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      One of Hannibal Chau’s bodyguards was a woman, just to add another badass woman of the film. She is listed in the credits as one of Hannibal Chau’s Thugs, and looks like she got her job by cutting down anyone who claimed she couldn’t. It certainly isn’t a main role, but it’s another female character who doesn’t seem to be limited by gender.

  2. Thumb up 3

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    I love Mako Mori, and Pacific Rim. She’s not a white female (and she’s not the only non-white hero), she’s not a stereotype, she doesn’t let her relatives, or anyone else, define the person she is & she’s not put in the film to fulfill a sexual desire. It does suck, though, that if you look at the cast & crew list, no-surprise, it’s male dominated, but baby steps I guess.

    • Thumb up 11

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      YES!

      Rant:

      Here’s the thing that will always confuse me in the sic-fi/fantasy/horror genre; you can have goblins, dragons, people who can fly, magic, crazed killers of the third kind, aliens, and killer vegetables in these vast and very imaginative fantastical worlds but the main protagonist is usually a white male or the human populations that exist are usually in some form of 50 shades of white heterosexual people with like two people of color named Will Smith and some other POC actor if Will Smith is busy.

      PLUS with the few times there is a potential for characters to be a person of color they are whitewashed (Hunger Games). When we have interesting female characters giant robots must be present or the “female” IS are a giant robot, “Isn’t she a beauty!” I. don’t. get. it. I like dragons, and goblins, and killer tofu creatures ready to murder meat-eaters in some ironic fashion (random ass move btw), I’ve seen the magic that is Dark Crystal and read so many fantasy books growing up.

      Zoe Salanda does not need to be blue for my ass to see her ass in some sci-fi film, I want her riding on a dragon with a blaze fire-hair, a scepter to command the universe, maybe some goblin minions, not always a side-kick to a white dude protagonist. Plus the outfits of a lot of female characters in sci-fi films/games don’t *always* need to be sexualized, yes this powerful female character can command the winds but why is she almost naked, fear of wrinkles?

      One of my favorite sic-fi/fantasy films is the Fifth Element but again Bruce Willis is saving the world…again. Thank goodness for Chris Tucker’s role because it gave me life the cast and extras were diverse and the had aliens and flying robots and cars! Oh plus is featured one of my many gay awakenings with Mila in the bandage outfit and being a BAMF (with some obvious love emotions but I still co-sign that character).

      One of the many reasons I LOVE LOVE sci-fi is because a lot of roles women are strong sometimes dimensional but why do they only seem to exist in sci-fi films?! I mean do I always have to watch a Meryl Streep or some other older white woman accomplished in her career for the film to pass of the test without the fantasy element? Someone give Viola Davis a role, please.

      MORE ROLES FOR *ALL* WOMEN!

      *drops mic*

      • Thumb up 7

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        I dig your rant.

        *picks up mic*

        I think this whole phenomenon speaks to the idea that strong, multi-dimensional women (of colour) do not exist in reality. Or at least in the reality that Hollywood would like us to believe in. It’s sort of like how, before Obama, they would cast a black man in the role of the president to quickly and easily illustrate some kind of alternate universe.

        And I DO love sci-fi and action movies. I want a WOC action hero that is not a side-kick. I want a queer hero who saves the world AND gets the girl. But I also want to see strong women of colour in movies that are not part of some sort of highly inaccurate “historical” story. (I’m looking at you The Help…)

  3. Thumb up 5

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    I love the conversation that this article has started. The best part about the Bechdel test is that is ignites so many questions. It’s simplicity allows people to really look at the film industry and question the way that it makes white men’s lives look like the norm. I’ve often wondered what would happen if we added other simple rules to the Bechdel test, such as story arcs, women of color, trans* folks, other queer folks…. In fact, my little brother gets quite impatient with me, because he feels like he can never tell me about anything he sees because he knows they pass none of these tests. “Everything is problematic!” he tells me. Indeed. Which is why I am glad that the Mako Mori test is here to give our film critiques more depth.

  4. Thumb up 5

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    Adding in with the Vito Russo test, Pitch Perfect passes all three testssssssssssssssss.

    Since we’re discussing intersectioning representation for minorities, are there tests for POC characters? How would that even work, because a lot of movies are unfortunately typecast if they have more than 2 POCs…?

    • Thumb up 7

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      There is something that’s just normally called the “POC Bechdel test” (an unfortunately unoriginal name) and the three rules are: (1) There have to be at least two named POC characters (2) Who talk to each other (3) About something other than a white person, and not many movies pass that test. Pacific Rim does pass that test many times over, and that’s another reason why it has resonated with so many people.

  5. Thumb up 3

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    I like the addition of the Mako Mori and Vito Russo tests, more tools to examine the larger trends in media is always good. Sometimes it makes it easier to effectively criticize media when you have measuring sticks you can use to demonstrate those trends.

  6. Thumb up 7

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    Okay, so this might be a highly unpopular opinion, but… MAKO MORI DOESN’T EVEN PASS HER OWN TEST. (Warning: here there be spoilers etc.)

    Yes, she wants to be a Jaeger pilot, and is a badass in the cockpit. But as a character, she is just kind of flung from plot point to plot point by the male characters in the show. She’s content to just sit there and not fight for her rightful place in the pilot ranks. It takes White Bread Joe or whatever his name was to go and convince Idris Elba’s character to *let her* try.

    And as soon as she gets in a Jaeger, what happens? She gets lost in a memory and has to be saved by White Bread Joe. SHOCKING.

    And for all that Del Toro said he wanted to make an action film without a romantic subplot… well, from where I was sitting, all that was missing from that one was the final kiss. (Although I must admit I enjoyed the confusion of the two dudebros sitting next to me when they hugged instead.)

    Like, yeah, she’s not doing tea ceremonies for the whole show or wearing something so skintight you’re pretty sure you can make out her labia, but sometimes I feel like I saw a different movie on accident while everyone was watching Pacific Rim.

    You wanna do something revolutionary? Why can’t we see the story of an experienced Japanese female Jaeger pilot teaching a white guy who was saved off the streets of Vancouver or something how to fight the kaiju/save the world? Now that would pass the Mako Mori test.

    • Thumb up 3

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      Um, yeah, gotta agree with Dina here. How on earth is Mako Mori a feminist model? She’s constantly under the control or guidance of the male characters. Her idea of trying to convince her father figure to let her try out is to turn on the PUPPY EYES. Even once she gets into a Jaeger and into the battlefield, White Bread Joe (really liking the moniker here) has to keep yelling her name to keep her on focus. She even spends the last minutes of the climactic battle passed out so that WBJ can enact the winning strategy.

      Her only bit of personal action is that ridiculous moment of “FOR MY FAMILY” that I’m going try to think of as an homage to samurai movies, not blatantly lazy racist characterization. All we know about her past is that scene in one memory where her family is already dead. Are we even told if she had any siblings or anything?

      But separate from the failings of the character or the movie (which was plenty fun in other ways), this “Mako Mori test” is too vague to be useful. What counts as a narrative arc? What counts as supporting a man’s story? The whole point of the Bechdel test is that it is a deceptively simple low bar. How can a movie even begin to think about the lives of women when it doesn’t even have one interpersonal moment not about a man?

      And I was grateful Del Toro didn’t actually have the characters make out on screen. Only ogle non-stop…and Hollywood flirt-banter…and constantly talk about the “compatibility” and intimacy of their partnership…

      Then I decided to ignore all dumb lines ( “It’s nuclear. Analog.” ) and cliche characters and just enjoyed the giant robots fighting giant monsters.

    • Thumb up 3

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      The bit that probably bugged me the most was when Asshole Pilot says something insulting about her and White Bread Joe is like “apologise to her!” and then gets in a fight about it.

      Not only is it annoying to see such macho, patriarchal bullshit turn up in a movie but the audience has just seen that WBJ knows exactly how good at fighting MM is and yet he seems to have some kind of temporary amnesia about this and thinks she couldn’t have taken on Asshole Pilot if she even gave half a shit about his insults or believed that the situation ought to be resolved with violence.

      Sorry. Rant.

      So many stereotypes in this film, it was utterly predictable and the only saving grace was basically big fights between big robots and big aliens.

    • Thumb up 1

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      Yeah, I really love Mako but I didn’t see her as the great Strong Female Character a lot of people held her up as. Which is okay–not every female character has to be a paragon of feminist virtue–but I would like to see more female characters (Asian women in particular) who completely smash the tropes to which they’re usually bound.

      I do have to disagree with her and WBJ’s (this is his official name now ok) relationship necessarily being romantic. It had romantic overtones, but I don’t think it was necessarily meant as a romance, and it was actually one of my favorite parts of the movie. If they had just removed some of the gross patriarchal crap henshin mentioned it would have been prefect; as it was, I found it very sweet, patriarchal crap aside.

      Anyway, I do think the Mako Mori test has some merit, so long as we don’t see it as replacing the Bechdel Test.

      • Thumb up 2

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        It wasn’t meant as a romance (Del Toro made a big deal about it not being one), but it played out in this weird hero-worship way that felt to me like they weren’t trying very hard not to make it one. If that makes sense.

        • Thumb up 0

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          It does, I think. I also found the dynamic between Mako and WBJ pretty skeevy at times; there were many scenes where she veered close to (or into) this “neutral female” type character, or where her strengths or experiences were downplayed in order to further her relationship with WBJ or that guy played by Idris Elba (who was great, btw). I think I still liked their relationship in large part because I was relieved it didn’t turn into a forced romance.

  7. Thumb up 5

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    I really love the discussion that is going on because I have so. Many. Pacific Rim. Feelings. I love Pacific Rim because giant robots beating the shit out of things is my favorite genre (plus the only reason why I’ve seen all the Transformers movies), and it does do a lot of unusual stuff for a big-budget mech movie. But I really just have to agree with Dina–Mako gets saved waaaaaaay more than she does the saving. I get the fact that she is the apprentice and he is the Master, and she has less combat experience than he does. But, really, how many times have we seen movies where the apprentice suddenly gets better than/saves the master because they’re more talented or beginners luck or (nge spoilers; lived too long in the world of fandom not to tag)because the mecha suits are actually secretly giant aliens who are tired of getting the shit beat out of them so they ignore the scared ass little kid piloting them and just go berserk? It’s a pretty common trope–just not with women, I guess. I know that in the comic book prequel they released a female pilot co-pilots with Pentecost, and he has a really badass sister–but terrible things happen to both of them before they can make it to the silver screen. Shocker.
    I mean, I came into the theater with all these great reviews about how diverse the cast was and I left just a little bit confused. Also, Guillemo del Torro said all these things about heroes coming from all different part of the world/being women, yadda yadda yadda and then it was all just SO MANY STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. He doesn’t really do such a great job with race, actually.
    I do like the Mako Mori Test’s concept though and it will look very nice hanging from my feminist tool belt–which is made from the skins of friend-zoned dudebros, by the way.

  8. Thumb up 1

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    I haven’t seen Pacific Rim yet (though, of course, I really want to!) but I’ve been following the discussions about the Mako Mori Test on Tumblr, as someone who is interested in feminist media representation and loves the Bechdel Test.

    I actually think the Mako Mori Test is a better test of whether a film is potentially feminist or not than Bechdel is. The key word there is “potentially.” I think it’s more that a film can’t really be considered feminist by any meaningful standard if it doesn’t pass it, if the female characters are all oriented around male characters rather than be self-actualized or oriented around relationships with female characters. I’d say it’s a better bar for a film to jump over about whether it COULD potentially be feminist. Because I can see a movie that focuses on one woman beating the odds – like Pacific Rim – but doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, being still a feminist film. And there’s obviously plenty of sexist or demeaning trash that passes Bechdel just because it happens to focus on multiple women, but still reinforces stereotypes about women. (See: a lot of bad rom-coms.)

    I also like the Mako Mori Test because it can just as easily be applied to TV and books as it can to movies, while Bechdel is a little trickier in that regard (since books and TV shows are both usually longer than films, so a long-enough-running show or book series with at least a few significant female characters is eventually going to pass anyway, and that doesn’t mean it’s really meaningfully using its women or giving them relationships with each other).

    Here’s the post on my Tumblr where I outlined more of my thoughts about it: http://memoriescantwait.tumblr.com/post/58642893810/the-mako-mori-test-pacific-rim-inspires-a-bechdel

    • Thumb up 1

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      One thing I forgot to add to the second paragraph: I still like the Bechdel Test though, and I think the two need to stand alongside each other. I just think it’s more that the Mako Mori Test is better as a judge of individual works, while the Bechdel Test is better at illustrating the systemic problem with the lack of women’s stories in Hollywood.

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