While noble in its intent, the Bechdel Test is not a perfect method by which to evaluate a film’s feminist merit. Take Karyn Kusama’s 2000 feature Girlfight as an example. It was the directorial debut from a woman of Japanese extraction, who also wrote the screenplay. It was a film about a young Latina who turns to boxing as an outlet for her aggression. It was the big-screen debut of then-newcomer Michelle Rodriguez whose smoldering charisma reminded more than a few people of a young Marlon Brando.
I like Girlfight. It has interesting things to say about race, gender, and class. It celebrates female athleticism but doesn’t use boxing as a means to objectify the star’s body and render her conventionally feminine. And it serves as a nice showcase for Kusama and Rodriguez’s talents. But on paper, it doesn’t seem to pass the test. True, there are at least two women in the film who talk to one another—most notably protagonist Diana and her friend Marisol (Elisa Bocanegra). While they talk to each other, men are a frequent topic of conversation. However, the test doesn’t account for Diana’s friendship with boxing coach Hector (Jaime Tirelli), her challenging romance with fellow boxer Adrian (Santiago Douglas), or her evolving relationship with her abusive father Sandro (Paul Calderón).
Today’s entry presents similar challenges, particularly in its focus on the contentious relationships women have with husbands, fathers, sons, and employers. However, I think its insistence on showing the complex interior life of an urban black Latina is fascinating and rare. As Latoya Peterson pointed out in an essay that captured my interest in the film, I think the way it addresses cultural differences around discipline and parenthood also make it worth inclusion. But just as I’d like us to be critical of canon formation, I’d like us to push against the limitations of the criteria for passing Bechdel Test. In 1994, filmmaker and screenwriter Darnell Martin was the first African American woman to direct and produce an American film for a major studio with I Like It Like That. The film is about Lisette Linares (Lauren Vélez in a performance that should have catapulted her to stardom), a scrappy young mother who elbows her way into a job as a personal assistant for record executive Stephen Price (Griffin Dunne) after her bike messenger husband Chino (Jon Sena) is arrested for looting and she becomes the breadwinner.
Lisette has an antagonist relationship with most of the women she encounters. Her mother-in-law Rosario (Rita Moreno) thinks her son married beneath him and is trying to set him up with sexpot Magdalena Soto (Lisa Vidal), whose father owns the neighborhood bodega. Chino and Magdalena have an ongoing affair and may share a child together. Lisette’s relationships with men are also stormy. She and Chino fight over money, parenting, fidelity, and gender roles with such passion that it exhausts their marriage. The film ends with them attempting to raise their children together in a single household. But they have different work schedules after Chino takes a job as a police officer and discuss separating. Her oldest son Li’l Chino (Tomas Melly) already shares his namesake’s sexist attitude and masculine posturing and begins selling drugs while still in grade school.
She also has a tricky relationship with Price, who she gets face time with through some creative finagling at a modeling agency. He originally believes she isn’t pretty enough to be his assistant, a comment that echoes several characters’ assessment that Lisette has a nice face and a round ass but lacks the sufficient upper structure (re: “tetas”) to be a true beauty. However, he comes to rely upon her expertise, creative intellect, and knowledge of the Latin pop market, giving her free reign to overhaul the image and marketing campaign of top client the Mendez Brothers (played by the Barrio Boyz). But he has no idea how to work with a woman he admires and steals a quickie with her under his desk. It definitely wasn’t good for her, and she makes clear that their relationship is strictly professional. I’d worry about the stability Lisette’s job in the music industry now, but I have no doubt that the woman was several steps ahead of the game. I don’t think her boss was so lucky.
The heart of the film is Lisette’s relationship with Alexis (Jesse Borrego), a glamorous trans woman who is saving up for a sex change operation. They clearly love each other despite their constant bickering, and Velez and Borrego have excellent chemistry together as sisters. Alexis teaches tomboy Lisette how to pad and polish her professional demeanor with a bit of womanliness. Lisette provides a support system for Alexis that their transphobic parents refuse to provide, a stance sometimes reinforced by violence. Though Alexis oscillates between two tropes common in queer representation—the theatrical and the tragic—she is also a dedicated sister and a steel-jawed survivor. Both women prove that resourcefulness is a family trait, most likely one they taught each other.
Like That is ultimately a film about survival from a distinctly raced, classed, ethnic female perspective. Some people might be depressed by the final shot of Lisette sleeping on the couch after a fight with Chino. Others may note a number of distracting tonal shifts within the film. Lisette stuffs her sweater for an interview at a modeling agency with predictably disastrous results. Chino and Lisette’s morning sex routine plays as a slapstick over the opening credits and is mirrored by her unsatisfying tumble with Price. Pair that with harrowing scenes of neighborhood violence—Lisette against Magdelena, Chino against a young pusher, Alexis against her father. A number of productions continue to fetishize abject poverty as authentic and might just dwell on the violence and heighten the squalor. But I admire the film for suggesting these characters work through a variety of emotions as they encounter a range of experiences. Life, like theater, balances tragedy with comedy. This film gets that and puts a woman at its center. I like it like that.