‘Fire Island’ Doesn’t Need to Pass the Bechdel Test to Be Great

Joel Kim Booster’s Pride and Prejudice-inspired rom-com celebrates (and subverts) rom-com tropes to tell a story that’s both sweet and sharp. For one white journalist, that was a problem.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jun 10 2022

9 mins read

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Image: Jeong Park/Searchlight Pictures

‎I consider myself something of a rom-coms connoisseur, and especially Jane Austen adaptations—the more modern, the better. Maybe it’s literary sacrilege, but while I loved both the Colin Firth version of Mr. Darcy (in the BBC’s 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) and the Matthew Macfayden one (from the 2005 film co-starring Keira Knightley), my absolute favourite is actually Martin Henderson’s Will Darcy in Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice. (I obviously also prefer Clueless to all the other Emmas.) So trust me when I say, Fire Island is an excellent take on the genre. Even more than that, it’s a necessary one.

A synopsis: the story centres on two Asian BFFs, Howie (Bowen Yang, the Jane character) and Noah (Joel Kim Booster, the Lizzie), whose summertime tradition is spending a week at Fire Island Pines, a hamlet on New York's Fire Island that, along with the neighbouring Cherry Grove, makes up one of the oldest gay and lesbian communities in America. Alongside their chosen family, Keegan (Tomas Matos), Luke (Matt Rogers) and Max (Torian Miller), Howie and Noah descend on the island every summer to stay with Erin (Margaret Cho), their lesbian fairy godmother.

Image: Giphy

The plan? Party, hook-up and—as Booster explained to Kelly Clarkson in an interview last week—find refuge from “navigating a straight society day in and day out.” Only this time, Howie’s not feeling it. He doesn’t want to party his face off; he wants real love. But, he's looking for that love as a racialized person in an extremely class-conscious society, and every time one of the wealthy, white, super-fit men who occupy the highest social strata on the island look down on him and his “sisters,” it only makes him feel worse about himself. So, Noah, whose response to gay society’s “no fats, no fems, no Asians” rule is the diametric opposite of Howie’s (read: he works out—and hooks up—a lot), decides to help. He won’t sleep with anyone himself until he can get Howie laid, he decides. When the gang meets the puppy dog-like Charlie (James Scully, our Bingley), his perpetually unimpressed best friend, Will (Conrad Ricamora, an excellent addition to the Darcy pantheon) and their friend/hanger-on Cooper (Nick Adams), sparks fly—and hijinks ensure, naturally.

While other adaptations of Austen novels have mostly re-treaded the same political territory—class, wealth, gender inequality between men and women—Fire Island adds entirely new dimensions to these themes by focusing on a group of people who don’t tend to receive the rom-com treatment: gay Asian men.

“As Asian men in the queer community, there are just so many more layers to what we have to go through to find love, and then what happens when we do find it,” Booster said in a recent Harper’s Bazaar interview. “There’s so many more barriers and hurdles to keeping it, to feeling healthy within that ecosystem.”  

In short: the movie does what all the best rom-coms do, delivering eye candy, romance and laughs alongside some gentle (but no less blistering) social commentary. It was brilliant… So it’s too bad Hanna Rosin, who heads up the podcast division at New York magazine, didn’t see it that way.

What does an 80s comic strip have to do with a movie about gay dudes partying on an island?

ICYMI, Rosin posted a pretty much universally decried tweet earlier this week, saying: “So @hulu #FireIslandMovie gets an F- on the Bechdel test in a whole new way. Do we just ignore the drab lesbian stereotypes bc cute gay Asian boys? Is this revenge for all those years of the gay boy best friend?” As you might imagine, it… did not go over well. Rosin has since deleted the tweet and apologized, but I think it’s worth examining what inspired this snarky, racist take in the first place: white feminism.

‎The Bechdel test, Rosin’s barometer of quality, is a way to measure female representation in fiction, particularly TV and film, by asking three questions: does this work feature at least two women? Do they talk to each other? And if so, is their conversation about something other than a man? It’s named after Alison Bechdel, who published the first reference to this test in the 80s in her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, though Bechdel credits her friend Liz Wallace for coming up with the original idea, and Wallace was herself inspired by Virginia Woolf. Chapter five of A Room of One's Own is devoted to the dearth of meaningful female representation in the books of her time, and that fact that fictitious women were then almost exclusively “shown in their relation to men.”

In some ways, the Bechdel test was ahead of its time because it focused on the quality of representation, not just the quantity of women who were on-screen. (A full 37 years later, we’re only just moving beyond the visually satisfying but ultimately superficial how-many-minorities-can-we-add-to-the-cast stage of representation.) And in fact, from a purely business standpoint, it’s in a movie’s best interest to pass the test. According to a 2014 FiveThirtyEight analysis of 1,615 films released between 1990 and 2013, movies that included meaningful conversations between women saw a return on investment of $2.68 for every dollar spent, compared to $2.45 for movies that didn't.

‎But—and maybe this makes sense because, you know, it started as a snarky joke in a comic strip—the test is a limited way to understand whether a creative work is ‘progressive.’ For starters, two women can talk to one another about something other than a man in deeply unfeminist movies. (I mean… technically, American Pie 2 passes.) But also, it’s not exactly intersectional, is it? By focusing only on gender—the ‘white’ is unspoken but very much there—it doesn’t account for any other part of a woman's identity, whether that's their race, ability, class and so on, not to mention men that belong to these marginalized groups and people who don't fit into a gender binary at all. In fact, it actually says many people within those groups can’t create art that focuses on their lived experience and is also ‘good.’

This isn’t to knock Bechdel. Her test is a useful metric to help us understand just how often cis men’s experiences, desires and even interior lives dominate our storytelling. But it’s certainly not the only, much less best, way to measure diversity.

White Feminism strikes again

The problem, though, is that white feminists like Rosin seem to think it is. As writer D.R. Medlen recently put it in The Mary Sue, “white feminism has a long history of making arguments about inclusion or visibility only if specifically white women are included—from first-wave feminism and its blatant racism to second-wave feminism and its exclusion of queer women (and racism), to this modern idea that media is not valid unless it passes an arbitrary test.”

Which is exactly what Rosin did. Fire Island is genuinely funny and sweet; it’s also smart, layered and boundary-pushing. As Cho says in the same Harper’s Bazaar interview I mentioned earlier, “it’s like Gay Pride and Gay Prejudice—this idea that gay pride is a big part of who we’re supposed to be, but gay prejudice is the real world that we live in. And [when you’re] gay, sometimes you think you’re above other kinds of bias. But in truth, we’re steeped in it. And the film recognizes that, but in such a gentle and light and funny way that nobody who is guilty of these things in the film and in the real world is gonna take offense.” To that end, the movie grapples with the very specific ways racism and classism show up in queer culture. It doesn’t sanitize gay sex. And perhaps most importantly, it’s based on (and therefore normalizes) the notion that Asian men, fem or not, deserve love, tenderness and happiness—whatever that may look like to them.

Yet Rosin seemingly watched it and missed all of that; instead, she felt annoyed that she didn’t see herself, and she responded by undermining the movie and its creators.

Image: Giphy

And can we spend a minute talking about the not seeing herself, please? Because a) we actually can enjoy fiction that’s not about or even ‘for’ us. I’m not gay, male or American, nor am I a nurse (Noah) or a graphic designer for an unnamed San Francisco start-up (Howie), but I loved Fire Island. But then, as a racialized woman, I’ve had lots of practice engaging with texts that don’t centre me, something Rosin, as a white woman, clearly isn’t used to. And b) what does she mean she doesn’t see herself? Each of the characters in this movie was so deeply human (aside from Cooper, maybe, who was just annoying) that I find it hard to believe there was no part of their experiences that resonated. At least, there was no way for me to watch a movie about someone who, thanks to external forces beyond their control, feels insecure about how they look and who they are without thinking, “Oof. Been there.”

This entire discourse exemplifies dunk culture at the expense of critical thought

Though this whole discourse started with Rosin’s unjustified feelings of exclusion and the fact that white feminists often resort to self-victimization to win an argument, I think there’s another factor at play here: the fact that social media, and especially Twitter, incentivizes one-upmanship instead of nuanced conversation. The whole point of her tweet was to score rhetorical points, even if her argument didn’t actually hold up to critical thinking.

‎It’s okay though, because Alison Bechdel responded to Rosin's tweet by coming up with a corollary for the Bechdel test, and it turns out Fire Island is actually doing just fine.


And Did You Hear About…

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Mormon MomTok.

The fastest I've ever judged someone “Not the Asshole.”

The 'Protagonist Does a Thing' naming convention that’s suddenly everywhere in women’s fiction.

Fashiontalks, a podcast about the world through the lens of fashion.

Bonus: This absolute journey of a Twitter thread.

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Fire Island
Joel Kim Booster
Bowen Yang