Bechdel Test Canon: D.E.B.S.
One of my favorite moments in Ilene Chaiken’s important, sometimes delightful (yet often uneven) lesbian melodrama The L-Word was in the season four episode “Luck Be a Lady.” In an extended opening sequence, a cluster of characters from the core ensemble call each other to gossip, plan upcoming social events, and ask for relationship advice. In many ways, it’s a stock scene. Basically any L-Word scene includes some combination of activities, along with any number of clandestine hookups, celebrity cameos, and power suits. Yet it is director Angela Robinson’s assured visual style that keeps the scene lively and dynamic. In particular, Robinson makes smart use of split screens to string together multiple plot threads and re-establish how these women are connected to one another. Granted, I’m a sucker for split screens. But I appreciate visual dazzle that not only showcases what the director and cast can do but is used in the service of storytelling.
After Ellen’s L-Word recapper scribegrrrl singles out this scene not only to praise its aesthetic merits but to link it to writer-director Robinson’s 2004 film D.E.B.S.. She describes D.E.B.S. as “comic book meets Mod Squad … meets Alias meets the blaxploitation movies of the 70s” to illustrate the inventive, economical use of split screens as indicative of Robinson’s zippy, referential directorial style.
The film is about four young women who are graduating from a secret academy where they have been trained to become part of a paramilitary outfit called D.E.B.S. (Discipline, Energy, Beauty, and Strength). They were selected by a hidden test embedded within the SAT that evaluates applicants’ ability to lie and cheat effectively. Characterizing these traits as desirable for female cadets to embody may be somewhat misogynistic. Yet I think D.E.B.S. is effective enough as satire to suggest that the ways in which society ingrains deception and self-sacrifice as values for young, high-achieving girls to possess might also make them exceptional government operatives. It may also suggest the tactical maneuvers white, queer, and women and girls of color have to enact in order to combat patriarchal strategizing.
To some extent, each member of the multicultural quartet represents a stereotype the film attempts to flesh out and trouble. The group includes Max (veteran actress Megan Good, who I anticipate seeing in Jump the Broom and enjoyed in Brick, Roll Bounce, and especially her supporting performance as Beautifull in You Got Served), a determined young woman and born leader learning to curb her trigger-happy tendencies while living in a white female cadet’s shadow. Two cadets are supporting players who embody shop-worn clichés: dizzy blonde Janet (Jill Richie) and seductively coquettish Dominique (model-actress Devon Aoki). The final member is Amy (Sara Foster), a girl next door who demonstrates enormous potential as a spy yet is having something of an identity crisis. Amy recently split up with her Homeland Security-officer boyfriend Bobby (Geoff Stults) and encounters former D.E.B.S. operative and rogue agent Lucy Diamond (Brazilian American Fast and the Furious alumna Jordana Brewster), of whom Amy wrote her thesis and with whom she embarks on a tentative romance. Amy and Diamond’s relationship is compromised when the D.E.B.S. are assigned by leader Miss Petrie (a deliciously camp Holland Taylor) to seize Diamond, who they think is on a dangerous top-secret mission that is actually a blind date with possessive ex-KGB assassin Ninotchka Kaprova (Jessica Cauffiel).
During this mission, the group encounters several insecurities from within the ranks. Max has to deal with constantly being passed over for superstar Amy. Janet confronts her discomfort over Amy’s burgeoning lesbianism. Amy has to simultaneously work through her growing lack of interest in a profession that had been her life goal in which she invested so much of herself, as well as her growing attraction for another woman. Thus Amy is faced with the uncertainty of trading one known entity (future superspy) for another unfamiliar identity (lesbian). In addition, the group has to reconcile how they will soldier on without Amy. In what may be an obvious ending, Max resumes control of the unit while the trio bids farewell to their friend, who embarks on a future with Diamond as an art school student.
It is a narrative decision with raced political implications that reminds this viewer of the ending to the Bechdel Test Canon-friendly film Center Stage. Bulimic prima ballerina Maureen Cummings (Susan May Pratt) gives her tiara to spitfire Eva Rodriguez (Zoë Saldana) in order to follow some other, far less certain dream with a romantic partner. Both films’ plot resolutions involve a benevolent white girl “selflessly” offering her enviable institutional status over to an equally capable young woman of color who has to learn to control her feistiness in order to advance in her chosen field. As much as I admire both films’ decision to provide women of color a leadership position in a counterintelligence unit or a spot in a premier ballet corps, I bristle at the idea that it was ultimately white women’s sacrifice that led to these opportunities materializing for their counterparts of color. That these characters have something to sacrifice sublimates the continued presence of white female privilege.
Likewise, it is hard for me not to read Amy’s exodus from D.E.B.S. alongside the damages internalized by queer servicemen and women living under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I’m also not blind to how open D.E.B.S. leaves itself for heterosexual male appropriation, even though bros don't get to colonize schoolgirl fantasies. Yet at the same time, I’m happy that D.E.B.S. is a film by a black lesbian director that is a fun, slick, stylistically adventurous action movie doesn’t necessarily have to contain an explicit (much less doggedly progressive) social message. As much as D.E.B.S. was a passion project for Robinson—originating from a short film that made the festival circuit—it is foremost a fun, silly action comedy about sends up Charlie’s Angels while cheekily exploring the queer possibilities of female spies’ homosocial bonding and gender performance. But I do think there's progressive potential in Amy getting the choice to leave the unit in the pursuit of her own happiness, initiating a voyage of self-discovery with a new lover who was once her enemy.
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