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Gender Bashing: ANNIHILATION and The Higher Bar of Representation

NOTE: In the official Equality For Her summary of The Kent Test, Kent refers to “…women of color, be they Black, Brown, Asian, or Native.” As such, for the purposes of this piece, I am counting both Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez as women of color.

Outside of films made by POC filmmakers (I see you, Ganja and Hess), you’d be hard-pressed to find a horror movie that does right by its characters of color onscreen. Most of the time, the black character dies first. If they don’t die first, and if they’re not LL Cool J, then they often get the “honorable” role of sacrificing themselves so that the lighter-skinned protagonist can survive. Alien 3 was released in 1992 and I’m still incensed that Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon went out like he did. Black and Asian women are often reduced to the role of the sassy friend with little to no bearing on the plot. With all of this in mind, it seems silly to use a metric like the Bechdel Test to measure representation for women onscreen. The test only requires that the film (1) has at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something besides a man. It can be a good conversation starter, sure enough, but Hellraiser passes the test without having a single woman of color show up. The Bechdel-friendly thriller The Descent does a bit better with Natalie Mendoza’s Juno among its female cast that rolls six deep. I adore both films, they’re fantastic stories that still creep me out to this day. However, it’s clear that amid #OscarsSoWhite call-outs and phenomenal community and commercial support in the wake of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, conversations about representation need to take into account ethnic tropes and stereotypes. These discussions can go a long way in ensuring that, especially in the horror movies we love, women of color are more than a mild (and/or culturally cringey) presence onscreen.

Enter the Kent Test.

The Kent Test is named after its creator, culture writer Clarkisha Kent. The test runs on a points system and aims to determine whether or not a piece of media is truly representative of women of color. It’s neither ironclad nor does it determine whether a film is “good” or not. What it does do is leave room for plenty of deliberation about what good representation means, more so than just man-free screen time.

The Kent Test dictates that a woman/femme of color character….

  • A. Must not solely be a walking stereotype/trope. (1 Point)
  • B. Must have their own plot / narrative arc. (1 Point)
  • C. Must not be solely included in the narrative just for purpose of “holding down” some male character and his story. (1 Point)
  • D. Must not solely be included in the narrative to prop up a white female character. (1 Point)
  • E. Must not solely exist in the film/media for the purpose of fetishization.
  • F. Must have at least one interaction with another woman/femme of color.​ (1 Point)
  • G. Must not be the go-to character “sacrifice” in a film/piece of media.​ (1 Point)

ScreenshotKentPoints - Gender Bashing: ANNIHILATION and The Higher Bar of Representation

The official summary provides further clarification on each point, but now that you’ve got the primer, let’s talk about Annihilation.

Based upon Jeff Vandermeer’s sci-fi novel, Alex Garland’s 2018 film Annihilation follows a group of scientists and medical professionals who enter a mutated quarantined zone known as “The Shimmer”. In it, they encounter genetically altered flora and fauna, and find out what happened to the team that came before them. The main cast is comprised entirely of women: Josie (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Lena (Natalie Portman), Cass (Tuva Novotny), and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). So it’s a given that they dance over the Bechdel Test before they even arrive at The Shimmer. However, once you focus on the two women of color, Josie and Anya, the exercise takes you on a deeper journey.

As to the first point, neither Josie nor Anya are walking stereotypes. Josie is a scientist and Anya a paramedic, are unrelated by blood but still interact at length, and both are damn good at what they do. They are tangible characters with their own flaws and idiosyncrasies, which The Shimmer exacerbates over the course of the film. Anya is particular is a headstrong woman who doesn’t suffer incompetence or disrespect. The Shimmer is a disorienting sort of cosmic villain that confuses and defies all that we as humans know, and the result for those that enter is a slow erosion of all that makes them uniquely human. So while Anya’s rigidness boils down to anger, it’s painstakingly character-specific and not emotionally-unstable-Latina-specific.

Secondly, both of the WOC have their own plot. Each member of the team does, and their backstories are relevant to the story entire. Several members’ arcs are cut short due to death, but they are not temporary props. None of the women in the film exist to “hold down” any man or his story, not even the lily-white Lena. Two points to Gryffindor.
Neither the WOC nor the white women in Annihilation are hypersexualized or fetishized in any way; they are specialists doing their jobs, are dressed accordingly, and aren’t in any situation in which their sexuality would be a factor. Sexuality in and of itself is fine, of course, but it would be odd to see Anya holding open a mutant crocodile’s teeth while dressed in a crop top and Daisy Dukes. If the audience is gawking at anything here, it’s the mesmerizing plant people and the calcified coral reef man. I can’t discuss the “sacrifice” portion of the test without spoilers, but I can say that the film passes in that regard.

Annihilation seems to pass all elements of the Kent Test but one, which is fairly arguable. One could contend that the WOC and the others on the probe team are there to prop up the star, Natalie Portman. But I have to give some pushback to the notion that Anya and Josie exist only to artificially elevate the white lead. For one thing, Lena joins an established team of women, not the other way around. She’s the tag-along and constantly defers to each professional’s expertise: they in no way serve her or even mentor her. It also becomes clear at several points that these women are not friends, they are completing an assigned mission. The other women don’t really serve Lena in any way, they are fully independent and task-oriented. While several members of the team perish en route to their destination, the non-white characters are much more than cannon fodder. I would liken them to the crew of Event Horizon, in that direction and performance fleshed them out far more than they might have looked on paper. It’s here that the acting shines with regard to Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez. Without giving too much away, the film’s most tense moment and it’s most quietly devastating moment are both due to the powerful performances from the women of color.

Listen, by the most conservative estimate, Annihilation still gets 7 points out of 8 and thus contains strong representation for women of color. We’ve had plenty of reboots, sequels, and remakes. In the horror world particularly there’s always a lot of pushback against such movies, with the common battle cry, “Won’t Hollywood do something original for once?” Annihilation did just that, with a profound sci-fi story containing a cosmic horror core. Well-written, well-acted, well-shot, and well deserving of every box office dollar it got. Unfortunately, the movie grossed $43 million against its $40-ish million budget. Pathetic. It’s not only important to support more innovative films like these, but ones whose casts are more reflective of the world we live in, represented in non-destructive ways. After you watch Annihilation, put the Kent Test towards some of your favorite horror movies and see how it fares. You’ll realize that we still have a long way to go.

Written by Anya Stanley

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