Time for a Bechdel Test for African Characters? Some Thoughts on the Newsroom’s Very Special Africa Episode

The Newsroom went to Africa. It was not good.

In Sunday’s episode, “Unintended Consequences,” ACN sent a reporter named Maggie and a cameraman named Gary Cooper to Uganda to do a segment on the U.S. army building an orphanage there, because apparently that is news.

When she was done interviewing soldiers, Maggie relaxed with a visit to the orphanage’s classroom, in which children of all ages were having a “geography lesson” that consisted of reciting the names of continents when their teacher pointed to them on a map. Seems like geography to me! Then Gary Cooper came in with the camera and all the children screamed and hid under their desks, because they thought it was a gun. (could this be…FORESHADOWING?) See, cattle raiders were roaming them there hills, and the children were afeared.

A particularly adorable afeared child named Daniel – who, the show takes pains to tell us, has parents but has been sent to the orphanage temporarily to avoid cattle raider attacks, and so wasn’t even supposed to be there that day (IRONY) – bonded with Maggie by demanding that she read him him Lyle, Lyle Crocodile over and over again, and petting her hair. The teacher says that Daniel is fascinated by Maggie’s hair because he’s never seen a blonde person before, and that “blondes are trouble.” (OMG MORE FORESHADOWING.)

Through a series of mishaps that include Maggie not knowing where Djibouti is and not understanding that it is not light during nighttime, the ACN team was forced to spend the night at the orphanage. (Thanks again for those strong female characters, Aaron Sorkin.)

That night, obviously, cattle raiders attacked. At first everyone was like “hey, weird, this is an orphanage so we do not have any cattle.” But then it turned out that they were actually CAMERA raiders who wanted the ACN camera. Maggie didn’t know that because the raiders were yelling in a language that her fixer did not understand, and apparently none of the other people at the orphanage thought to bring it up. (Perhaps they were embarrassed to, because camera raiders are not a thing.)

So then everyone hustled to load the children onto what I assume was an AK-47-proof bus, but Daniel was missing! No one saw that coming at all. Daniel was hiding under a bed, with the Lyle book. OMG. Who will save him? The orphanage staff apparently hadn’t even noticed that they were short a Daniel, but never fear, American people are here! Maggie and Gary heroically tore the bed off the floor and dragged Daniel out from under it, then ran for the bus. Except that the raiders shot Daniel while Maggie was carrying him to the bus on her back, so he died from the bullet that was meant for her. MORE OF WHAT I ASSUME WAS INTENDED TO BE IRONY.

All of this is told through the framing device of a deposition, because, you see, the truly important thing about Daniel’s death was how it affected Maggie, and apparently in Sorkin world a deposition is a thing you use to evaluate someone’s emotional state after a traumatic event. We can tell that Maggie is totes messed up about what happened because she came home and gave herself a terrible haircut and tomato-red dye job. (Remember, blondes are trouble.) But she bravely soldiers on through the deposition with barely a wring of her hands because she is BRAVE (if rather bad at her job).

Africa has changed Maggie – changed her forever. You can tell by her hair.

Over at Slate, Willa Paskin suggests that we introduce the term “Lyle-ing” as an equivalent to “fridging” for storylines in which a black child’s death, instead of a woman’s, is used to instigate anguish and personal growth in a white main character. I think that’s a fine idea, but would suggest another addition: a Bechdel test for African characters.

The Bechdel test is a feminist movie evaluation tool introduced by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have two or more female characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than a man. If a movie doesn’t pass the test, that’s a sign that it’s lacking in female characters, and/or just using them as emotional MacGuffins for the males around them. (Many, many movies do not pass this test.)

I think it’s about time for us to introduce an equivalent test for African characters: if a movie or TV show is set in Africa, then it should (1) have at least two African characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than poverty, disease, or violent conflict.

“But, Amanda!” you say, “how would that even work? Everyone knows that on TV, Africa exists so that white people can go there thinking they will change things, but end up having Africa change them more than they ever imagined it could. What would Africans even talk about with each other? And where will the white characters get their life-changing epiphanies if they’re no longer allowed to save helpless innocents from some sort of horror or tragedy?”

I agree that it’s a tough challenge. Western audiences, trained on years of Carter-goes-to-Congo storylines, may be surprised to discover that people in “Africa” have problems other than those that ride in with one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. And screenwriters, long trained to think of Africa as a continent-sized arena for the battle of White Person vs. White Person’s Inner Demons, may initially have difficulty finding other uses for it. So, to get everyone started, here are some storylines that are guaranteed entertainment gold:

  1. Any Wedding Reality Show Ever: Nigeria Edition. After seeing Glenna Gordon’s amazing photo essay on Nigerian weddings, I feel legitimately betrayed by the reality TV industry’s failure to bring me any wedding shows involving mommy lace, little brides, or cash “spray.” Seriously, someone has to get on this.
  2. Arrested Development in Addis Ababa. According to NPR, Ethiopia is currently undergoing a construction boom so powerful that women are leaving traditional work as maids and nannies to join construction crews. Perhaps it’s time for the Bluth family to partner with a development firm run by a family of quirky Ethiopians to blow the McMansion market there wide open.
  3. Scandal: The Kigali Initiative. Olivia Pope & Associates get new client: a Rwandan diplomat who has been in secret talks about joining the opposition, and is afraid that the Kagame regime is about to have him killed. The gladiators in suits get to work, but it turns out that the plot runs deeper than anyone could have imagined, so they have to join with a team of Rwandan fixers to get to the bottom of it before it’s too late.
  4. Untitled Liberian Surfing Project. A ragtag group of Liberian surfing entrepreneurs decide that it’s time for Robertsport to host a major international surfing competition. Hijinks ensue.

Come on, entertainment industry: make it happen!

16 thoughts on “Time for a Bechdel Test for African Characters? Some Thoughts on the Newsroom’s Very Special Africa Episode

  1. So are you deliberately getting plot points wrong to support your article or did you just not bother to follow the episode you are critiquing?
    1. Maggie didn’t go to Africa just to do the orphanage story.
    2. The deposition was not used to “evaluate Maggie’s emotional state after a traumatic event.” If you we’re following the story- AT ALL- you would see that the deposition is about Genoa, and they are evaluating Maggie’s mental status as a lead in to what will inevitably be her involvement. Maybe non-linear story lines are too complex for you?
    3. You don’t think Sorkin writes strong female characters? Mackenzie McHale, Sloan Sabbath… and even Dana Whitaker would argue otherwise.

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  4. I like this write up! But I do remember a point where she was asked to cover the orphanage story first before anything else. But yes, the African angle was so badly thought out.

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  7. You’re going to make me watch Newsroom aren’t you? I’d given up on that show.

    In addition to the Nigerian wedding show, I’d love to see a Nigerian version of ‘Come Dine with Me’.

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  10. An American show with mostly American characters, has a major character and minor character spend part of an episode in another country to cover a war and for plot reasons something must happen that emotionally affects the major character but leaves them phyically unharmed.

    As what we got was argueably a bit on the nose, I am truly surprised that the author proposes that what we should have seen was a much longer expedition, because that is implication of demanding that the Ugandan characters be more then the incidental characters that they were handled as.

    You propose that: “if a movie or TV show is set in Africa, then it should (1) have at least two African characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than poverty, disease, or violent conflict.” but stop short of stating the implication of failing this test…

    On the whole the Newsroom is not set in Africa, and it does not have any recurring characters from Africa, thus considering the modified Bechdel test proposed the question raised is ultimately whether the Newsroom is doing Africa a disservice by not including authentic and well developed African characters in it’s thankful breif excursion? I’m inclined to think in this case the answer is “no” (even though I do feel the question is a valid one to consider).

    As a reminder: the reason the Bechdel test exists is to illustrate the under-representation of women in mass-media, it does not mandate that all movies and television series should have well developed female characters, but suggests that as a society we should be ashamed that a higher percentage doesn’t. This also suggests why the modified test proposed here may not be the primary issue we should be concerned about, and why the programs suggested at the end are much much worse; the issue with having characters of other nationalities in stories is largely down to stereotyping, respect of culture, dignity and the fairness of their representation, not a lack of their lack of inclusion as characters.

      • maybe South Africa possibly, but I don’t see how this is relevant (I’m not in the US myself, and if the Newsroom or any other program, mentions my country I am only concerned that we are not portrayed unfairly)

        • And the audience base might shock you but South Africa isn’t the only country. I know of at least four people who come from about four different countries that watch newsroom religiously. I being one of them from Tanzania.

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