A Feminist Look at The Big Lebowski
Posted on January 12, 2013
People who know me know that I like The Big Lebowski. In our house, it’s not really something we “like,” but rather something we live.
From where I’m sitting, I can see two Lebowski Fest trophies (First Place Trivia, Boston 2009 and Hardest Traveled Louisville 2012) that my husband Chalupa won. I can also see an awesome decoupaged Lebowski bowling pin that was a trivia prize at a fundraiser in Rutland, Vermont and a bowling pin painted to resemble John Goodman’s Walter by artist Dax Norman. There’s a new book sitting nearby–Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman’s The Dude and The Zen Master, which Chalupa and I are sponsoring a giveaway for at our website for the Lebowski Podcast.
We recorded the Lebowski Podcast monthly for five years. Eventually, Chalupa’s health problems and the fact that we have a toddler made it a little bit too difficult to plan, record, and edit monthly episodes. Now our plan is to just record when something really important happens in the Lebowski World.
Still, our daily lives have plenty of Lebowski language and interaction. We’ve got posters waiting to be framed, t-shirts with various catch phrases and images, quite a bit of artwork. Tonight Ruthie even looked at Chalupa and said, “Daddy, did you know you’re a-a-a-nihilist?” She also tells us when we’re being fatuous. The little girl is going to have the non-profane text of the movie memorized before she ever gets the chance to watch it herself!
So here’s a question: what is a feminist to do with The Big Lebowski? First, I know a LOT of feminists who love the movie, which I think says a lot about it. Most of the feminists I know are highly critical and aware of the messages of the entertainment they consume, and so when a film is this loved by feminists, it probably means that it’s at least resonating with them instead of alienating them.
Second, the cult fan culture of The Big Lebowski is a lot more female-centric than it appears. At any given Lebowski Fest, the crowd is full of men and women, and they women tend to be just as enthusiastic about the film as the dudes. When I post a Lebowski-related Facebook status, most of the “likes” come from women in my social circles.
Third, there is some good feminist criticism of the movie out there, and I’m happy to say that Chalupa and I are part of it!
The Feminist Film tumblr demonstrated pretty clearly that the movie fails The Bechdel Test. The test doesn’t determine whether a movie is feminist or not, or even good or not, but it does demonstrate that the film doesn’t really represent women as an integral part of the plot. The Big Lebowski fails the test because none of the named women in the film interact with each other at all in the movie, let alone have a conversation about anything other than a man. Feminist Film points out some good things about the portrayal of Maude, but also some problems with the way she is portrayed.
Chalupa wrote an article back in 2009 for Dudespaper about a feminist reading of the movie. I think his article is worth a read, and the comments. too.
A foundational text on feminism and the movie is Lisa Donald’s essay “Bowling, Gender and Emasculation in The Big Lebowski,” an academic paper that was re-published on Dudespaper in 1999 after the author no longer hosted the essay on her own website. When Chalupa and I were first married and we were in the earliest stages of starting the podcast, he enthusiastically showed me Donald’s work and said, “See! People are talking about this movie as more than just a movie! There is so much we can talk about here!”
Perhaps my personal favorite piece of feminist criticism of the movie is the piece I was personally involved in. It’s not because of my own involvement that I love it, but because the conversation we recorded for The Lebowski Podcast was such a fun and insightful discussion. Our guest for the episode was the literature professor who introduced me to feminist theory in the first place. We recorded the episode in 2007, and my own feminism has advanced pretty dramatically since then. I think if I had the same conversation now, it would look a little different as I would probably have a much better vocabulary for discussing the topic, more knowledge of the film, and a lot more practice at analyzing texts for gender-centric content. You can stream the episode at LebowskiPodcast.com.