The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) and Gender

The Lincoln Lawyer (which has nothing to do with President Lincoln or things he would stand for), by everyday standards, is basically a good movie. It received positive reviews from the public and critics. BUT, its portrayal of women and gender really stood out to me as problematic. Check out Wikipedia’s brief summary of the film here


The Bechdel Test provides one measurement of the place allowed for women in a film. Since I first learned of this test about a year ago from a friend, it has really transformed the way I look at films. This minimal test looks for films that:

  1. Have two are more women in it (most versions of the test add “who have names”)
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of movies fail to meet this test. To read more on the test, check out Anita Sarkeesian’s The Feminist Frequency. She has several really good videos on the Bechdel test (and other things), including this one.

In The Lincoln Lawyer there are a few women, but not one of them speaks to another woman and most are unnamed, so the movie utterly fails the Bechdel Test. Screen time is minimal. Their speaking lines—if they even have some—are even fewer.

Women have the following roles in The Lincoln Lawyer:

  • non-white murder victim and prostitute (no speaking lines, only seen in photos after murder)
  • non-white rape victim and prostitute (shown 1 time with brief speaking lines)
  • non-white incarcerated drug addict and client of lawyer (shown a few times with minor speaking lines)
  • white widower and mother of murder and rapist, murder of lawyer’s investigator, and attempted murder of lawyer (shown 4 times with speaking lines)
  • white ex-wife and state prosecutor of lawyer (shown several times with and without speaking lines)
  • white assistant to lawyer (shown 4 times with brief speaking lines)
  • white state prosecutor (shown 1 time with one very brief speaking line)
  • non-white detective (shown 3 times with two very brief speaking lines)
  • white assistant to male prosecutor in courtroom (no audible speaking lines and no name)
  • white and non-white jurors (no speaking lines and no names)
  • white court clerk (no speaking lines and no name)
  • numerous white and non-white extras of all ages (no audible speaking lines and no names)
  • white daughter of lawyer (no speaking lines)

Like in many movies, clearly then, everything revolves around “male characters” and “male stories” and “male questions” and “male needs” in The Lincoln Lawyer. Given the same basic story, this movie could have easily given women a greater place by simply having a female character instead of a male in many instances. For example, a few more of the prosecutors or detectives could have been female without any other changes to the script. Even the defense lawyer could have been female and her ex male or something. Another story could have even followed the story from the perspective of one of the female characters.

Even with the women included there are never any audible lines where two females speak to each other – there are two (maybe three) instances when we see women talking in the background. Females when they talk are always only replying to males. Females are referred to by their beauty if they are white, in most cases. Non-whites are regularly called derogatory names, such as “hooker” and both victims are non-white. Female characters have little autonomy or power in this film.

There are only a handful of instances when it could probably be argued that males and females have “equality” in this film. One would be when the defense lawyer and his ex are drinking at a bar and spend the night together. Another might be when two detectives (one female) are searching the defense lawyer’s house after his friend was murdered. The later scene is a few seconds, while the former is a few minutes.

Male characters (mostly white male characters) have the vast majority of speaking and screen time. They have all of the power for all practical purposes. The defense lawyer is male, his driver is male, his investigator is male, all of his clients (except one) are male, including a male motorcycle gang (consider the symbolism of this in terms of power and strength and the “stereotypical” role for women), most of the detectives are male, the DA and assistant are male, the police officers are all male, etc. Male characters are at various times sexist and homophobic (gay men are referred to as “faggots”).

Problematic gender representations is a problem found in the vast majority of Hollywood productions. Virtually any movie could be selected and criticized in a similar way. This posting shouldn’t be read as a critique of just this movie but of almost all movies. There would not necessarily be any problem with this movie (characters and people have faults and stories and their perspectives are different) if we had numerous other movies that featured women predominately or even roughly equal to that of men.

Please note: I use white and non-white in these comments to help further the point about the problematic nature of representation and film. Of course, “race” is a social constructor, but its consequences are all too real and make it necessary to discuss.

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