The Bill & Ted Franchise (A Feminist Flicker Excerpt)

From Feminist Flicker, on Channillo:

The Bill & Ted Franchise

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Discussion of the Bill & Ted franchise feels very timely – not only because a new instalment has been announced for release in 2020, but also because pop culture is currently in the midst of reckoning with the fact that many old favourites are actually deeply problematic.

Created and written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, Bill & Ted is a beloved franchise. When the first film, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (directed by Stephen Herek), arrived in U.S cinemas in 1989, it quickly spawned an animated television series, a live-action television series, video games, comic books, a musical, a cereal, as well as its own sequel – 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (directed by Peter Hewitt). Audiences fell in love with these two West Coast slacker teens, and their increasingly desperate attempts to complete a history report and start a band – and this popularity is what studios and television networks were keen to profit from at the time.

Beyond profit and popularity, though, the Bill & Ted franchise was always far more complex due to its central contradiction. Audiences embraced the positive core philosophy of the story – “Be excellent to each other…and party on” – while willingly overlooking the sexism, racism and homophobia contained within the tale. Bill & Ted – two white men – were calling for unity, peace and love, while simultaneously demonstrating bigotry in their behaviour.

In 1989, this barely made a ripple in public discourse – because there was very little public discourse possible. Today, thirty years on, we are more than a decade into the effects of social media on our collective consciousness – and the impact in terms of viewing older movies is notable. Awareness is heightened, and we are able to engage more readily in conversation about such problematic aspects of film. In the case of Bill & Ted, though, the outcome of such a conversation is not straightforward.

The premise of the entire franchise is very simple. William “Bill” S. Preston Esq (Alex Winter) and Theodore “Ted” Logan (Keanu Reeves) are two slacker teens living in San Dimas, California. They are best friends, and have dreams of starting a band called Wyld Stallyns – but neither of them can play guitar, and Ted’s Police Captain father, Captain Logan (Hal Landon Jr), is looking for any excuse to send his son to Alaskan Military School.

One such excuse arises when Bill and Ted have to complete a History report for school. If they fail, Ted will be sent away and their dreams of rock stardom will be forever quashed. While lamenting their situation at the Circle K one night, a phone booth containing Rufus (George Carlin) falls from the sky. A second phone booth arrives, containing Bill and Ted from the future, and a group of famous people from history. Together, Rufus and future Bill and Ted explain to the two teens that Rufus has been sent from the future to ensure that they pass their History test – because the fate of humanity depends upon them forming their band, and becoming famous. He explains that the music they will eventually create will form the basis of a utopian society where everyone lives in peace and harmony.

Bill and Ted then have an excellent adventure through time. They collect two Princesses from medieval England, to whom they will later become married. They collect Napoleon (Terry Camilleri), Billy The Kid (Dan Shor), Socrates (Tony Steedman), Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis), Genghis Khan (Al Leong), Joan Of Arc (Jane Wiedlin), Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron), and Beethoven (Clifford David), and descend upon the lecture hall where they are to present their History report, just in time. Hilarity ensues when we then see these historical figures in a contemporary context – with the whole group helping Bill with his household chores. Later, we see Freud and Socrates flirting with young girls at the mall, Joan Of Arc taking over an aerobics class, Genghis Khan shopping for baseball bats, and Beethoven rocking out in a keyboard store, before the whole group is arrested.

So, what is it that makes Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure problematic? Let’s look at the main cast and characterisation. With the exception of Genghis Khan and Mr Ryan (Bernie Casey) – the teens’ High School teacher – the main cast is almost entirely white and male. The exception is Missy (Amy Stoch), who serves as a comedic character as a result of her connection to the male characters. She is a young white woman who attended the same High School as Bill and Ted – close enough to them in age that Ted once asked her to the prom – but she is now married to Bill’s father (J. Patrick McNamara). Every time she appears in a scene, the male characters regard her lecherously – including Bill and Ted. This mirrors Socrates and Freud flirting with teenage girls in the mall.

Evidently, when travelling through time to collect historical figures, Bill and Ted could only find one woman of significance – Joan Of Arc – and, because she does not speak English, she does not have any lines as such. We barely hear her speak at all, in fact, and she certainly never converses with another woman. Genghis Khan also barely speaks – but Socrates is heard to speak on several occasions, by contrast. Then, there is the general attitude toward women, which is typical of movies from this era. They are all presented as small-waisted, big-haired white women – with the exception of Joan Of Arc, whose hair is more conservatively coiffed.

If we then look at 1991’s, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, we see similar problems. In this movie, Time Rebels send Evil Bill and Ted Robots back in time to murder the real Bill and Ted, in order to prevent them from saving the world with their music. When dead, Bill and Ted literally go to hell, defeat the Grim Reaper in a series of games, go to heaven, collect some highly intelligent aliens, then return to life with the aliens having made Good Bill and Ted Robots to defeat the Evil ones on stage at a big Battle Of The Bands concert. Again, the cast is almost entirely white male, with the exception of Taj Mahal appearing as a Gatekeeper in heaven.

The legendary Pam Grier appears as Ms Wardroe – a music promoter who is the key to getting Wyld Stallyns onto the stage at the all-important Battle Of The Bands. However, after she facilitates their success, she literally unzips herself to reveal that she was Rufus all along. The only woman of colour with a speaking role in the movie is actually a white man in disguise – which is problematic enough in terms of optics, but when you look past that and into the power dynamics, that plot twist takes a much deeper turn. We realise that Rufus, a white man, has rigged the Battle Of The Bands entry process in favour of two white male teens, using the visage of a black woman to hide his influence.

Then, there’s the language. As characters, Bill and Ted are uniquely defined by their language – which is a striking blend of West Coast slacker and almost Shakespearean turns of phrase (“Our girlfriends are most chaste.”  “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K”). But, while Excellent Adventure pushed hard on the sexist aspects of that language – with objectifying comments, and an insistence on depersonalising Princesses Elizabeth and Joanna by referring to them collectively as “The Babes” – Bogus Journey is peppered with homophobic labels, jokes, and phrases.

So, when we examine these aspects of the movies, it seems that Bill and Ted think we should “be excellent to each other,” except those at odds with their own entitlement as straight white men.

Now, a lot of these problematic elements are the result of Hollywood culture and society at the time. Looking back at studio productions of the 1980s and early 1990s, we can find exactly the same issues in most of them – which is a real retrospective criticism, and not an excuse. But, something does set Bill and Ted apart from the rest of that problematic crowd to a certain extent – and that something is tone.

Because Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves play Bill and Ted so broadly, they are essentially caricatures of a particular stereotype that was prevalent in American comedy at the time. Though this franchise was arguably an early participant in that trend, the West Coast slacker persona, mashed with almost formal vocabulary choices is a cartoonish stereotype nonetheless. Taking this as a basis for examination of the movies, we can appreciate that the tone is one that skewers particular aspects of wider society with very precise satire.

For example, in Excellent Adventure, we learn that Missy is of a similar age to Bill and Ted, but has married Bill’s Dad. There is a scene in which Bill, Ted, and Bill’s Dad are leering at her during a conversation about homework in Bill’s bedroom. Bill’s Dad then gives the teens some cash to go out and entertain themselves, implying that he and Missy will be having sex in Bill’s bedroom. Bill’s Dad closes the door on them with a very creepy expression on his face while Missy is seen sitting in the background – which creates a sense of ‘predator’ and ‘prey’. This is later juxtaposed in the same film with much older Socrates and Freud flirting with teenage girls at the mall.

The creepiness of that is driven home when, very soon afterward, we see the also teenage Joan Of Arc leading a room full of women in exuberant aerobic exercise – only to be dragged away by armed police officers. Further skewering this lecherous treatment of young women is the fact that Bill and Ted find Princesses Elizabeth and Joanna in medieval England just as their father is about to ‘marry them off’ to “two old men.” The High Schoolers rescue the women from that situation, bringing them to modern America where, although they are then in a relationship with their rescuers, they have far greater autonomy than they did before. The contrast is between the Princesses being forced to marry old men, and Missy presumably consenting to marry an old man.

When Genghis Khan is seen shopping for baseball bats, the renowned perpetrator of extreme violence tries one out by beating a female mannequin to pieces. The symbolism of that is striking, but after the story cuts away and then cuts back to him, we see the warmonger has now donned full American Football protective gear, and is rampaging through the store, attacking everybody – drawing a clear parallel between escalating, historical male violence, and the violence of contemporary male contact sports. Likewise, in the same sequence, Billy The Kid can be seen running through the mall shooting his gun. That this historical figure was snapped up from the Wild West and deposited in a crowded California shopping precinct highlights the absurd nature of American gun culture – not least when Socrates follows him with a gun and cannot make it shoot.

In Bogus Journey, the satire is far less subtle. The Evil Bill and Ted Robots serve to embody everything that is male toxicity. They are emotionally detached, destructive, violent, and entitled. They simply seek to do what is expected of them which is, in this case, the murder of the real Bill and Ted. Before the murder, they tell Bill and Ted that they intend to kidnap their fiancées (Princess Elizabeth and Princess Joanna – played here by Annette Azcuy and Sarah Trigger respectively) – which then becomes Bill and Ted’s primary motivation to escape the afterlife. While this ‘Save The Women’ trope is tired and tedious, its execution here is unusual.

Princesses Elizabeth is engaged to Ted, and Princess Joanna is engaged to Bill – and both relationships are “most chaste.” When Evil Bill and Ted replace the originals, however, they try to force themselves on the women. To the credit of this movie, the women are able to break free from Evil Bill and Ted, stand in the room and admonish them – throwing their engagement rings back at them, and leaving.

This is an important moment for these two women characters. Having been rescued from an arranged marriage in the first film, they have here fought off two would-be attackers, and chosen to end their respective betrothals themselves. Though they will then be kidnapped and rescued by the resurrected real Bill and Ted, at this point in the film, these two women have chosen to strike out on their own for the first time in their lives – and this is momentarily very empowering.

In Bogus Journey, Missy is still causing upset among the menfolk – this time by having divorced Bill’s Dad to marry Ted’s father. This is revealed in a party scene where Missy flirts with Colonel Oats (Chelcie Ross) of the Alaskan Military School, before fawning over her new husband. We see Bill’s father – now a visibly broken man – watching in quiet devastation from a corner. The scene is framed such that Bill’s father – and indeed all the men leering at Missy – is suddenly a victim of their own lechery. It is a masterful switch of the framing used for Missy’s character in the first film.

Finally, there is the overall satirical point of Bill and Ted, which is the prevalence of extreme hero worship in modern media. The franchise hinges on the idea that the creative output of these two men can eradicate war, inequality, and poverty. It can make the planets align, and save humanity from itself. Their big breakout performance is seen at the end of Bogus Journey, with people watching the broadcast all over the world – reminiscent of Queen’s iconic performance during 1985’s Live Aid.

These two entitled slackers began Excellent Adventure with a dream of fame and fortune, without actually knowing how to play an instrument or write music. Though they loved the music of others, they did not have a burning desire to make their own – their ambition was to attain the lifestyle that accompanied such an achievement. They wanted the reward, without doing the work. By the end of Bogus Journey, they have the ability to play, because they used the time machine given to them by Rufus to cheat – they travelled back to learn from masterful guitar legends. So, as the film ends with the implication that Wyld Stallyns will go off and save humanity with their music, it does so having revealed that it is actually all the work of Rufus, who brought them the time machine in the first place. Even their ‘philosophy’ – “Be excellent to each other…and party on” – is made up on the spot when the duo briefly travel to the future and face the Leadership Council. The subsequent implied success of Wyld Stallyns says as much about an audience’s love for symbols and icons as it does about patriarchal social structures.

That’s the joke – they are worshipped as heroes and saviours, though they have done very little on their own to earn it. With the exception of besting The Grim Reaper at various games, they owe it all to an old white man’s assistance and manipulations…

Continue reading, over on Channillo: Feminist Flicker.

Channillo is a subscription literature platform that is home to hundreds of series in multiple genres. Feminist Flicker is a fortnightly column by Sarah Myles – now in its fifth year of publication – which decodes sexism in movies by analysing one film at a time. You can read Feminist Flicker for free, with a 30-day free trial membership.

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