I have been trying to come up with a good way of looking at the characters in girls’ comics (and boys comics too), to help me think about diversity and representation in a structured, repeatable fashion. Hopefully that structure could also be used on other ranges of comics, to compare and contrast.
The Bechdel Test, which you may well have heard of previously, has become a fairly well-known way to check whether a story passes a pretty basic test of representation. It works quite interestingly in the context whereby the vast majority of stories told are by, about, and for men, in that it highlights those stories which have at least a bare minimum of female representation in them (to pass, they have to include at least two named female characters, who talk to each other at some point, and who don’t just talk about a man). It’s a starting point for analysis, not a tick that says the story is a great feminist achievement. But in a genre which is intrinsically focused around girls, this test becomes fairly meaningless. I could imagine a Jinty story which doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (though the vast majority of them would do), but it would fail it in a different way from the male-dominated Hollywood stories that the test was designed for. The first rule of doing comics for girls is clearly that the main character must (almost always) be a girl: so stories in this genre will almost certainly only fail the test if the main character is the only character and therefore had no one else to speak to.
So there is little point in trying to measure female representation in girls’ comics by using the Bechdel Test (you could measure the lack of male representation in them by doing a reverse Bechdel Test but I’m not sure that this would tell you very much more). We need something with a higher bar than testing for the mere existence of female characters and their minimal interaction together. I propose a ‘Rounded Representation’ test, therefore: looking at the range of portrayals of female characters in the stories under analysis. OK, so girls’ comics are focused around girls, duh. But do they still stereotype girls and limit the ways they are represented, or do they allow their female characters to represent a much wider range?
I have chosen a few initial attributes to look at, and made some initial scores off the top of my head. The yellow items below are my generalised scores for Jinty across its run; the items in blue are scored with reference to a specific issue of Misty that I could easily access at the time of writing (April 1978 – available online). Does Jinty include stories where the female characters show the basic emotions listed below? Do the characters have a range of things they are shown as doing, whether realistic or not (sports, feats of superhuman strength, doing well in school, reading people’s minds)? Do the stories show the girls facing a wide range of different kinds of challenges, in a range of roles both positive and negative? And do you see only young and pretty girls represented, or are they shown as people who feature in stories across the spectrum of ages? If you are looking at the whole run of Jinty then yes, you see pretty much the whole gamut; and even if you only look at one specific issue of one comic targeted at girls (the Misty example in blue) then again, yes, even in one issue you see a pretty wide range of representation of the female condition.
So what, you might say – surely it’s almost a dead cert that across a whole run of several years you will get the range of possibilities used. Well, let’s try that analysis again, but this time with BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) characters.
Even though we are talking about some 350 issues / 7 years worth of comics, the yellow items show right away that the range of depictions of BME characters is massively much thinner than that of female characters*. BME characters aren’t (in Jinty) shown as saving the whole world or depicted in fantastical situations – they are shown in more mundane situations where the challenge they face is about them individually. They aren’t shown in whole families or as ‘people in the crowd’ (actually I need to amend this a little, because in “Life’s a Ball for Nadine” we do see Nadine’s parents). If you are going to include fewer BME characters in the first place then it’s unsurprising that there are fewer roles given to them, but I suspect the gaps also highlight some tokenistic thinking too. Perhaps the gaps imply that it’s reasonable to have a story or two that are specifically about a Black British girl or a Chinese girl, or indeed to make her a villain; but to include BME characters as part of the expected background pattern of life is too much to expect?
* I am happy to explain my scoring in more detail if anyone asks in the comments; some of the elements may well need revising as it was a fairly hasty assessment. Apologies also for assessing at the pretty crude level of ‘BME characters’ which is itself a loaded choice, I know.
The blue items from my fairly brief analysis of an issue of Misty highlight further the fact that there is just so much less inclusion of non-white people in this era of comics. In one of the stories there is a sinister Chinese man who smiles happily and is clearly a villain – single-handedly he accounts for 3 of the 5 attributes ticked. This issue also includes “The Cult of the Cat” and I have slightly generously included Bast’s priestesses young and old, in the background, to account for the remaining two attributes ticked.
It’s immediately obvious when reading girls’ comics that the majority of the characters in them are female: that means that these comics have a great chance to represent a wide range of human possibilities in the shape of those female characters. Girls’ comics may not be bastions of feminism but just the fact that they show girls and women as main characters, villains, and sidekicks – and shows them as schemers, bullies, and heroes as well as paragons of virtue – means that the girl reader sees lots of ways of being, not a single simple straitjacket. The above gives us a way to show this range of ways of being: a method that can be applied in other cases too. We can ask whether this range of representation is made available in cases of other disadvantaged groups (the answer above being, probably not).
We can also ask whether other girl-focused stories show the same range of representation. I’ve watched a few episodes of Barbie’s “Life In the Dreamhouse” and while I am not going to do a full analysis of that show, I would score it as probably lower than the Jinty or Misty scores above – do you ever see old people on it or only beautiful young people? Does the protagonist ever face a widespread societal challenge? I don’t think so (but could be proved wrong by a more assiduous viewer). Compare that to “My Little Pony”, also targeted at a young female audience – the scores for female representation are likely to be much more akin to the Jinty scores, I’d hazard.
Now I need to apply the same analysis to girls in boys’ comics – and to boys in girls’ comics!
Health warning – as with any fairly basic analysis, there is lots and lots omitted in the interest of simplicity. There could be a lot more emotions included, for a start – such as guilt or envy – and this analysis certainly says nothing about whether any individual character is a thin cardboard cutout. It just says whether, in this genre, girls and women are allowed a range of slots in the story rather than always being shown doing the same thing in the same way – always the love interest and never the hero.
Edited to add – this is the 400th post on this blog! Very suitable to have this sort of thinky analytic piece on such an auspicious number. Many thanks all for reading the blog.