The Bechdel Test and Beyond

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.

Rounded Representation test

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.

Rounded Representation 2

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.

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18 thoughts on “The Bechdel Test and Beyond

  1. Maybe try this one on Tammy’s “Cuckoo in the Nest”. It stars a boy as the protagonist and one who has to pass himself off as a girl!

    1. I don’t really know enough about the story to do more than a vague stab at it, but I can try and put a version up for you to then comment on, maybe?

        1. Well, let’s try the new test on a story we both know well, and work through it together that way. Say “Waves of Fear”. So – do the female characters show the range of emotions of happiness, anger, fear, doubt, and friendship? Yes – Clare is happy at the beginning, she is afraid and full of doubt at various points, and the friendship between her and Rachel is definitely shown. Rachel is angry on Clare’s behalf when she finds out what the bully Jean has been up to. So this means that females don’t only get shown as only one thing or another, they are depicted with a reasonable range of human emotions. (That doesn’t mean that each character has to show all the emotions in a single story, just that we don’t only see girls being always happy – or whatever – in a one-dimensional way.)

        2. Second section – range of abilities shown. “Waves of Fear” isn’t a fantastical story and no-one in it can do impossible things. We can say that Clare is shown as having some physical abilities, like swimming, that fall within the range of the possible – she isn’t shown as someone who never does anything, which would be a very limited portrayal. Her activity of orienteering has got an intellectual problem-solving aspect too, so we can say she is shown using her brain; and her friend Rachel likewise uses her brain to solve the question of how Clare became an outcast. So we would tick the first and third boxes in this section, for ‘Physical / realistic’ and ‘Mental / realistic’.

        3. Third section – Range of challenges faced. Clare (and Rachel) face a difficulty that is pretty centred around Clare herself – how to understand her illness and clear her name. (In “Fran of the Floods”, by comparison, the flood is affecting everyone across the world.) Most of the challenge is in the form of a threat originating outside Clare herself – her illness, and her nemesis Jean. (If the story challenge was a positive goal to be achieved then that would look more like Toni on Trial’s drive to win the sports cup, say.) And is the difficulty that the story poses a realistic one that could happen in our world, or a fantastical one that could only happen somewhere where different physical rules applied? It’s a realistic plot element (not that it will happen to lots of people, but it is a *possible* rather than *impossible* one). So we would tick the first, third, and fifth boxes in this section.

        4. Fourth section – Range of ages shown. If the only females in a story were the main characters and they were all grown-ups, say, then this would get a tick only in the fourth box in this section. In “Waves of Fear” we see girls who are more or less the same age as the reader, so we can tick the second box. In some Jinty stories we see girls doing baby-sitting or looking after their young siblings, which might score a tick in the first box of this section, but not in this story I think. We also in other Jinty stories see big sisters or young teachers who take an interest in the main character, but again not in this story I don’t particularly remember. There are grown-up women who are in the story, though – teachers, mothers, and so on – so we can tick the fourth box in this section. I can’t specifically remember seeing any old women in this story, so we would leave the last box unticked.

        5. Fifth section – Range of roles shown. The main character is a girl, so we tick the protagonist box. The main rival is female too, so we tick the antagonist box. I’m classifying Rachel as a sidekick – she is not the main character but she’s an important driving force in her own right, and closely linked to Clare in many ways. So tick the sidekick box, because she’s a girl too. And are there background characters who are girls? Yes, certainly: but in many mainstream stories the creators might not bother putting in any female characters apart from the main one(s). For this story and for most Jinty stories we can tick all four boxes in this section, but in some other kinds of story you might only be able to tick one of the four boxes. (The Transformers film has got two named female characters in it and they aren’t protagonists or villains, so probably I would only tick the Sidekick box for that film – I don’t think you get any real female background characters either though I would have to rewatch it to be sure.)

  2. Utterly excellent.
    This deserves much exposure and I will start by tweeting and FBing the link.
    Stunning stuff.
    I recently bought my first batch of Mistys and probably won’t have time to apply the test myself, though I’d like to give it a try.

    1. Thanks – glad you find it interesting and useful! I am going to do a couple more posts on this subject before moving back to stories, creators, issues as usual.

  3. An excellent post: fascinating, and vital research.

    It also ties in with something which I’ve noticed in the past few years:reading Commando, one can go through several issues from a decade or moe ago without seeing a single female character, even in the background. This has changed in recent years, however, I’ve noticed, with a few recent issues having a female lead (sharing with a male, it must be said). If I have the time one day I may apply similar research to yours to a year or so’s worth of issues and see what results (ao many projects to be undertaken, so little time…). .

    1. So many projects, so little time, indeed! Yes, the latest post I’ve done is about some boys war comics of the time, and the absence of women is pretty palpable.

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