The Bechdel Test and Beyond – Part III

So, in the last two posts on this blog I introduced a new Rounded Representation test that takes us beyond the starting point that is the Bechdel Test, and gave various examples of its use.

In the first post:

  • We saw that girls comics of the 1970s had very fully rounded representation of the female characters in their pages; even in a single issue of one girls comic (chosen primarily for easy accessibility) there was female representation of a wide range of emotions, abilities, challenges faced, ages, and roles.
  • In comparison, other groups of readers are not likely to be represented anything like as fully. The same test done for BME (Black / Minority Ethnic) characters results in a very much patchier picture of representation. Across the whole run of a single title, there are some significant gaps in representation, and in a single issue of a title, there is very little guarantee of representation of this group, despite the net being cast as widely as possible (by testing for any BME representation rather than specifically Asian or Black British representation, for instance).

In the second post:

  • We saw that recent stories targetted at girls (a My Little Pony feature film, a Barbie doll webcast, and the Tangled film from Disney) also generally showed a fairly fullly rounded representation of the female characters, though the representation of girls and women in the Barbie webclip was noticeably patchier than was the case for the other two.
  • Just because something is targetted at a female audience, it is not necessarily the case that the representation of female characters will be fully rounded.

In this post, we will look at the representation of male characters in comics aimed at girls, and in the next post we’ll look at the same in comics targetted at boys. Do girls’ comics only show us female characters – an almost absolute reversal of the way that mainstream media is dominated by male characters? Or do they give readers a rounded representation of both genders? Likewise in comics intended for a male market – how do they represent both the gender that they are targetting, and the other half of the world?

First of all, what happens when we do a ‘reverse Bechdel’ on girls’ comics – checking to see if there are at least two named male characters who interact with each other? There are a one or two stories in Tammy and in Jinty which have male protagonists, and if any stories pass this reverse Bechdel then they will. The Tammy story “Cuckoo In The Nest” is a particularly good example of such (see this Booksmonthly article for a synopsis halfway down the page). This story passes without many worries – although protagonist Leslie is forced to attend a girls’ boarding school in disguise as a girl and therefore mostly interacts with ‘other girls’, he also meets up with his friend from home, talks to his Uncle Fred, and even finds a local group of boys he can play football with when he escapes from his female disguise.

The story also covers most of the bases on the Rounded Representation test: the male characters are shown with a range of emotions (I didn’t have the whole story to hand and didn’t see much anger depicted, but I may have missed this through not looking at all the episodes). It’s a fairly realistic story, or at least not a story of magic or science fiction, so the male characters don’t show any superhuman abilities, but we see Leslie playing football and solving various problems (such as how to fool his schoolgirl chums into continuing to think he is a girl). The story is really based around the fairly individualistic challenge for him not to get caught out, though there are also some positive goals he is trying to achieve (such as continuing to enjoy himself by playing football well). We don’t see that wide a range of ages in the male characters shown – no little boys or old men in the episodes I looked at, but they may be included in later episodes so I have put question marks here. And of course Leslie in this case is clearly the protagonist, but the villains or antagonists are all female (his Great-Aunt, and a nosey schoolgirl who has to be prevented from finding out his secret). The sidekick in the story is a schoolgirl chum who has her own reasons for being on his side. We might perhaps count his Uncle Fred as a sidekick but I am more inclined to categorize him as a background character – happy to hear arguments on this though.

It’s also helpful to check an individual issue of a girls’ comic that wasn’t specially chosen as likely to pass, so let’s go back to the 1978 issue of Misty that was referred to in the first of these posts and do the same tests. This does pass the reverse Bechdel test, though only once you get over half way through the issue: in the complete story “The Love and the Laughter” the devil has a short conversation with two named male characters about a book, and in “The Sentinels” there are a few conversations between policemen.

As for the Rounded Representation test on this issue of Misty, it passes most of the hurdles relatively easily:

  • The male characters are shown with a wide variety of emotions (for instance the fathers in “Seal Song” and in “Paint It Black” are both happy, though not in ways that are likely to bode well for their respective daughters).
  • They show a range of abilities both physical and mental, realistic and supernatural (I’m not totally convinced that the devil in the Carnival story can be said to be using more than human mental powers, hence the question mark in that cell).
  • There are a range of challenges faced by the male characters, whether individual or more widespread (in “The Sentinels”, the father is part of a resistance group fighting the Nazis, which definitely counts). It’s not so clear as to whether any of the male characters in this issue have a positive goal they are trying to achieve, so much as threats they are aiming to survive; and of course this is a horror comic so most of the challenges that all the characters face are more supernatural than mundane. (The protagonist of “Moonchild” faces the mundane challenges of an abusive mother and some horrible bullies, but she is a female character and hence does not come into this specific test.)
  • We see a reasonable range of ages in the male characters depicted – no babies or toddlers at all whether girls or boys, but plenty of grown men, a boy of a simlar age to the protagonist in the background of the end of the seal story, one young adult in the Dragon story, and old men in the carnival story.
  • None of the male characters are given the role of protagonist in this issue but we do see men and boys as villains, background characters, and as ‘sidekicks’ – important characters who are not the main protagonist.

For completeness I have also scored the Rounded Representation test for Jinty as a whole; there are few male protagonists (but at least one) and none of the male characters I can immediately think of show superhuman physical abilities, though some of them can certainly do magic. I would also say that none of the male characters face widespread societal challenges, though again I am open to examples being sent in. (Perhaps little brother Per in “The Song of the Fir Tree”, as him and his sister escape Nazi persecution across the breadth of Europe.)

So we can see that in comics aimed at girls, the roles available to male characters were very nearly as wide as the roles available to female characters – there were very few male protagonists and perhaps some other gaps in what they were shown doing, but overall boys and men very much formed part of the world depicted in girls’ comics. Is the same the case in boys’ comics – did they show an equally wide range of female roles? Did they show a full range of male roles? The next post will tell more.

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