The Bechdel Test and Beyond: Part V and last

So, you may say, why might we care about representation, and therefore about this test at all?

One main reason I wanted to look at this was in order to have another analytical tool to address the question of how boys and girls comics differ. We have memories and statements from Pat Mills and from other creators of the time about how girls comics feature “more complex psychology” which you don’t find in boys comics, or that in boys’ comics you can’t have a mystery-based story as this doesn’t work for that readership. What does this really mean, when you come down to look at it? Is there something you can undeniably point to in the stories themselves, that isn’t purely down to people’s memories and subjective judgements? Well, this tool doesn’t answer all of that, but it does help to show some systematic differences between boys’ comics and girls’ comics, with boys’ war comics at the furthest end of the spectrum from girls’ comics.

(The discussion about differences between boys’ comics and girls’ comics is often stated in quite gender essentialist terms – ‘boys don’t like this, girls love that’ – which is something that I have a problem with. We know perfectly well that there were always boy who read and enjoyed girls comics and vice-versa, but because it was likely to be frowned on by peers and parents this behaviour was often hidden. To me it makes better sense to say that the boys comics market worked in a certain way, and the girls comics market in a different way – that when boys were given stories that were too far outside the established mould, those stories were typically not popular.)

It would be great to also try to apply this analysis to see whether there are systematic differences between what women wrote and what men wrote – because again this is often discussed in gender essentialist terms. In so far as we know what stories were written by women and what ones were written by men (the million dollar question, of course), are there any glaring differences, or is the constraint of the market (the fact that they were writing to a targetted market) a more important factor? The ideal would be to compare a story written by a women for a girls’ comic, and a story written by the same woman for a boys’ market; and likewise two stories written by a man, one for each market. Personally I think the target market will have a stronger impact than the gender of the writer, but I’d like to try it in the future, if I could find good examples to use.

It’s not just about good analytical tools, though. The Rounded Representation test is a relatively limited test (as is the Bechdel test itself, of course): apart from generally not telling us anything about whether a story is well or badly done, it says nothing directly about important characteristics like psychological depth. (I’d argue that if a story doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test it is rather less likely to be very psychologically realistic, but even so there are very well-written counter-examples: an obvious one to mention would be the excellent film “Das Boot”, set in a German U-boat in WWII, and hence a very male set-up.) No, the Rounded Representation test is interesting and hopefully useful because diversity of representation itself is so important, while at the same time being so easy to let slip past. It’s a mass action game: sure, an all-male film about a German U-Boat crew can be amazing and excellent, I’m not disputing that. But if out of all the films that are out there – or the books or the comics – only a minority deal with any characters other than white hearty action men then yes, we have a problem. And to spot that unequal representation we have to go round actually looking and counting, because humans are subject to systematic errors, biases, and stereotypes.

Why is representation important? It’s easy to point to the powerful effect that it can have on people seeing themselves represented – there’s a great story about how Nichelle Nichols was asked to continue in the role of Lt Uhura by Martin Luther King. That link also tells us how Nichols rejigged the role of a character who would otherwise have been a stereotyped madam in a blaxploitation film – it’s not only about having strong positive characters but also about widening the range of what is shown in the first place. Black British youngsters had it bad too – this piece in the Guardian by David Harewood starts off with an anecdote of what it was like growing up Black in Britain in the 70s, and Harewood was far from unique in those memories.

On a more comics-focused example, I came across a blog post written by a man who had read “Cuckoo In The Nest” as a boy, and who identifies as a cross-dresser as an adult. To him this story was a very powerful one that lived with him for 30 years or more. The story wasn’t (I assume) written with him as a target reader, nor even primarily for boy readers (again, I assume) – but the wider the range of stories written and depicted, the more people that will be caught in the net of the stories out there. Are there Black British women of around my age who still remember “Life’s a Ball for Nadine” fondly not because it was necessarily a great serial in itself, but purely because it was so rare to see a non-white protagonist?

Having a wider range of characters and stories that get written, drawn, and published is also good for the reader. It rescues the stories from stale stereotyping and broadens the interest and understanding of the reader. Why not have a story set during Ramadan, say, that touches on what it is like to fast for the daylight hours and feast at night? For Muslim readers this could be a touch of real life, of how things work during the fasting month; for non-Muslims this could be an unusual angle that they’d not considered in any detail.

Of course this can be done badly, and this is often a fear for creators and readers alike. Will it be heavy-handed and more concerned with hammering the point home than with telling a good story? Will it just be a tokenistic effort that is the equivalent of failing the Bechdel test by including just one woman and never having her talk about something substantive? These are challenges; and everyone is going to screw up at some point. (The recent scandal about the children’s book “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” is relevant; there has been lots of discussion of this online but I am here linking to a piece by the writer of the book, herself not white, who points to a number of more systematic problems than simply insensitivity on the part of an individual creator.) But resources like the We Need Diverse Books campaign site underline the importance of keeping on trying.

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One thought on “The Bechdel Test and Beyond: Part V and last

  1. I was very interested to be sent the following link by a friend: a parenting site that has thought along similar lines to develop a diversity check for kids’ TV, which the blogger is calling the Maisy Test. It’s another way to think about the some of same sort of things, though better suited to kids TV than to 70s girls comics.

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