Tag Archives: Barbie

The Bechdel Test and Beyond – part II

Here are some more try outs of the new Rounded Representation test that I have devised. In explaining the results below it should hopefully make it clearer to readers how the test is supposed to work. This time, I have chosen three modern mainstream stories that are targeted at an audience of girls: the recent feature film based on My Little Pony, “Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks“; one sample episode of the Barbie webcast show “Life In The Dreamhouse“; and the 2010 Disney feature film “Tangled“.

Rounded Representation 2

Range of emotions shown:

  • The “My Little Pony” film (hereafter MLP) certainly covers all the bases on my test.
  • Barbie is a generally happy character and the short episode in question includes friends who collaborate with each other; I wouldn’t say there’s much depiction of anger or fear in that episode though I am being a bit unfair as I don’t like the show much and so haven’t watched much of it. In other clips, Barbie’s rival probably does show anger and the characters probably do show some fear at points, but this is not a series that has a lot of emotional highs & lows.
  • “Tangled” again has a pretty happy main character and a female villain who is quite angry at times; Rapunzel also has a lot to learn about the world so she has moments of fear and doubt but eventually wins through to the love of her family and to romantic love too.

Range of abilities shown:

  • In MLP, the main female characters play musical instruments (showing physical abilities that are things that real people might do), and they solve problems and therefore display mental abilities that match things that real people might do. They also can do astounding leaps into the air (showing physical powers that are more superhuman than realistic) and can do magic (thus mental superhuman abilities).
  • Barbie and her friends show realistic and more-than-realistic physical prowess but don’t really solve any intellectual challenges or show mental powers beyond the norm.
  • Rapunzel does quite a lot of physical stuff – running, jumping, hitting people with frying pans – and some of it is more-than-human (tying people up with her hair). Both she and her female antagonist can do magic, and they both have to think hard in order to solve problems too.

Range of challenges faced:

  • In MLP, there’s a lot of stuff going on in the one film. One character has to redeem herself in the eyes of her friends and her school (individual challenge), but the group as a whole have to save the world from the three magical sirens who are threatening it (societal challenge). There are threats to the well-being of the main characters but also goals that they are trying to reach (playing together really well as a rock band, having their song-writing skills appreciated). Some of these challenges are real-world ones that any viewer might also face, but saving the world from mystical forces definitely comes under the category of the fantastical.
  • Barbie and friends have a fairly fantastical (not to mention silly) challenge to face but it only affects them as individuals, and it’s more of a personal goal than a threat to them
  • Rapunzel doesn’t need to save the world but she does have both personal goals to fulfill and a very real threat to defeat. Arguably some of her challenges are ones that a real viewer might face – finding friends, finding love, getting back to her family – but it’s a bit tenuous and I would say the story is fairly firmly based in the fantastical challenges of defeating her magical enemy.

Range of ages shown:

  • MLP is set in a high school and it does have a restricted group of ages as a result. The characters are young, perhaps teenagers rather than tweens, but you don’t really see any female babies or children, or any old women. (You do in the TV series of MLP, however.) There are some female grownups (teachers) who have a minor role in the film but are present. (NB I am counting ‘young adult’ as being around the 18 – 25 range – treated as an adult for many purposes in society, but not expected to have a family of their own or necessarily to have embarked on a career.)
  • Barbie only really seems to include young adults and grownups (I am categorizing Barbie as a grownup because the episode I watched had her talking about her many careers, and referring to Ken as her boyfriend of many years). Other episodes in the series do include Barbie’s younger sisters so would score slightly more widely.
  • Tangled does show a pretty wide range of female characters at different ages.

Range of roles shown:

  • MLP – the many female characters cover the wide range of possibilities, as heroes, villains, sidekicks, and background cast.
  • Barbie doesn’t really seem to have any antagonists in this episode (in others she does have a rival, Raquelle) but nor are any background characters shown, whether female or male.
  • And in Tangled there is a notable gap in that there are no female sidekicks (something that has been noticed recently elsewhere).

I will get back to British comics in the next post, promise ! Hopefully the above gives an easy-to-follow explanation of what the various categories meant in my test, and why they might be ticked or left blank. I think it also shows that just because something is targetted at a female audience, it does not necessarily cover a diverse range of representation possibilities.

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.

Katy

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Katy. This is a title that is so obscure that I cannot find any piece on it or jpegs on the Internet (save at a recent eBay auction, which are reproduced here). The only source on Katy so far is this thread from Comics UK forum http://comicsuk.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=140&t=6484

Katy lasted ten issues. She appeared fortnightly, from #1, 31 October 1986 to #10, 6 March 1987. She then merged with Barbie.

What gives Katy her place on this blog is that she reprinted some stories from Jinty. Other reprints came from Tammy, Misty, Whizzer & Chips, Sandie, and other sources that have not yet been identified. The beauty is that Katy reprinted the stories in full colour!

If anyone can supply further information on Katy it would be most appreciated.

Stories in Katy

Creepy Crawley – Jinty

Combing Her Golden Hair – Jinty. Retitled “Comb of Mystery”

Alone in London – original comic unknown

The Upper Crust – Tammy

Witch Hazel – Tammy

Guitar Girl – Tammy

Claws (cat cartoon) – Whoopee!

The Cats of Carey St – Misty

Sister to a Star – Sandie

Minnie’s Mixer (cartoon) – Whizzer & Chips

The Petticoat Pirate – original comic unknown

Dora Dogsbody – Jinty

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Update: Further scans are now available. They have established that most of the Katy covers were reproduced from Princess Tina, such as this one. All the covers were also used for the Dutch Tina.23ubw2a

And the following scans of the contents have been added. “Comb of Mystery” is “Combing her Golden Hair” under a new title.

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