Tag Archives: Bechdel Test

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.

The Bechdel Test and Beyond – Part IV, Boys Comics

It looks like girls’ comics portray a very wide range of roles for girls and women – perhaps wider than is the case in some recent mainstream media targeted at a girls’ market – and that boys and men are integrated into that world of girls as well. The roles that boys and men are shown as playing are not as wide-ranging as those that girls and women are shown in, but compared to the representation of other groups such as Black and Minority Ethnic characters, boys and men get much more of a look-in. What about boys’ comics? What sort of representation do they have of girls and women? Do boys and men get as wide a range of representation in the comics targeted at them as a market?

A couple of notes of caution before I go further. One obvious one is about the scope of what I am looking at in this post – I don’t own very many boys’ comics at all and so I am restricted in what I can easily put through this test. I am of course very happy to hear comments to expand on or to refute the results I will go through below. If readers want to apply the tests to a wider range of boys’ comics I would be very happy to hear the results, and to put then in a followup post if people would like. For instance, I could imagine that repeating this analysis on 2000AD – perhaps on the same sort of date range as my examples below – could reveal an interesting set of different results. (Edited to add: the latest post on blog Great News For All Readers gives a clear hint that Valiant and Lion in 1975 would almost certainly have given different results even to the following year’s copy of Battle and Valiant that I look at below.)

The second, perhaps more major, caveat is to reiterate something I said in earlier posts: this test says nothing about the quality of the individual story or comic, and was never intended to. A story can be great entertainment, excellently written, touching and humane, exciting and innovative, while dealing with a very small subset of humanity or the human concern. The problem comes when only a small subset of humanity is used as the usual channel for stories – when no one else gets a look-in and it is not even questioned. The overall range of stories that are told ends up narrower, but also a wide range of people – those not included in that selected small subset – are implicitly told they are not the stuff of stories. To repeat again, please do not take the comments below as a negative judgment of the comics I am looking at – I can see the stories are exciting and well crafted. That’s exactly why it’s important to apply an analytic test that doesn’t talk about the way the story makes the reader feel or whether it’s well-done – to look at an aspect of the story or comic that can otherwise get hidden by those subjective judgments.

Rounded Representation 5

I was able to look at: four issues of Battle Action dated between March and April 1980, and one issue of Battle and Valiant dated December 1976, all five of which were published by IPC. I have grouped these under the heading ‘War comics’ above, coloured green. Not all boys’ comics are about war as a genre, I appreciate, and thankfully I also had an individual issue of a more general comic that featured a wider genre range – DC Thomson’s Spike, dated 26 November 1983. I didn’t look at humour comics (which weren’t marketed in as gender-specific a way) or at the action adventure comics of an earlier age. Other notable omissions are the weekly publications with a more overtly didactic element and an implicit seal of parental approval – Eagle, Look and Learn, and the like.

First of all, do any of the chosen boys’ comics pass the Bechdel test? If not, there is very little chance of them passing the Rounded Representation test because they are unlikely to have any sort of range of female characters depicted. It’s perhaps not that unexpected that none of the war comics I looked at had as many as two named female characters – there was one story in Battle and Valiant (“The Black Crow”) set in a nursing home, that showed three uniformed nurses, but each unnamed. Arguably two of the nurses have a minimal conversation, which I didn’t indicate in the analysis above, but this is about a man (“Mon dieu… Germans!” “It is Major Klaus von Steutsel… head of the Gestapo in Pontville!”). (Most of the issues had absolutely no women depicted at all, so to have turned to a page with as many as three women on it felt quite unusual.)

The copy of Spike also does not have any stories that pass the Bechdel Test: a couple of the stories had mothers mentioned or shown, but again none of the female characters were named. It felt like slightly less of an exclusively male world on show; balanced against that though, the nurses in “The Black Crow” were professionals with roles of their own, rather than generic wives and mothers, so perhaps honours are even.

In any case, it’s easy to see that girls and women are considerably less well represented in these boys’ comics than is the case for boys and men in girls’ comics. Even in publications that include a lot of fantastical stories, girls stories are not set in an exclusively female world; boys and men are given parts that are more than purely token. Not so in (these) boys’ comics. I have therefore not gone through the Rounded Representation test looking at depiction of girls and women in boys’ comics.

What of the roles that boys and men are depicted in, in these publications aimed at them? Now here’s an interesting thing – in terms of representation, boys are actually slightly hard-done-by in their ‘own’ comics, more so than in girls’ comics. That will need a little more teasing apart than the simple ticks in the various cells above show, however (which is also often the case with the Bechdel Test). So, let’s look at the Rounded Representation test as applied to male characters in boys’ comics.

  • Emotions: in both the war comics and the individual issue of Spike it was possible to find depictions of the range of emotions. I must say though that it was a lot easier in the single issue of Spike; in the war comics it took me looking through most of the pages before I was able to find much in the way of happiness. There was a lot of fear and doubt, and friendship wasn’t hard to find (D-Day Dawson ready to sacrifice himself for his buddies, Jimmy Miller trying his hardest to win Machine Gun Cooley’s friendship). Happiness, and even anger, weren’t anything like as prevalent though. I felt like the tone was a fairly steady and grim one: not many highs and lows of emotion overall, other than perhaps fear in particular.
  • Abilities: Again the individual issue of Spike has a wider range shown of abilities – the war comics stuck to a fairly realistic representations of physical and mental feats. Spike included a story about a footballer, a Conan-type warrior, and the immortal “Wilson, Maker of Champions”, who was clearly especially clever to boot. (I wasn’t however quite sure on that brief sample that I could call him superhumanly so, hence the question mark for that cell.)
  • Challenges: as mentioned earlier, the war comics I looked at are pretty focused on realism so there are no fantastical challenges faced by the protagonists. And while World War II is clearly a society-wide threat if ever there was one, I didn’t feel that the protagonists’ roles in these stories were really about trying to stop the whole war, they were much more specific than that. There were of course plenty of threats in the war comics, driving the story along; fewer positive goals, but I counted Jimmy Miller’s quest to win Machine Gun Cooley’s friendship as such. Spike includes fantasy and realism, individual challenges and wider-spread ones, and a few positive goals as well as external threats (a group of inner-city kids work hard to start a City Farm, and Wilson has a visitor who wants to be made into a champion decathlon athlete).
  • Ages: neither the war comics nor Spike show any very young children – baby brothers or suchlike. Not very surprising in a war comic, but there were no families escaping the horrors of war or similar – the focus was pretty narrowly on the soldiers themselves, hence on young adults and grown ups. The story in Battle and Valiant mentioned above, “The Black Crow”, features old men in a nursing home, and expands the range of ages noticeably. Spike, once again, is wider in its range than the war comics and ticks most of the boxes fairly comfortably.
  • Roles: so few of the characters are female that there is hardly any way that these comics couldn’t have featured men and boys as all of the range looked at: protagonists, sidekicks, villains, and background characters.

Overall, the Rounded Representation test looks like it shows a pretty wide representation of male characters in these boys’ comics, though some of the ticks would have ended up as blank cells if only one or two individual issues had been examined. Certainly some of the result is about genre, with (these) war comics likely to focus on young adults and grown men in a realistic setting, facing individualistic challenges in an overall story tone of fear and anger, with little happiness depicted. Of course in principle war comics could work differently – “Rogue Trooper” is a war story set in a science fiction milieu with an overarching threat to the whole of the world and positive goals based in comradeship as well as threats from external forces. (There’s even at least one named woman in it, though whether as a whole it passes the Bechdel Test I am not sure.) Overall however it is pretty clear that whereas girl readers had their stories set in a world which represented them in a rounded way as people endowed with possibilities both good and bad, boy readers were given more circumscribed stories with a narrower set of options – and very little room indeed for their sisters, mothers, and fierce warrior Leelas.

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.

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.