Recently, the Swedish Film Institute began sponsoring a movement spearheaded by a number of theaters who are now making use of the “Bechdel Test” to evaluate their films in order to determine the extent of gender bias in movies. One of these theaters – Bio Rio – noted that many fan-favorite movies, such as the Star Wars trilogies, The Lord of the Rings films, as well as Harry Potter movies all fail to earn passing marks based on the Bechdel Test. So what exactly is this test, where did it come from, and is it truly effective at detecting gender bias in media?
In 1985, Alison Bechdel, author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning graphic novel Fun Home, was not so well known as she is today in the world of comics. At the time, the twenty-five year old cartoonist was behind the wheel of the cartoon strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, which slowly began building steam in various magazine venues. In one episode, “The Rule,” Bechdel introduces the concept of what will eventually become known as “The Bechdel Test” – a means of assessing gender bias in a work of fiction.
As shown above, the rules of the test are as follows:
- It has to have at least two women in it who
- Talk to each other about
- Something besides a man.
Originally conceived to evaluate films, this test is now often applied to comics as well – fitting considering its namesake’s primarily known for her work in the medium. Its purpose is to detect gender bias in a comic, film, or whatever the work of fiction, and given its simplicity, the Bechdel Test seems to be particularly effective. To see examples of the test applied to some recent comics, I’d recommend checking out this site.
Now, the question should arise as to whether a comic is somehow flawed because it fails this unique test. I’m not so sure. At least, I’m not sure an individual comic – or a series even – needs to pass this test to be viewed as a well-written book. After all, not every comic is marketed in such a way to appeal to every group of readers, nor do I believe every comic book (or movie) needs to be marketed to every demographic. The real issue of concern is not if a book fails the test, but instead, the manner by which a book fails.
Of the three rules, the least egregious is the first rule regarding simple inclusion. As I previously mentioned, it is worth pointing out that not all books are marketed to all readers. Although there are no doubt heterosexual men who have read and enjoyed, say, The Twilight series, it may be fair to assume this demographic is not the primary target audience. Likewise, some comics may be marketed more closely to a heterosexual, male audience, and as a result, contain fewer elements that would directly appeal to other audience demographics. It is worth pointing out again, however, I am working in broad brushstrokes and not hard-and-fast rules here. Where violations of this first rule become problematic is when the scope of the comic increases. The story of a moment in the life a male protagonist does not necessarily need to include contact with a woman, let alone multiple women. Improbable? Yes. Impossible? No. For example, a single issue of Batman could explore Bruce Wayne’s training to become a master detective, in which no women are present. This works within the scope of the narrative even though it fails the Bechdel Test, and the unnecessary inclusion of elements that do not drive the narrative may be rightly seen as forced and guilty of tokenism. However, if the entire series carries on without any female, black, or homosexual characters who play substantive roles in the grand narrative of Batman, it would be indicative of a significant gender, racial, and/or sexuality bias (in the case of Batman, one could argue that sexuality as a whole does not factor into the series all that much – but that’s a discussion for another time).
But the Bechdel Test speaks to more than just the two women having the ability to talk; they need to be able to talk to each other, which leads into the second rule. This requirement speaks to the need for and the ability to create a community apart from the heteronormative society in which they also exist. Put simply, the comic passing this requirement does not “require” women to be in the presence of a man – laughable to many 21st century readers (I hope!), but it is still a very real problem for women as recent as the mid-20th century and even today. It creates space not only for women to speak but to create a community that does not need to include men – even if it is only a temporary community of two individuals.
The second rule therefore focuses specifically on what the women are doing and with whom they are conversing. This is where the indicators of gender bias become much more evident. The failure to create space for the voices of marginalized groups of people constitutes a significant part of concerns many feminists, Queer advocates, and post-colonial theorists have espoused over the decades. It is something Western, Anglo, heterosexual men have unfortunately had a history of failing to do. More close to home, it is also something mainstream comics have had a history of failing to do as well – again, not without exceptions, but generally, it’s not been the most receptive medium for silenced interests. There are instances when silence is deliberately used for an intended purpose in a comic, but that purpose should be clear especially when those being silenced already have a long-standing history of not having a voice that is recognized and heard in society.
Finally, the third rule – assuming the first two have been satisfied – centers on the content of the two women’s discussion. Even if these women are included in the fictional narrative, have a voice to express themselves, and are enabled to interact with one another, the content of their discussion is just as equally important, particularly if they are not the protagonists of the story. What this boils down to is that men are not the sole subject of a woman’s concerns. This is not to say men and women cannot talk about one another, but it does mean they are all the other talk about. What, then, does this suggest about these women whose primary – if not sole – purpose is to talk about the men in their lives? It indirectly reinforces the long-held but wrong-minded notion that men are of primary importance and that women should concern themselves not with their own needs and interests, but those of the men in their lives. It underscores the point that women are people – not plot devices. For example, we can look back at the Batman mythos and question how often the original Barbara Gordon was shown interacting with other female characters and discussing concerns that did not include Batman, Robin, or her father. That doesn’t mean there can’t be times when Batgirl resides on the periphery. Moreover, she is not the title character; however, if Barbara is to be seen as a believable character, she needs to be provided some of the same time and space to develop just as the male characters of the Bat Family.
Now, let’s assume a comic meets all three of these requirements: It includes two or more women, they talk with one another, and the subjects of their conversations are diverse enough to cover topics other than the men in their lives. I would argue, however, that while the Bechdel Test is one proven method for detecting some aspects of gender bias, it does not fare so well when dealing with stereotypical portrayals of gender – something mainstream superhero comics have sadly earned a reputation for over the past seventy-five years. Therefore, there needs to be more than just one test of a comic to determine if it is balanced in its depictions of women while still reaching the widest possible audience. This is where the “Sexy Lamp” Test comes into play.
Like the Bechdel Test, this is method of assessment is straightforward and it comes from another sharp-witted writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. “Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. ” (Hudson). Although DeConnick is directly addressing fellow creators and offering some pointed advice on how to avoid falling into the peddling of lazy stereotypes, it also provides readers with a useful lens by which to measure the quality of the narrative as a whole in which these female characters exist. After all, it takes time to show an audience the different facets of an individual’s personality, and it can be much faster – and easier – to rely upon a commonly known stereotypes to get one’s point across while saving on the page count. Yet, the result is a story that relies upon cheaply built characters, and I would argue that few writers – if any – will have much luck building a compelling narrative when the characters they use to drive the plot are as flat and interchangeable as the blank sheets of paper they’re written on. Writers need to engage their audience with a narrative that includes female characters who are more than mere plot devices; they need to play an integral role in the story where their absence would certainly impair, if not outright halt the progression of the story. An example of this can be seen in DeConnick’s best known series, Captain Marvel and its protagonist, Carol Danvers.
When this series first came out in 1977, the feminist movement was in full swing and Marvel Comics, being no stranger to fairly progressive innovations at the time, began publishing Ms. Marvel—a character who could stand toe to toe with the best of the superheroes of her day and age. At the time, this was a positive move in the direction of improving the imbalance of gender representation, but much like mainstream superhero comics today, it certainly didn’t close the gap. But it did introduce a female superhero who was a powerful leader that other superheroes and villains quickly took notice of. And while many contemporary readers may read her name “Ms.Marvel” as her female-ness signifying her dominant personality trait, it is important to recognize the title has a different connotation during the late-1970s than it presently does. For readers first seeing this title emblazoned across the first issue, this recently adopted term lacked the gender-specific connotation of Miss and Mrs where there is some indication of masculine attachment. Ms. connoted a sense of independence much like the masculine Mr. whereas Miss indicated a lack of male attachment and Mrs. Designated a woman as being married to a man. Moreover, readers of the period would have likely been at least passing familiar with the widely popular feminist magazine, Ms., which grew out of the early 1970s feminist movement.
Unfortunately, this spirit of independence and strength that Carol Danvers originally drew upon as Ms. Marvel would be lost in the years that followed. Even if Ms. Marvel was written in such a way that her personality remained intact, the ways in which she was visually depicted made reconciling respect for her leadership and heroics nearly impossible when her body openly invited objectification through the male gaze.
In September 2013, I had the opportunity to talk to Kelly Sue DeConnick about some of her experiences in publishing superhero comics and some of the problems the genre faces in the way it deals with women. During that time, we talked about the 2013 Television Critics’ Association panel in which a number of a number of influential, established comics professionals spoke about their views on gender in comics. Some of those panelists made comments such as:
- “As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys.”
- “It wouldn’t be superheroes [In reference to a question asking what sort of comics that professional would recommend to his daughter] because I know that’s heavily testosterone — driven, and it’s a certain kind of group of people.”
- “…comics follow society. They don’t lead society.”
Needless to say, only one of the panelists followed up a few days later by stating that he was not as clear about his ideas as he would have liked to have been. As I told DeConnick during our discussion, I’m not as much concerned with who said these things (which is why I’ve not named names – they’re easily identified with the aid of Google); instead, I’m more concerned about the ideas being shared by persons who have enjoyed influential careers in publishing superhero comics. DeConnick had this to say.
Forrest Helvie: Now, I’m paraphrasing a bit here – though not much – but one of the points that came across in this Television panel was that for as much as we stereotype the women, we do it with guys.
Kelly Sue DeConnick: That is such a crock of shit! I’m sorry, but I would stand in front of anyone of those men and say this: “That is lazy thinking. Why, yes! That’s an idealized female body, and that’s an idealized male body! But from whose perspective did you decide that? And when we get into costumes? In order for the male figure to be idealized in the same way that the female figure is idealized, they would have to be wearing a thong that was glued to their half-erect penis. Literally.
I mean, these women have wasp waists and breasts that are bulging to the point where they appear like they would have to be painful in a way to make both of their primary and secondary sexual organs available to the viewer at the same time. It is not comparable. It is lazy or willfully ignorant to think that it is.
Helvie: There was also another instance where one of these creators mentioned that, again paraphrasing closely, superheroes aren’t the right comics genre of choice for girls.
DeConnick: I think, yes, there is a certain kind of superhero comic that doesn’t appeal to women because they are demeaned and dehumanized by them. So I would probably say don’t give those comics to your daughter, and I’d say don’t give those comics to your sons. They are not good for people – of either gender. The lessons that they teach, if you were to teach with such things, what they have to say about the human condition and the relationship between the two genders are destructive and demeaning, and again, lazy.
Picking up on these points, I thought it might be helpful to look at a few such examples that DeConnick points out. Here are just two sets of examples of how much Carol Danvers has changed over the years in comparison to her originally intended depiction.
The first image is from the cover of Ms. Marvel #1 from 1977 by John Romita Sr. There is an air of sexuality in the exposed midriff and form-fitting outfit; however, it is not terribly dissimilar to what one might encounter from a gymnastics costume or swimsuit even today. The second image was done in 2008 by Marko Djurdjevic. The costume’s top is relatively unchanged – still form-fitting but covering all but her neck and face. What has noticeable changed is that the high-cut thong that replaced the once far more conservative swimsuit bottoms. Take note of the authoritative posture of the earlier depiction of Ms. Marvel and compare that to the passive / sexually permissive positioning of the more recent image.
This next set of images further reinforces the shift from a strong, independent superhero to one who is more heavily objectified. With the cover to Ms. Marvel #20, Carol Danvers is arguably dressed even more conservatively when compared to her outfit from the cover of Ms. Marvel #1. Although she is depicted in such a way to reflect a physically fit and attractive person, her body does not seem disproportionate to that of what one might expect from a female athlete. Moreover, the way in which she is positioned seems to reflect a person in action – not someone on display.
The second image – from 2008 – depicts Carol Danvers’ different identities over the years: The first and most contemporary iterations as Ms. Marvel along with her past role as Binary. These visualizations of Carol depict a woman whose body and build is far more in line with a lingerie model as opposed to a military officer and leader within the Avengers superhero organization. What is more disturbing than this ill-suited choice in body types is the explicit invitation to objectify Carol. Her body parts are interchangeable, and readers may mix-and-match her head, breasts, and torso in whatever combination suits them best. No longer does Carol retain the ability to represent herself in a way she desires, but she is now wholly subjugated to the gaze of her reader. In addition, when we consider the suggestive, inviting blowing of a kiss and non-threatening nature of all three of these versions of Carol, the message is clear about the nature of the invitation: This is a beautiful, sexualized superhero inviting the reader to come into the book and reconfigure her as desired.
So how do the views expressed at this one 2013 Television Critics’ Association panel and these few visual examples connect back to the “Sexy Lamp” test? Both reinforce the very problem of stereotypes in superhero comics. Now, I recognize my selections could be viewed as setting up a “straw man” type of argument as I have only presented a limited selection of the greater whole of contemporary superhero comics. It is worth noting, however, that I am not the first one to engage in this sort of study. Kelly Thompson does a brilliant job of cataloging numerous examples of how the male gaze depicts and creates stereotypes of women in comics in her column, “She Has No Head.” I’d suggest this column as only one of the many she has written on the topic as required reading on the subject, which further reinforces my point. So why are these female superheroes being marketed in such a way that seems to run contrary to the spirit of feminism and female empowerment that marked characters like Carol Danvers during the 1970s?
There is also a second, more practical question that needs to be addressed, which should help answer the issue of why these superheroes are being treated in this damaging, stereotypical light. Assuming a comic is able to pass the traditional Bechdel Test followed by DeConnick’s “Sexy Lamp” Test, the concern we then face is: “Will it sell?” It would stand to reason then that a comic, which demonstrates balanced representation of gender (or any other demographic as the Bechdel Test can be easily repurposed to measure race and ethnicity), would potentially be the sort of comic mainstream publishers would enthusiastically get beind. In a May article of The New York Times, DC co-publisher, Dan Didio stated that:
“There’s not a challenge to be more profitable out of the gate. But there is a challenge to be more accepted out of the gate… that servicing a very small slice of our audience is the way to go ahead. […] That’s not what we’re in the business for,” he added. “We have to shoot for the stars with whatever we’re doing. Because what we’re trying to do is reach the biggest audience and be as successful as possible.” (Itzkof 2).
In the world of comics though, fan “acceptance” and “success” are two concepts directly tied to how fans spend their money. Taking this quote in context, we see two years earlier, Nielsen surveyed DC’s readers at the onset of the “New 52,” and the results showed an overwhelming 93% of respondents were white men. Put together, the biggest audience DC is in business for looks like a white man. So, where is the incentive for publishers like DC to change their marketing plans?
At face value, it’s hard to argue with the Nielsen survey of DC’s (and by extension, mainstream superhero comics) fan base. What this survey fails to recognize, however, is what lead to the overly skewed makeup of this readership. When a mirror reflects an image different from the person standing in front of it, then it makes sense that the person will no longer seek out that object to find his or her reflection. In like fashion, the superhero genre of comics has had a long-established history of reflecting the idealized image of men and the idealized image of women as seen by the heterosexual male gaze. Faced with a depiction of self that fails to accurately articulate their idealized sense of self, it is not surprising women have largely eschewed this genre and found greater representation in non-superhero genres of the comics medium. Brett Schenker reported in September of 2013 that nearly 40% of comics fans are, in fact, female (see his in-depth analysis here). He continues this report a month later on Comixology‘s user statistics when he notes how women moved from 5% to 20% of the dominant digital platform’s users (see here). What this data strongly suggests is that there isn’t a lack of female readers, but instead, a lack of substantive, three-dimensional representation of women in superhero comics. It further reinforces the likelihood that the publishers creating comics within superhero genre as a whole need to do better at detecting gender bias in their comics. They need to make progress in telling stories and creating comics that depict women and members of other marginalized groups in ways that better represent those groups’ notions of themselves – not just the way heterosexual men else choose to see them in relation to their own needs and desires.
In the coming weeks and months, I want to take a up a similar line of inquiry that Kelly Thompson pursued before me: That is, I plan to begin conducting a close study of the comics out today to determine not only their level of gender bias, but also the extent of gender stereotyping they do (or do not) perpetuate. Think not of this article as a definitive statement so much as it is the opening salvo to a greater discussion that I plan to continue participating in that many other phenomenal people have inspired me to join – people like Thompson and DeConnick, as well as other such as Gail Simone, Rachael Edidin and Colleen Doran – people who do not know me but whose writings I have followed and felt compelled to speak about.
“Bechdel Testing Comics.” Bechdel Testing Comics. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <http://bechdeltestingcomics.tumblr.com/>.
Cockrum, Dave. Ms. Marvel. Vol. 1, No. 28. New York: Marvel, 1978. Image.
DeConnick, Kelly Sue. Telephone interview. 20 Sept. 2013.
Djurdjevic, Marko. Ms. Marvel. Image. N.p., 2008. 14 Nov. 2013.
“Feminist Movie Rating System Introduced in Sweden.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/feminist-movie-rating-system-introduced-in-sweden-1.2416473>.
Horn, Greg. Ms. Marvel. Vol. 2, No. 22. New York: Marvel, 2008. Image.
Hudson, Laura. “Kelly Sue DeConnick on the Evolution of Carol Danvers into Captain Marvel.” Comics Alliance. 19 Mar. 2012. Web. 22 Sep. 2013.
Itzkof, Dave. “Comics’ Mother of the ‘Weird Stuff’ Is Moving On.” The New York Times. 29 May 2013. Web. 22 Sep. 2013.
Romita, John, Sr. Ms. Marvel. Vol. 1, No. 1. New York: Marvel, 1978. Image.
Schenker, Brett. “Facebook Fandom Spotlight: Who Are the Comic Fans? 9/1/2013.” Graphic Policy, 1 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <http://graphicpolicy.com/2013/09/01/facebook-fandom-spotlight-who-are-the-comic-fans-912013/>.
—. “Facebook Demographics: What Do Digital Comic Readers Look Like?”The Beat. N.p., 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <http://comicsbeat.com/facebook-demographics-what-do-digital-comic-readers-look-like/>.
Thompson, Kelly. “She Has No Head! – No, It’s Not Equal | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources.” Comics Should Be Good. Comic Book Resources, 21 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2012/02/21/she-has-no-head-no-its-not-equal/>.
 For this and subsequent articles, I will largely be referring to the superhero genre when I use the term comics although it should be pointed out that comics is actually the medium under which the superhero is a subset / genre.