Thursday, 7 November 2013

27 Comics Which Fail The Bechdel Test, And What Can That Possibly Mean?

One of the biggest new titles of 2013 does not pass the Bechdel Test.

In this morning's edition of The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins writes about the adoption of the Bechdel Test by Swedish cinemas as a part of the way in which they evaluate sexism. And so, if a movie doesn't contain a single scene with two named  women talking about something other than a man, then it can't attain an "A" in gender equality. As Higgins writes;

"The test – whose origins are in a 1985 storyline in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For – may sound like an incredibly low bar. But an alarming number of films showing in cinemas fail to reach it. "The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test," said Ellen Tejle, who runs Stockholm's Bio Rio, one of a number of independent cinemas that has instituted the classification."

Of course, and as Higgins readily admits, it's a "blunt" tool. Applied to comic books, it's even blunter. Can a 20 page comic, or an anthology title with a series of 8 page shorts, ever be directly compared with a 2 hour film? No, of course not. Nor would I ever suggest that a comic without a Bechdel-passing scene is by it's very nature lacking in gender equality, let alone in any way sexist. That would be a quite clearly ludicrous proposition. But there's still a point to be made about the world-view which appears to emerge when a pile of comics is worked through. If nothing else, it suggests - as if the thought didn't already linger - that the market remains fundamentally male-centric. As a result, even books by creators who are dedicated to changing this can every once in a while appear - and unfairly so - to contribute to the problem.

A 2009 collection acquired for a project I'm writing for elsewhere; 4 issues, no top grade.
So, as a totally unscientific experiment, I reached for my box of recently read comics and graphic novels and here's the first 25 which would fail the Bechdel test. (Six passed before I reached the quarter-century total.) Most of the titles are fairly new, though some very much aren't. These are nothing more or less than my most recent comicbook experiences. Some I've read before, and some I'm keen to experience again. Several of them were actually bought because I was suspicious of the way in which they might be engaging with such issues, which means that my sample fails to even reflect my own taste.

If an issue is here, it doesn't mean it has any problems beyond the fact that it fails the Test. It says nothing beyond that about the content of the comic, or of anything else that's appeared in previous editions of it. After all, you'd be on an entirely unplayable wicket if you tried to argue that Young Avengers was a problematical title when it comes to matters of sex and gender. Nor am I suggesting that what follows are by their very nature poor comics. Though some are - to my mind - lacking the knees of the bees, there are several of my favourite titles from the past year on the list. But it would be slimy of me to leave out comics that I love out.

No, all I'm suggesting is that it's tough to get a great many titles through the Bechdel Test, and that in itself suggests serious problems;

What does the above suggest, if anything at all? That a crude application of the Bechdel Test would mean a great many titles would be rated "S" for Sexist, or, in the Swedish terms, considered inappropriate for an "A" in gender equality? That there's many of the comics listed above that are anything but playing on the wrong side where equality is concerned? That the test is too "blunt" to be a helpful guide where individual titles are concerned? That the comics I've been buying for both pleasure and writing are a badly skewed sample? That it would be far, far more productive to consider a month's worth of product from the industry, or parts of the industry?

Well, all of the above would be true.

And yet, if you go to the monthly titles that you buy and try the same entirely uncontrolled experiment, what do you find? After all, we don't tend to perceive the world through representative samples of work. Like me, I suspect, your reading is determined by money, whim, availability, what's in the shop on a particular day, friend's advice, subjects that you want to discuss and/or write about, and so on.  Because of all of that "noise", I'd really like to know what you find. Please do feel free to add your own experiences to the comments below.

After one last example of a book which fails the Test and yet would never be considered sexist;



  1. I think that The Bechdel Test is a bit of a joke concept and completely flawed as a test.

    1. Hello H:- I think it's an interesting anecdotal way to approach issues of gender equality. But - as I hope I signed up - I think it's a blunt-edged tool which serves to open up conversations rather than close them.

    2. An amazing conversation starter, Colin. And something that all writers and consumers of any fictional media should have on their minds. I wasn't aware of the Bechdel Test before this, but I'll be sure to keep it soundly in mind moving forward as I read and watch. Any lens that helps us become aware of "hidden" layers of sexism or exposes the subconscious male gaze that permeates so many things is beneficial to opening our minds. And like you implied, no one is saying that something which fails the Bechdel Test is therefore BAD. It's merely an eye-opening conversation starter.

    3. Hello Treehouse Prom:- Firstly, thank you so much for granting the above the status of a 'conversation starter', because that's exactly what I intended and yet I feared it might seem to be something else. I thought there was an interesting idea here, as well as a series of problems great and small. But it was only a starter, as you say.

      I do agree with you that the Test is a useful lense. It is a way of opening up a discussion. The problem is when it becomes expressed as fact and/or dogma. The idea that a 20 page comic must have a particular kind of conversation between 2 female characters is not a useful way of evaluating gender equality.

      Yet the absence of such across, say, a line of books, or a sequence of issues, might just indicate a problem.

      (Or it may not. Sigh ... )

    4. Thanks for your great work here. I should have added: It might be prudent to view SINGLE ISSUES of comics differently. Sure, the first issue of the new Sandman doesn't have any females conversing with females, but might issues 2 through 6? It is probably best to apply the B-Test on completed story-arcs rather than just single issues. Likewise, maybe a similar application of the B-Test can be applied to seasons of TV instead of individual episodes.

      Although, to play Devil's Advocate, what if someone writes a 50 issue story arc and only includes one panel to pass the B-Test... the sighs begin to flow more freely. It's a blunt tool for sure, but very powerfully positive if you "get it" and "use it" wisely.

    5. Hello TP:- Yes, I agree entirely that the context in which comics are considered is key. And I hope that what I wrote was always saying that the method is as blunt-edged as it's thought-provoking. I've been thinking of trying to get all of the books put out by a company in a month, or a certain number of month's worth of titles from a particular editorial office, and so and on. Just to get a different perspective on things.

      Of course, I make no bones about my own belief about the roots of the problem. As I've always argued here and elsewhere, I'm a feminist and I see the problem as rooted in matters of the distribution of power. But that's one thing; to have a clearer idea of how gender inequality manifests itself in comics is quite different. It is, as I suspect you too believe, quite possible for a book which looks like a dubious prospect to be distinctly radical. And the opposite is true too. Kneejerk simplifications are the problem, as your own words of course imply, and it would be wrong to make sweeping statements about this title or that, this company or that, this genre or that, and so on. The problem is, there's alot of comics and lot of analytical approaches. Still, just talking about it is a good first step :)

  2. Hello Colin,

    While I think that the Bechdel Test has its merits, if only because it at least points out some of the problems with women characters, it IS too blunt a weapon. You simply cannot take a slightly tongue-in-cheek rule, and apply it to ALL forms of media or entertainment. It's absurd.

    On the other hand, I also think that it is a mistake to then roughly throw it aside, because while it doesn't always work or apply, it does at least point out some of the problems.

    1. Hello Sally:- Yes, agreed. To me, it's a marker that folks are up for thinking about this matters. If treated sensibly, as you argue, then all it does is say "Have we approached this from this angle yet".

      We need these tools. But the truth is, we need more of them. A whole set of ways of seeing that allow us to jump from perspective to perspective. To keep us awake, to keep us from falling asleep.

      But as you say, not a solution in itself at all.

  3. Interestingly, the one comic I picked up recently which did pass the Bechdel Test was the latest issue of Catwoman, #24. Ann Nocenti constructs a couple scenes (one where Joker's Daughter explains her trap to Catwoman, the other where Catwoman and her assistant talk about doomsday devices involved in the plot) which are fairly typical of the super-book, but almost never with two or more women, as happens here.

    Considering the larger context of DC's lineup, and the giggling teenage boy routine of the previous creators and editors on this volume (which set the tone), I almost suspect Nocenti had to sneak this into the comic script.

    1. Hello Andrew:- You see, I just HAVE to read that Catwoman issue now. It underlines how the Bechdel Test can be used to encourage a different way of thinking even when it comes to my reading Catwoman!

      I've always admired Ms Nocenti. I enjoyed her Daredevil very much. That I've not felt the same about her Nu52 work has concerned me. I hope I can put that right now...

  4. A few years ago, I did kind of a "reverse Bechdel test" for comics I had bought recently, because I was convinced that comics don't do dialogue very well, no matter who's speaking. What I wanted to look at was a conversation between two male characters that wasn't about the plot. Those were few and far between. Mainstream comics are so plot-driven and the heroes are so overwhelmingly male that it's hard for two female characters to talk about anything else, so they fail the test. But it's a problem for male characters, too, in a different way. Comics don't show male characters talking about sports, or movies, or food, or (Heaven Forbid!!!!) their feelings. While the Bechdel test is, as you point out, not a bad place to start, mainstream comics' bigger problem, I think, is that their characters are largely props to drive the story forward.

    1. Hello Greg:- The "reverse-Bechdel" is another example of how important these thought experiments can be. And though we might argue about which is the more problematical - the lack of attention to gender or the lack of attention to character - the truth is that both problems are inter-related and both speak of a form that's - to say the least - often under-achieving.

      I'm certainly going to be looking out for the kind of rare bloke-to-bloke conversations that you mention. I'm sure they are! By chance, I picked up the last two Hitmen TPBs from the local library just yesterday and there's several examples of the rare breed there. But beyond that, I'm reduced to thinking of the work of the same splendid dependables; Waid with Foggy and Matt in DD, Stark and Arlo in Gillen's last-but-one Iron Man, and so on.

      Thank you. One of the privileges of throwing out such posts is having different thought experiments thrown back. I will get on the case :)

  5. The Bechdel test may be blunt, but as you and others here have stated, it is a truly useful tool.
    Anyway, a few of the examples in that citation from the Higgins piece really caught my attention because they require more than just Bechdel scrutiny: I'm thinking of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. The former, both the books and movies, have quite a dearth of women, and in the books especially, those with any significant dialogue (i.e., various Elvish wives or fiancees) are more symbols than actual characters. The original Star Wars trilogy, meanwhile, has only a single woman with any significant dialogue: Leia. And, to the best of my knowledge, only two other women with speaking parts: Aunt Beru in the first film, and that woman delivering the intelligence briefing in Return of the Jedi.
    As for comics that pass the Bechdel test, something that comes to mind - since I recently read a bunch of it - is Roger Stern's Avengers run. Once Wasp became the team leader, she engaged in quite a bit of dialogue with other women that had nothing to do with the menfolk or fashion accessories. Stern also deserves a great deal of credit for transforming Wasp from the "flighty female" she was in so much of the '60s and '70s into a strong and interesting character.
    By the way, Greg's reverse Bechdel concept is also quite intriguing. Definitely merits some more thought...

    1. Hello Edo:- You put your finger on several of the issues that the Bechdel Test does - for all its admitted limitations - help to raise. Even now, I'm baffled that folks can watch endless entertainments which pay so little attention to 51% of the human race. And as much as I admire The Lord Of The Rings, and even enjoy certain aspects of it, it is woefully uninterested in anyone but blokes. By the same token, as Kieron Gillen discussed in his JIM interview on this blog, it's the working class that gets characterised as orcs and the like too.

      I will certainly go and have another look at Mr Stern's Avengers. It was a period when I was little interested in Marvel's books, and yet I've learned that RS's run - with John Buscema and Tom Palmer for alot of the time - had significant virtues. You're right that he played an absolutely major part in making something far more substantial of the Wasp.

  6. If I were to draw a preliminary conclusion from your fact-finding, Colin, it would be that your sample does not include very many comics with women as protagonists and / or point of view characters, a supposition that would seem to be borne out by the covers. Once you have that, it becomes considerably easier (although by no means a certainty--see the first issue of Brubaker and Epting's Velvet for what I recall being a recent example) to pass Bechdel as a matter of course, especially for writers that actually that women are supposed to comprise 50 percent of the population.

    I wonder: did you by any chance make a note of how the various comics cleared the tests three different bars? None cleared the third, and I imagine a good amount cleared the first (two women), but how many cleared the second? How many comics from the big two get even that far?

    Greg: That is also true, and several of the most memorable comics to me are ones which occasionally do take the time for "random" conversations, the sort which may not develop plot, but often develop character. If there's one thing I still unambiguously like about the first quarter of Strangers in Paradise it's that its two main characters would occasionally be shown having random, fluffy conversations which did a lot to make them likeable as people...and passed Bechdel.

    1. Hello Ian:- I know you're using "fact-finding" in a general way, and that was exactly as I meant my sample to stand. The next 25 comics in my book would have generated a very different response, actually. (I've been reading alot of small press/indy-minded books for various projects, but having been enjoyed, they went to the bottom of the pile.) As such, I was only trying to throw a series of questions up into the air. It was a piece I'd never intended to write and it was sparked by Ms Higgins' article in the morning press. Reading it, I thought "I can't give this time it needs for a 'proper' look, but it would be terrific to raise a host of issues', and that was the only ambition I had.

      Which makes your answer all the more welcome, of course. Because as you quite rightly say, change the sample and the results are changed. It might be thought that my saying that is the sign of the bleeding obvious, and yet it's VERY important, as you imply, not to ever imagine that a skewed sample is in any way representative, reliable or valid. All too often we hear and read that 'comics' are THIS or THAT, and the argument is often dubious for that very reason.

      I did pay close attention to the matter of whether both female characters were named. And in the books I randomly read through - I'm being careful again! - it was really rare for that to be so. This is of course only anecdotal evidence, but I also noted that female characters seemed to have a tendency to speak to unnamed female bystanders & minor characters far more than male figures do. As such, there were several cases where two female characters were shown briefly speaking, but only one of them had a name and a continuing presence in the tale.

      Again, an in no way representative finding, but were I investigating this on a more rigorous fashion, that's material for the framing of a hypothesis that I'd be following up.

  7. Great little experiment, Colin. And not at all as insensitive as you feared in the following post. Nice conversation starter indeed. Yep, it's blunt, but it's also been a while since I paid real close attention to the Bechdel test in specific. You almost have me convinced to try the most recently read 25 comic issues of my own now and check them. I shall report back...

    An additional note on further appliances of the Bechdel test, some less useful than others:

    On the comment about Ann Nocenti's Catwoman: of course it would pass. Nocenti's work is quirky and clunky and certainly an aquired taste - I'd also admit that I can't in good conscience call it "good writing" in the sense that would include, for example, "natural believable dialogue" - but she always has a message. Whether it is the desire of Dr. Phosphorus' daughter to get married (complete with "Father, please give me away to a man, for that is the only value in life that a female has in patriarchy" speech; of course she then learns better) or the much maligned recent Joker's Daughter #1, in which she tackled beauty terror ("The only thing that matters up there is what you look like [...] I bet none of them are really happy.") and self-harm among young women ("I boxed myself into so many corners with my box cutter. [...] Why couldn't my father see that?"). Always showing more ambition and good intention than real skill, I still find Nocenti consistently to be one of the most interesting writers out there. Also, her ideas are often so batshit insane that I can't help but love them. I'm still holding out hope for a spin-off series featuring The Black Arm Of Dan Donelly! And in case you have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a somewhat negative, but also fantastically hilarious write-up:

    ...then again, Catwoman is a title that always has good chances of passing the Bechdel test. Most issues of Judd Winick's year on the book would certainly make it...

    - Björn

    1. Hello Bjorn:- I must admit, I'm much more interested in pieces which raise questions than those which claim to offer simple solutions to complex problems. I've been many times guilty of the later, and I think nearly all of us are at various times. But if the piece suggested to you that it might be of some interest to check a random sample of your own comics, then that's an heartening effect.

      Thank you for the link. I'll follow it through at the end of the working day :)

      I had terrible trouble with Joker's Daughter. I thought it was one of the worst comics I've ever read. I wouldn't argue at all, however, with your argument that it attempted to engage in issues that are often ignored in the super-book.

      And I appreciated the way you differentiated between 'good' writing and interesting/thought-provoking writing. I think I'll go back and have another look at Joker's Daughter in that light.

    2. Well, I'm always partial towards the interesting failures and to work that's so bizarre that it requires a second or third or even more looks than that. That said, I'm aware of the "worst comic" ever sentiment that more than one reviewers expressed. And while I can't quite grasp why everybody was unanomously THAT appaled by it, I don't want to suggest that it's a good comic. It's not. But I can appreciate where it's coming from, see the aspects I mentioned above.

      Also, the character just strikes a chord with me, though I know I'll be pretty alone with this. Given how we usually disagree about aspects of "grimness" or "miserabilism", I certainly don't expect you to share my experience, even with a second look. :)

      The outsider actually embracing the rejection from others, distancing him/herself from "those above" completely and drawing strength from that...that's something a now somewhat grown-up Goth kid can understand. And while I've never had a problem with intentional self-harm, I've certainly been around people who did cut themselves, especially young women, especially ex-girlfriends. A lot of emotions come to mind, a lot of songs as well. You know, the whole Marilyn Manson "The Beautiful People" thing. And, sure, that's the opposite of subtle, but so is a lot of angst. Doesn't mean it's not relevant. Sometimes pathos is a-ok. My 16 year old me would have totally made Joker's Daughter his new heroine and painted "Ugly is the new beautiful" on his bedroom wall. Written well, she could be a character that's both cool and saying something. Fingers crossed, I'm pulling for her.

      - Björn

    3. Hello Bjorn:- As I know I've said before, your ords are an important corrective to any suggestion that there's an objective standard of what is good and what can be sneered at in comics. And I will look at the comic in the light of what you call its "interesting failure", because I think demands an interesting perspective to peek through on my second pass.

      Your point about the appeal that The Joker's Daughter does and could have is well made. I would assure you that I'm absolutely for a discussion of the issues which that comic tried to engage with. And there's certainly no such thing as a bad character. I was utterly bored with Loki before Kieron Gillen took the helm of his adventures, and the same was true a quarter-century previously when Alan Moore started writing what had been the moribund Swamp Thing.

      So, yes, I can see your point. The character isn't in any way damned to under-achievement, and the issues are important ones. OK. I look foward to seeing if somebody can turn what's there into gold.

  8. Well, since I felt inspired and have a lot of procrastinating to do in order to avoid the work I seriously should be doing...

    Failed the test:
    *All-Star Western #23
    *Animal Man #23 [sort of; Maxine whispers to her mother while her mother sleeps, which I guess does not count as conversation; she does have conversation with a lot of funny animal avatars, including pirate giraffe Capt’n Longneck; not really sure about gender there ;)]
    *Avengers A.I. #3
    *Batman: The Dark Knight #23
    *Batman/Superman #3
    *Black Bat #5
    *Bloodshot #14
    *Constantine #6
    *Ghosted #3
    *Iron Man #15
    *Sacrifice by Sam Humphries & Dalton Rose
    *Secret Avengers #8
    *Shadowman #11
    *Strange Attractors by Charles Soule & Greg Scott
    *Superman #23
    *Teen Titans #23
    *Uncanny X-Force #10
    *X-Men Legacy #16
    *X-O Manowar #17

    Passed the test:
    *All New X-Men #16
    *Ame-Comi Girls #7
    *Animal Man #23 [sort of; Maxine whispers to her mother while her mother sleeps, which I guess does not count as conversation; she does have conversation with a lot of funny animal avatars, including pirate giraffe Capt’n Longneck; not really sure about gender there ;)]
    *Birds Of Prey #23
    *Catwoman #23
    *House Of M by Brian Michael Bendis & Oliver Coipel (barely, but I'll count it)
    *Katana #7
    *Quantum & Woody #4 (the biggest surprise to me, actually)
    *Suicide Squad #23
    *Trillium #3
    *Vampirella: Southern Gothic #2
    *Wake #4

    Which seems at least to confirm that titles with female leads do tend to pass this test more often. It also points to problems and to the need for further study once again: I'm not sure if anyone would name Vampirella as a shining example of feminism anytime soon, passing the test or not. And House Of M, which I've read for the frist time a couple of days ago, would pass, but with something like 5 speech bubbles over the course of 160 pages or so. Then again, it does have a pretty even mix of male and female characters, so maybe it's not that big a problem that the women don't talk all that much amongst themselves? There we are again with the weakness of the test.

    Another aspect is, of course, that the individual title, be it Sandman or House Of M or whatever, may very well still be a great work of art regardless of whether it includes enough women. Culturally of course it becomes a problem, but still I'm hesitant to blame the individual writer, which sadly I find more and more common with people who, in theory, mean well. Recently, german novelist Daniel Kehlmann had to defend himself in several relatively harsh interviews re: his new novel about three very different brothers, with the main accusation being that any feminine perspective is left out. A ridiculous point of view and a discussion that I find nothing but laughable.

    Surely nobody can be obliged to write about something he or she doesn't want to explore, which in case of a story about brotherhood, the expectations of family and society towards men etc. might be women. And surely someone like Philip Roth is still a brillant, brillant author, although he almost exclusively writes from a jewish male perspective about aspects of jewish male (sexual) identity. Again, just so I'm not misunderstood, I do recognize the problem with this male perspective dominating an entire culture. Society would be healthier if we had an equal number of great books exploring female identity, but to single out perfectly good writers and telling them "So, writing thoughtful novels about fathers and sons and brothers again, ha? You surely do hate women, you terrible sexist!" strikes me as bizarre and decidedly not the way to go.

    - Björn

    1. Hello Bjorn:- I wish I could add more to what you'e ritten, simply so I could avoid appearing to be lacking respect for what you've written. The only problem is, I agree with the points you're making. It's certainly impossible to deduce the worrisome aspects of a text from a counting up of say, the number and type of conversations between its characters. But by the same token, and as I know you believe, the same calculations, if made in a general sense, can illuminate the situation in a way that opens eyes and start conversations.

      And I certainly couldn't agree with the proposition that all works should follow a simplistic model of gender equality.