The other day, Forrest Helvie posted a nice summary of the “Bechdel Test” and the “Sexy Lamp Test” at sequart.org. Both of these tests are used to gauge gender bias in comics, even though they were not originally intended for that purpose by their inventors, Alison Bechdel and Kelly Sue DeConnick, respectively. Due to both Bechdel and DeConnick being comic creators, rather than theorists, it’s not surprising that in their original form, both tests are under-theorised (i.e. no explanation is given why they should work at all) as well as under-operationalised (i.e. there are many different possible ways to apply them). This in turn has led a lot of people to perceive these tests as simple and consequently apply them to a lot of different things.
Rather than debate their flaws and merits, I’ll just join in and see how they work for some comics I’ve been reading lately. I’ll start with the Bechdel Test (reserving the Sexy Lamp Test for another blog post), which consists of three parts:
A work (originally a film) passes the test if
1. It has at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man.
One way of putting this into practice is to design a ranking system in which the parts of the test add up, e.g. on the Bechdel Test Movie List which uses different icons for four ranks from “Fewer than two women in this movie” up to “There are two or more women in this movie and they talk to each other about something other than a man”. In contrast, the website Bechdel Testing Comics simply labels comic book issues as either “Failed” or “Passed”.
I’m going to try something else that I think is better suited for comics of different lengths: I’ll look for the first page of a comic on which the dialogue of two women about something besides a man occurs. Let’s start with a manga that I’ve already offhandedly accused of sexism: Shōtarō Ishinomori’s Japan Inc. (マンガ日本経済入門 / Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon). Originally published from 1986-88 in three volumes, the first volume was translated into English in 1988, which is the edition I’ll use here.
- Japan Inc. starts off well. The first female character appears on the second page already (p. 4 in the University of California Press edition), and she even has a speaking part and is a named character: television reporter Kathy White.
- Soon afterwards, on p. 11, a second woman appears on panel – the first (and only) recurring female character, Miss Amamiya, who works in the same company as the two (male) protagonists, Kudo and Tsugawa.
- After that, women do have occasional appearances, but hardly ever do we get to see two women in the same scene. On p. 71 there are two female office workers on the same panel, albeit not talking to each other.
- Finally, on p. 178, two women talk to each other – the aforementioned Miss Amamiya and Mrs. Ueda, the elderly mother of another co-worker. However, their entire short conversation revolves around Mrs. Ueda’s son.
And that’s it! On 313 pages, there’s not a single instance of two women talking about something besides a man. (The second volume of Japan Inc. is a different story with a different cast of characters.)
At around the same time (1987), Mai, the Psychic Girl (舞 / Mai) by Kazuya Kudō and Ryōichi Ikegami was published in English. Its protagonist is a young woman, so surely this manga does better at the Bechdel Test?
- Sure enough, the eponymous protagonist appears on the very first panel of the comic, and on p. 17 we see Mai talking to her female classmates, Yumiko and Rie. Their conversation goes on for seven pages, but its main subject are men. Mai herself notices that: “You guys are always talking about boys. Can’t you talk about something else?” (p. 21).
- Then, on p. 14 in issue #2 (or the 50th page of the comic series as a whole), Mai calls Yumiko on the telephone, and this time their conversation revolves not around boys but Mai’s whereabouts.
Thus we can say Mai, the Psychic Girl has passed the Bechdel Test, whereas Japan Inc. has failed.
The Bechdel Test has often been criticised for not being able to detect sexism and misogyny in every instance, but as this little comparison hopefully shows, it’s a good way to get started on talking about gender bias problems in comics.