Bechdel-testing Japan Inc. and Mai, the Psychic Girl

The other day, Forrest Helvie posted a nice summary of the “Bechdel Test” and the “Sexy Lamp Test” at 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.

Owens’s postmodernism, Foster’s postmodernism – in comics?

Although some people have already proclaimed the death of postmodernism, it is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the term is quite ambiguous. Therefore it makes sense to approach it by reading several texts which reflect different opinions, for instance “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” by Craig Owens alongside “Postmodernism: A Preface” by Hal Foster (the art historian, not the comic artist). Both were published in the early 1980s already – Owens’s in the journal October in 1980, Foster’s as an introduction to a book he edited in 1983 (The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture), and this timeliness might have contributed to the differences between their respective understanding of postmodernism.

Owens lists six artistic strategies which distinguish postmodernist from modernist art: appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, and hybridisation. As with Foucault’s heterotopian principles, these strategies are not necessary characteristics – the artists discussed by Owens employ some of them, but not all six at the same time. In this sense, many comics can be identified as “postmodernist”.

Take, for instance, Shotaro Ishinomori’s マンガ日本経済入門 / Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon (translated as Japan Inc.: Introduction to Japanese Economics in the English edition), first published in 1986. Sometimes referred to as a non-fictional comic, it actually tells a fictional story of two young managers in a Japanese company, while at the same time introducing the reader to economic facts and theories. However, it’s not the content that makes this comic a postmodernist comic, even though it would have lent itself to a discursive treatment of e.g. economic policy. It is a postmodernist comic in Owens’s sense because it is a hybridised medium (at least in the German edition from 1989 which I’m referring to in the following): apart from the comic panels, Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon consists of three repetitive pictureless elements. There are hand-lettered notes of usually about 3 to 5 lines length at the bottom of approximately every other page, which provide economic background information that may or may not be connected to the events on the same page. Then there are longer, typeset texts on their own pages (pp. 27, 41, 105, 167, 223, 257) in the same vein, and quotations from economists on the chapter title pages (pp. 9, 71, 125, 179, 233, 285). This clash of regular comic layouts and non-comic elements shows that hybridisation is at work here, one of Owens’s six postmodernist strategies. (A similar example of this strategy would be the use of text-only pages in Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, of course.)

japan_incWhile Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon and many other comics could be called postmodernist in Owens’s sense, it would be more difficult for them to qualify as postmodernist in Foster’s sense. More precisely, in “Postmodernism: A Preface”, Foster distinguishes two kinds of postmodernism: a “postmodernism of reaction”, and a “postmodernism of resistance”. The difference between the two is that the resistant postmodernism “seeks to question rather than exploit cultural codes, to explore rather than conceal social and political affiliations.” For the resistant postmodernism, which Foster clearly champions, the trait which Owens calls discursivity is essential.

Although the cultural codes and social and political affiliations of the business world are extensively featured in Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon, they are never put into question. Economic doctrines are presented as irrevocable truth. One of the protagonists, the young idealistic manager, has his employees’ welfare on his mind and tries to change things for the better, but he does so from within the business system, by playing along with its rules. Neither are paternalistic and sexist tendencies criticised. Because of this lack of discursivity, I doubt that Foster would regard Ishinomori’s comic as (resistant) postmodernist.

The difference between Owens’s and Foster’s definition of postmodernism is symptomatic for the twofold meaning that the term “postmodern” has taken on. On the one hand, it denotes the era after modernity – postmodernity. All art produced in that era is by definition postmodern. On the other hand, it denotes a certain style that some artists choose to employ and others don’t. Around 1980, in a period of transition, this distinction is still blurry, so I wouldn’t equate Owens’s postmodernism with the former meaning and Foster’s with the latter. Yet, both Owens’s postmodernism and the concept of postmodernity as an era are broader definitions than their counterparts – more works of art fit into them than into Foster’s definition and into the concept of postmodernism as a movement.

All of these notions of postmodernism are valid. They unfold their usefulness in different contexts: broader definitions stress the similarities of contemporaneous works, while narrower definitions stress the differences. When we’re talking about “postmodern” art, artists, or comics, we just need make clear which definition we’re referring to.

For a different take on postmodernism and comics, see Noah Berlatsky’s essay on Fredric Jameson at The Hooded Utilitarian.