We’ve been reading comics from the bestseller lists from Amazon, Forbidden Planet (Edinburgh) and Blackwells to see how women are portrayed.
First, we applied the simple Bechdel test to just one of the lists, the top 50 sellers from Amazon. This test was originally developed for films, but written in comic strip form, so we thought it might be interesting to apply it to comics. Maybe comics would do better?
Only 3 out of 50 passed.
More interestingly , it wasn’t even that these three were particularly ‘woman-friendly’, or that the other 47 were hideously misogynist. All the test could really tell us was that there are virtually no female leads, just lots of stories about the same thing:
This is not as simplistic as it sounds. Two men having a fight can be an epic parable (Red Son, by Mark Millar) or a thrilling intellectual treat (Logicomix). The problem is not so much the fact that we live in a patriarchy and the bulk of stories reflect this. The problem is that the women who are in these stories fall into narrow archetypes, serve the simplest narrative purposes, and are often brutally crushed in the cross-fire.
One of the first best-sellers we read was Naruto, a Samurai story about a rogue colleague. Reading a Japanese story first prepared us for the superhero genre, the idea of an individual, or a league of individuals, with an equal and opposite foe. You can dress it up in lycra all you like, but these superheroes come from an incredibly old tradition, stories which are feudal in nature.
(Wondering why so many comics are superhero stories? That’s a blog for another day. We’re on it.)
We found that women were squeezed in as colleagues, and that this seemed to be an insincere gesture to modernity, rather than an expression of equality. Superhero girls are dressed in unseasonably chilly clothes (some with special holes cut out) and the men are not. The women serve as the central motivation behind the actions of a lover or a protector, and are expendable when they no longer serve the plot or when their death arrives to drive the hero over the edge.
Is it necessary to kill, mutilate, crush, cripple or sexually degrade female characters in order for the emotional life of the protagonist to function?
It’s been the accepted narrative trend for so long now, and has turned out so many otherwise readable stories that it seems churlish to go against the grain. But keeping female characters at this simple level also limits the male characters, who helplessly paddle about in a misogynist world they never made. Both genders are hurt by this, and we can’t help marvelling at what the future might hold for these superhero stories if we could tell more intelligent stories about complicated and diverse characters.
We’ll be talking about this research and other related with a panel of female creators at Women in Comics, part of the KAPOW strand of the Glasgow Film Festival, this Thursday.
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