Monday musgings

Over at The Hooded Utilitarian, Erica (Okazu) Friedman talks about the Bechdel Test as it relates to manga. It’s an interesting piece, and it introduces (as far as I know) the concept of the spirit of the test as opposed to its mechanics. Erica goes right to the source (Alison Bechdel) to confirm that her beliefs about the spirit of the test are correct, and it’s probably self-serving of me to insist that the test has value without that qualitative, secret-handshake dimension, but I would argue that all the same.

I would argue it for the reason that I think that books that pass the letter but not the spirit (like Kaoru Mori’s Emma) are more interesting as, say, romantic fiction for the fact that they pass the letter of the test, and that by passing the letter they come closer to the spirit. Erica’s argument – “All romance stories are, by their nature about the relationship and therefore have discussion centered around that.” – strikes me as kind of a blunt axe, to be honest. It’s obviously a fair argument, especially given Bechdel’s view, but it isn’t one that I find personally useful, since I enjoy a lot of romantic fiction and enjoy it more when two women characters talk about things other than their relationships, as in Karuho Shiina’s Kimi Ni Todoke. (But I also like romantic fiction that I suspect miserably fails the Bechdel Test.)

Looking at a title that Erica suggests passes the test “with flying colors,” Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, I agree that it passes with no problem, especially with the spirit that Erica has overlain. Nami and Robin, the female main characters, talk to each other about things other than men, and they serve no romantic function in the series, largely because there’s no romantic function to be served in the series. (Well, they are worship objects for Sanji, one of the male leads, but they’re generally immune to his adoration.)

If anything, Nami and Robin remind me of the Scarlet Witch and the Wasp at the various points when they both served as Avengers at the same time. Like Nami and Robin, Wanda and Jan never really talked much, but when they did, it wasn’t about their romantic predicaments. Of course, their romantic predicaments were otherwise often central to their respective narrative functions, so perhaps they didn’t pass the spirit of the test as Erica sees it. More likely to pass would be the sequence of Avengers stories that featured the Wasp and She-Hulk, who talked about a lot of stuff but rarely, if ever, relationships.

But, on the whole, I think I’ll stick with the “letter of” definition of the test, just because I think it’s a more useful measure of whether or not I’ll particularly like a series of the sort I’m inclined to like in the first place. (How’s that for selective application of a fairly rigid standard?) And I wouldn’t suggest that only series that pass the Bechdel Test are good series. I love a lot of comics by Naoki Urasawa, but I can’t think of one off hand where two female characters talk to each other about something other than men. I’m actually having a hard time thinking of an exchange in an Urasawa series where two women talk to each other about anything or even appear in the same substantial scene together, with the possible exception of 20th Century Boys, and they only really talk about a man who’s absent from their lives. This isn’t to say that Urasawa hasn’t crafted interesting women characters or that they don’t play key roles in his narratives, just that their interaction with each other is negligible.

And all of this reminds me that I really do need to sit down and try and cobble together a litmus test, or at least a checklist of appealing qualities, for yaoi and boys’-love manga that makes it enjoyable for me as an old gay man.

25 Responses to Monday musgings

  1. DerikB says:

    Isn’t Urasawa’s first work about a female tennis player? Surely that must pass the test.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I’ve only read the ones that have been licensed and translated, but it’s certainly possible.

    • Aaron says:

      Actualy it was a female Judo practioner it was called Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl it was seralized in Big Comic Spirts from 1986-1993 with a total of 29 collected volumes being published

  2. John Jakala says:

    I’m not sure if earlier volumes pass the test, but I just read volume 10 of 20th Century Boys last night and there were at least a couple passages that pass the Bechdel Test: Kanna and Kyoko discuss the forces closing in on them; Kyoko is confronted by the female Friend about her need for further re-education.

    I can kind of see why Erica was reluctant to give Emma a pass since the main focus of the series is on Emma’s feelings for William, but I’d argue that it’s precisely because Emma is a romance that does pass the strict letter of the Bechdel Test that makes it so interesting: it shows that women aren’t defined just by their feelings for others, that they have cares and concerns outside of men.

    With Ooku, though, I’m not clear why it wouldn’t pass the test in either spirit or letter. (Granted, I haven’t read all the comments though, so maybe this is fleshed out more there.)

    • davidpwelsh says:

      This is what I get for falling a volume or so behind in my 20th Century Boys reading.

      I think the Ooku deal breaker is the fact that the gender roles are fairly directly reversed. I think that it’s possible, when Erica reads it, she might find extra layering that pushes it past that basic “what-if” gender configuration, but maybe not. (I think I scared her off with mentions of the Fakespearean dialogue, so she’s going to wait until she can read it in Japanese.)

  3. And all of this reminds me that I really do need to sit down and try and cobble together a litmus test, or at least a checklist of appealing qualities, for yaoi and boys’-love manga that makes it enjoyable for me as an old gay man.

    I would love to see a list of criteria for this.

  4. Krill says:

    Both Monster and 20th Century Boys have scenes in which women talk to each other about something other than men.

    Lotte and Anna have a couple of conversations that don’t mention Karl at all, off the top of my head. In 20th Century Boys, Yukiji gives Kanna a stern talking to near the end of volume 5 in which Kenji is only tangentially relevant. A couple other examples have been given.

    Also if you count the two transvestites, they have a number of conversations with Kanna which I don’t think involve men.

    Really I think it has a lot more to do with the prevalence of men in Urasawa’s series. And where the women do tend to have their concerns focused with a man (Anna and Eva on Tenma, Kanna and Yukiji on Kenji) all of the men in the series have their concerns just as focused on the same man.

    The same thing happens in his two series with female leads, Happy! and Yawara. The females take on the celebrity status there than Tenma and Kenji do in Monster and 20th Century Boys.

  5. judi(togainunochi) says:

    Please do put together a litmus test for yaoi and BL. Of course, my test would throw realism out the window, but with believable characters. Oh and a happy ending. :)

  6. Johanna says:

    Sand Chronicles passes. I distinctly remember the girl and her grandmother talking about how her mother struggled to find ways to deal with her problems, about how she wasn’t “strong enough”. I don’t like the sentiment, but the conversation was there.

  7. NoahB says:

    Thanks for this post, David. And I’m interested in the litmus test for yaoi as well!

  8. […] in comics in general, and the difference between the letter and the spirit of the Bechdel Test. David Welsh follows up with a discussion of both general issues and specific manga at The Manga […]

  9. Erica says:

    Interesting bringing up Yawara!, a Fashionable Judo Girl, because Yawara’s NUMBER ONE concern throughout the first half of the series is getting a nice boyfriend, marrying, settling down and living a normal life. She repudiates her skills, hides them, avoids fighting and almost never has a conversation about anything other than boys.

    That basic list is exactly why I took Yuri out of the running, David. Most of it is, “i like, her, or do I?” and then “does she like me?” rinse, repeat. Exactly the kind of bleah that if it were a guy, would make a media property fail.

    Is there good BL that has guys who are just out, and then doing stuff? Or is it all “what do I feel about him? What does he feel about me?” Having a conversation with the milkman about breakfast tomorrow might be a literal pass, but if the rest of the book is “like? not like? like? not like?” I’d give it a “not pass” score.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      Just to clarify, I didn’t bring up Yawara!. I just mentioned that, while I like Urasawa very much, I can’t think of many licensed, translated volumes of his work that pass the Bechdel Test, letter or spirit.

      And I’m pretty sure most yaoi would fail any interpretation of the Bechdel Test, largely because I can only think of a tiny handful with more than one woman character, much less two women characters who speak to each other. Again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many good books, just that most don’t meet that criteria. But even if the criteria was “don’t spend most of their time talking about relationships” divorced from specific genders? Fail! (It’s largely romantic fiction. No surprise there.)

      But the litmus test in my head isn’t as open-ended as I find the Bechdel Test. It’s more a case of making a checklist of the things I like in yaoi stories, or things I’ve found in yaoi stories that I like.

      • Erica says:

        I didn’t mean you, David, just you whoever brought it up. ^_^

        I have a litmus test, but it applies to no one else but me. Of all the thing I read currently, the series that come closest (without approaching anything like perfection) are Jormungand, Ikkitousen and Lyrical Nanoha Strike Force…which goes to show you how useless a litmus test can be. ^_^

  10. JRB says:

    “Is there good BL that has guys who are just out, and then doing stuff? Or is it all “what do I feel about him? What does he feel about me?””

    BL is almost all romance, so even once the guys commit and move in together it tends to dwell on the relationship aspects. (Although I really don’t see why being about a romantic relationship should disqualify a work.) The only example that I can really think of of “guys who are just out, and then doing stuff” would be What Did You Eat Yesterday?, which is not actually BL.

  11. […] article with a lot of great discussion in comments. At The Manga Curmudgeon, David Welsh adds a few musings of his […]

  12. Ahavah says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the sexual politics in manga recently, specifically the male-to-female character ratio in shonen manga.

    Modern-day shonen manga, published in magazines like. “Shonen Jump” and “Shonen Sunday” in Japan, are reported to be as popular with female readers as with male readers. The ratio of readers hovers arround 50-50 (supposedly), but yet there are some constants in these titles that are bothersome (to me, a female adult American reader):

    1.Shonen manga almost always have a male protagonist. I think the 2 exceptions people usually bring up are Soul Eater and Claymore (I’m not personally familiar with either title).

    2. The male characters outnumber the female characters in even the most Bechdel-test passing titles, such as Full Metal Alchemist and Kekkaishi (both are written by women).

    3. The female characters are rarely given the chance to do significant things in the story, and even when they are, there seems to be an unwritten rule that their actions can never outshine the actions of the protagonist (as previously stated, he’s usually male) or the other male characters (who, of course, outnumber them). The real heroic, saving-the-world (or destroying the world, as the case may be) abilities are a man’s job, in most arcs in most titles.

    This bothers me. Go to any popular shonen manga discussion board (warning: illiterate teens and pre-teens abound!) and view the discussions about the “worthlessness” of characters such as Sakura in Naruto, Orihime in Bleach, etc. Those particular characters *are* given very little to do in their respective stories, but even characters who are shown to be powerful and important in the stories they inhabit, such as Kagura in Gintama, Tsunade in Naruto, Tokine in Kekkaishi, Rukia in Bleach (I can go on and on…) are not given the same amount of screentime or development as their male counterparts.

    My favorite Bechdel-test passing shonen anime-like title with which to measure the others is the Nickelodeon cartoon, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”.

    Besides the fact that the main protagonist and antagonist (Aang and Zuko, respectively) are male, it rips every other expectation of a story of its type to threads:

    The majority of the important characters are female;

    The most powerful characters are female;

    There are a significant number of girls on both sides of the conflict;

    Every character, male and female, is given lots of screentime, character development, and a balance of flaws and virtues.

    Why aren’t more shonen action stories like that? Discuss.

    • ZeroSD says:

      -Why aren’t more shonen action stories like that? Discuss.-

      I think part of it is tradition, part of it is what the editors want, and part of it is writers being not used to writing the sex they aren’t a part of in many cases. Kishimoto of Naruto has I think stated he has more trouble writing the female characters.

      The newer series tend to be better at this than the old ones, signifying times are changing. Consider Dragon Ball, and the number of important females. You can probably count them on one hand, and only one of them really fights, and even then doesn’t get many fights. And for awhile in shounen action, that was the norm. Yu Yu Hakusho? You’ve got three girls who stand on the sidelines plus Genkai the trainer, and that’s it. Naruto for having Tsunade and Temari and such is a step up, ditto Bleach for having Rukia get some cool fights (Orihime, less so) though not quite as much as Naruto.

      And even more recent, one excellent Bechdel-test passing newer series that’s quite popular in Japan is Fairy Tail. The main team has four members, the strongest of whom is a female, with the two guys in the middle power-wise, followed by the PoV female. The strongest gets a ton of screen time, development, and plot importance, only slightly behind the male and female leads.

      Claymore passes the test, but ironically it likely fails the reverse form of the test. I’m hard pressed to think of a scene where two guys talk and it’s not about a girl (at least in subtext), not that there’s a lot of guys. That’s one way some manga solve the problem- focus entirely on the other sex.

      And there’s the odd case of Negima. It’s half-romantic comedy of the harem tradition half-shounen action. So you get a fair amount of talking about the few boys, but also stuff like badass female fighters talking about how to defeat some foes, and some of the girls mostly talk about the guys in the sense of telling the others to be quite about the guys, and pretty much none of the massive female cast only talks about guys, save perhaps some of the minor ones.

  13. […] to defy the Kami and warn the people of his plans to destroy the island. There’s been some discussion lately about manga that passes the Bechdel Test, and these volumes exemplify why One Piece does so […]

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