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.