Last week, fellow Beat writer Alex Jones wrote this article about the TV show Arrow and its treatment of female characters. I don’t really follow Arrow, so I can’t say whether I agree with his assessment. But the premise got me thinking about whether any of these shows could pass the Bechdel test, i.e. the current standard for fictional female characters. The test requires fictional works to fulfill three requirements:
- Are there at least two women?
- Who talk to each other?
- About something other than a man?
It sounds easy but somehow isn’t. Is the Bechdel test perfect? Of course not. Even a female-led movie like Gravity can fail given the unique structure of its story, but it’s still important (for a great write up on why, I recommend this article).
So, in the interest of fairness, I decided to put five major superhero shows that aired this week to the same standard. I did this with low expectations but found myself surprised by the results. Only one show failed out of the five, for a pass rate of 80%. Each week is obviously only a small snapshot of every show’s full season, and it’s possible results could differ on any given week. Thinking on the episodes and cast list of each, though, the results feel fairly representative of the shows.
If you put live action 2015 superhero movies to the same standard – Antman, Fantastic Four, Avengers: Age of Ultron – only one of them, or 33%, pass, even with double the running time of a single episode of television (Age of Ultron is the one that did pass). Given that we have two female led superhero shows on TV now, or three counting Netflix’s recent Jessica Jones series, and are still awaiting a female-led movie in Marvel or DC’s latest releases, I guess it’s not a surprise that television wins over movies when it comes to this test.
In order of when the episode aired, here are the results for each show, with some minor plot spoilers.
Season 1, Episode 13: For the Girl Who Has Everything
I expected Supergirl to pass, but I had no idea how quickly it’d happen – within the first few minutes the show had more female to female dialogue than several other shows did in the full hour. From the perspective of strong female characters, Supergirl exceeds the competition far and away. Between Kara, her sister Alex, her aunt, and her boss, the core cast of characters is female. It might actually be more difficult to find male-to-male interactions that aren’t about a woman (“Reverse Bechdel”).
Season 2, Episode 13: Welcome to Earth 2
I actually really like The Flash on its good days, but I’m not at all surprised it failed. Iris, a role occupied by a great actress who’s often given little to do but worry about the men in her life, is notoriously the most poorly-served character on the cast, and Caitlin is capable but underwritten. But in this episode, it seemed like things could be different: on Earth 2 Iris is a lead detective, and Caitlin’s Earth 2 alter-ego is Killer Frost. Important roles! Better-than-ever for each of them, in fact. The two directly come head-to-head and have a very personal issue occur between them, but still, time and time again their scenes went by with no verbal interactions, Barry often serving as the middle man. The closest the episode gets is having Iris yell one line at Killer Frost, which isn’t returned and definitely doesn’t qualify as a conversation. It’s an absolute shame that even with the temporary improvements served up in this episode, the writers still couldn’t manage to give its female characters a single exchange.
Marvel’s Agent Carter
Season 2, Episode 5: The Atomic Job
I’m a big Agent Carter person, and it seemed like a no-brainer that it should pass, as it certainly has done so in the past. The show is even run by two women, Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas. But thinking on this season so far, I realized it was possible it’d fail if Peggy and Whitney didn’t interact or Peggy got sidelined on a fairly isolated mission. For the episode’s first 30 minutes I got more and more worried – Peggy and Jarvis spend so much time interacting, it started to seem more and more likely the episode would end without Peggy having a conversation with another woman. Fortunately after the halfway mark, following a minor interaction between Rose and Peggy (in which they talk about a man), Peggy and Whitney had a conversation/showdown, followed by an interaction between Peggy and Sousa’s fiancee. So while that was an intense first 30 minutes, I’d call it an easy pass.
Season 4, Episode 10: Sins of the Father
Arrow isn’t a show I’ve seen much of, so I had no idea what to expect here. Dropping in on this episode was interesting – everyone is a father/brother/sister/daughter/something! Right away I could see that a central female character, Thea, was out of commission and that it might hurt the episode’s chances. But unlike even Agent Carter, Arrow passed the Bechdel test in the episode’s first 10 minutes with a conversation between Nyssa and Laurel. They have another conversation later in the episode as well, and Felicity and her mother have a conversation (about Felicity’s father, though). Overall, a pretty clear and easy pass, even with a lead female character sidelined for most of its duration.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow
Season 1, Episode 4: White Knights
After only about two minutes of runtime, I was pretty confident Legends would pass. The episode opens with an espionage-style infiltration into the Pentagon, with the team members pairing off. Kendra and Sara join up, and I’m thinking, “Well, that was easy.” I was surprised that the mission came and went with zero conversation between the two, even though all of the other paired teams had a good deal of banter. Sara and Kendra just reported minor updates to HQ and looked steely & silent. Fifteen minutes in, however, and the plot between the two blew wide open, with Sara training Kendra to better harness her anger, leading to another clear pass.
Overall, again, I’m pleasantly surprised. It’d be interesting to do the same analysis when Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Gotham are back on the air and Agent Carter is off to see if the results are still as strong. Both have fairly large and diverse casts, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the trend hold up.
Entertainment writer and editor for The Beat.
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