Friday, November 25, 2011

Batman and the case of the missing women

As I reshelved books earlier today I was thinking of Deconstruction: The Bechdel Test an article by Ana Mardoll which had been posted recently on The Slacktiverse.

<Temporary derail> I am always in a constant struggle to keep books from taking over my desk, the floor of my library, the window sill of my library, the side table by my bed, the space next to my plate at the kitchen table and every other surface in the house which will hold a book. Yes, I pull books off the shelf to check quotes, to compare writing styles, to verify when something was published, to nail down a reference. But surely I don't pull enough books off the shelves to explain why sometimes it is difficult to pick one's way from the door to the chair and why every single book I needed to look at today was already off the shelf and in some unmarked pile. Approximately once a week I make a reshelving sweep through the house. By the next morning books will apparently have left the bookcases of their own accord to scatter themselves at random throughout my home.</Temporary derail>

I considered the book on top of the next 'to be shelved' pile in the light of that article. Batman in the forties. "Of course," I said to myself, "there is virtually no chance that an early Batman cartoon would pass the Bechdel test." Then my talent at procrastination academic rigour kicked in and I sat down to verify whether the early Batman comics did indeed 'fail' the Bechdel test.

I turned to page 10 and the first comic included in the collection--Case of the Chemical Syndicate, originally published in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. So, the first Batman (btw, he is referred to as The Batman throughout) fails the Bechdel test by the first criterion. Not only does it not have two women it doesn't even have one woman. Not even a silent woman standing somewhere in the back of a scene.

"Well," I say to myself attempting to put off any more work to maintain academic rigour, "one shouldn't make broad generalizations from a sample of one. I really need to reread more of these early comics."

So I moved on to Batman's official Origin story, first published in Detective Comics #33 in November 1939. As I turned to that story I noticed, with some excitement, that I could see not one but three drawings of a women. Strike that--they are drawings of the same woman. Bruce Wayne's mother (not given a name--she is described only as Thomas Wayne's wife) is first drawn standing terrified by her husband's side as the family is accosted by a gun wielding criminal. Two frames later she is drawn holding her injured husband and she has actual lines Thomas! You've killed him. Help!!. In the next frame the young Bruce Wayne is shown looking at the dead bodies of both his parents.

An improvement over the first comic since there was at least one woman. Or at most one woman. And she does get to speak. And be immediately killed. And she isn't given a name.

Sigh. On to the next comic in the collection--the origin story of Robin-the Boy Wonder originally published April 1940 in Detective Comics #38. And right there on the first page of the story I see a woman. In a trapeze perfomer's outfit (bra and short shorts) standing silent in the background. On the second page she gets a line of dialogue Nicely done, John and in the next frame she gets another as John (Grayson) cries Mary and Mary (Grayson) screams John! as they both plunge to their deaths.

Reading on I finally find a scene with two women in it. Of course it is a gambling den, neither of the women has lines and but at least they (and the lone woman in one of the frames on the next page, provide some relief from an otherwise completely male world.

I could go on but it is actually too depressing and distressing to do so. The real problem here is not that most of the leading characters are male nor is that most of the name characters are male. The problem is that the Batman comics is set in a world that is so overwhelmingly male that it is easy to identify and count the number of women drawn in each of these early stories.

So, the early Batman comics don't just fail the Bechdel test, they fail it spectacularly. They fail it in a way that signals to their readers not only that women don't have interesting stories to tell, or that women aren't good at crime fighting---it signals that women simply aren't.....

1 comment:

  1. Ah, man, I was hoping at the beginning that the twist would be that the 40's did it better than us and there'd be women all over the place.

    That *is* depressing. Makes the 1:5 woman-man ratio in crowds in movies seem downright progressive. Better than 1:30 or whatever. :(


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