The Cliffs of Insanity: Wonder Woman and the Bechdel Test

Cliffs of Insanity Featured GeekMom
Wonderwoman Dec 12 2013
This future Wonder Woman isn’t that far off from her contemporary version. Image from Justice League 3000 #1, copyright DC Comics, art by Howard Porter

Welcome to this week’s adventures in climbing the Cliffs of Insanity. This week, I focus on a couple of feminist issues in the superhero world, one in comics, one in television. The comic? Superman/Wonder Woman. The show? Arrow.

I have received review copies of the first three issues of the Superman/Wonder Woman series, otherwise I’d never read a comic whose premise drives me nuts, namely that Wonder Woman and Superman’s romantic relationship could be at all interesting. There’s just no spark there.

But as I was reading the third issue, I noticed something that bothered me far more than a story problem.

A comic that co-stars Wonder Woman doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.

Wonder Woman, the symbol of female power, is co-starring in a story where her only conversation with a woman in issue #3 is about a guy, namely Superman.

Why is this a problem?

First, a disclaimer: The Bechdel Test isn’t always an indicator of quality. It asks three simple questions: Is there more than one woman in the story? Do they have a conversation? Is that conversation about something other than a man?

These questions developed as a “test” basically to find out if a particular movie was at all interested in presenting a female character as other than a romantic interest—i.e., the girlfriend. It also can show just how few female characters exist in some movies. Failing the Bechdel doesn’t necessarily make a movie terrible or against women. Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test because Bullock and George Clooney’s characters are stranded in space. It’s still a great movie.

What the Bechdel test can show is that a specific story isn’t interested at all in telling anything from the female point of view and it can showcase a more overall trend with the lack of female stories in mainstream entertainment. It seems a ridiculously easy bar but even hugely popular movies, like The Avengers, barely pass.

However, even in shows or movies that focus on women, it’s easy for them to pass a reverse Bechdel test where the questions are about men. Take Orange is the New Black, a great show, full of awesome and diverse roles for women. Yet still, there are four important male characters and that have significant storylines. Men aren’t left out because, well, they are part of the world.

Yet women are often forgotten, not even rising to the level of supporting characters. Even in this comic where the most prominent fictional feminist icon is featured.

There is one other woman in the story and Wonder Woman talks to her friend about, yes, a guy. (Superman.) Superman has a similar talk about the relationship with his buddy, Batman. (This is a great scene though I’m not sure Batman is the guy I’d go to for relationship advice.) But then Zod somehow falls to Earth, Superman, Wonder Woman, and other heroes are called to deal with his hostile response to arriving on Earth, and there are no other women in the story save Wonder Woman.

There was the Justice League of America, all men, confronting Zod, another man. Wonder Woman tied up Zod so Superman could decide what to do with him. This speaks less about the quality of the writer of the series, Charles Soule, and much more about the inherent problems right now in DC’s Universe, especially with Wonder Woman.

Once upon a time, Wonder Woman’s books featured her sister, Donna Troy; her protege, Wonder Girl; her female friend, Etta Candy; and, of course, an entire cast of Amazons, including her mother, Queen Hippolyta. The inter-generational connection is one of the most fascinating elements of WW’s mythos. Or was.

Now?

Donna Troy doesn’t exist in the current DC Universe. Wonder Girl is unconnected now and stuck in the story hell that is currently Teen Titans. Etta Candy is Steve Trevor’s assistant rather than WW’s friend, and the Amazons? Well, they’ve been revealed as murderers and child slavers, and Queen Hippolyta the worst of the lot. (I think they’re currently all turned to stone as well.)

Basically, all of Wonder Woman’s relationships and friendships now primarily revolve around men, including daddy issues with her father, Zeus (a retcon).

It’s sad that comics from over 30 years ago pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, including two that were smash hits in the early 1980s: Marv Wolfman and George Perez’ Teen Titans, and Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men.

Again, I ask: Why the heck are we going backward?

Arrow Misses the Mark

There are a great many things I love about Arrow. I love the redemption story of Oliver Queen. I love how his character arc over one and a half seasons has been so well done. I love Felicity Smoak and Diggle, his team, and his mother, Moira Queen, a terrific, flawed, intense, multi-layered woman. The writer in me loves how well the flashbacks are woven into the stories of the present. I liked the nerdy Barry Allen featured in the last two episodes.

Bottom line: I enjoy the show.

The problem is I’m developing a squick when it comes to the female characters. Now, it’s Oliver’s show, so plot elements should always revolve somewhat around him. But lately the vibe is “Oliver and his women” and it’s getting ridiculous. Oliver has slept with four current supporting characters: Sara, Shado, Laurel, and Isabel Rochev. His mother has been mainly off-screen, for plot reasons, and his sister, Thea, has been reduced basically to worrying about her boyfriend, who is the driving force of their storyline.

The final straw for me was when the writers decided Felicity also has a thing for Oliver, a change from the first season, where she liked him but didn’t see him as relationship material. There was more chemistry in season 1 between Felicity and Diggle.

Then, to make matters worse, in this week’s episode, Oliver is given a Sophie’s choice between his two lovers/girlfriends, Sara and Shado, as the two women are reduced to props for Ollie’s angst. And, at the end of the mid-season finale, it’s shown that whatever happened to the women Oliver didn’t save is the driving motivation between the behind-the-scene villain.

It’s all about the pain of the men.

And that’s frustrating. Sara’s re-appearance as Black Canary was very good and I loved the fight scenes featuring her and Oliver but mostly, I loved that her story was about her. I was hoping for sub-plots like that for the other female characters or something to show they’re not simply satellites in Ollie’s orbit. Alas, there’s only a lame plotline of pill addiction for Laurel and now it appears she’s gotten involved with a villain. ::sigh::

Get better at this, Arrow. Please.

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4 thoughts on “The Cliffs of Insanity: Wonder Woman and the Bechdel Test

  1. Azzarello Wonder Woman has a good number of female characters, not so much like Rucka or Simone had. She has good conversations with zola, hera that doesn’t involve boyfriends.
    in the next issue we have a female villain and another female character guest.
    Now Soule is problematic, in #2 he had diana beaten really easy by doomsday. And superman defending her because apollo called her a slut. Now this issue didn’t pass the bechdel test. It was his idea turn Supergirl in a red lantern, in a future issue of red lantern guy gardner and superman will discuss a way to deal with teenage supergirl. I really not like his concepts.

  2. Late commenting to this: even with its issues with women, the sad thing is, Arrow is still handling female characters better than many DC comic books are, Wonder Woman included. And Arrow actually passes the Bechdel Test, even if the conversations which make it qualify are few and far between (Moira and Thea have several non-man related conversations, Laurel and Thea have a few non-man related conversations, Moira and Jean Loring discuss her trial).

    The problem with Arrow and women seems to be the writers being incapable of giving Oliver any other heroic plot other than “save the damsel in distress.” Sometimes, though rarely, the damsel isn’t even female, and either way, it undercuts both Ollie and the “damsels” being rescued–he seems to have no motivation other than “must rescue friend,” and seemingly extremely competent characters are often made inexplicably helpless just to put them in a position of needing rescue (e.g., Shado being an utter badass until suddenly she isn’t). Laurel in particular is frequently treated as a plot device rather than a character, the Dollmaker episode especially where she is very nearly fridged: the point is entirely about how it affects Quentin and Ollie, not herself (her substance abuse following that event doesn’t really count because they’ve done zero real development over it, and it seems to come and go with the convenience of the current episode’s plot). If Laurel was for once written as the competent, headstrong lawyer who “fights crime with her voice” that she is set up to be rather than just an object to be attacked, kidnapped, rescued, fought over, seduced, etc. people might actually start liking her because she might actually start being a real person. Note that the most popular female characters on the show are Felicity and Moira who each have lives outside of Ollie (and Felicity’s getting more grating as she is forced to revolve more and more around Oliver), and Thea is becoming more liked as her character is being developed. Likewise, Sara is popular because as you say, she actually has her own story. That should hint to the showrunners that they need to be making their characters, well, people, rather than plot devices–and regardless in fact of gender.

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