The Cliffs of Insanity: Wonder Woman and the Bechdel Test

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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Writer, Mom, Geek and Superhero. though usually not all four on the same day. Author of the award-winning Phoenix Institute Superhero series and the steampunk novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.