Thursday, August 28, 2014

Zoe vs. the Bechdel Test

You may have heard of the Bechdel Test. It's a pop-culture phenomenon that measures gender bias in film, TV, etc. It's named after Alison Bechdel, who in her 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For featured a character who said she'd only go to movies that had three elements: 1) at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man.
Many movies fail this test because, if I may channel my inner Nathan Detroit: Broadly speaking, there ain't enough broads.
There are movies, of course, where applying the Bechdel test would be silly, such as Saving Private Ryan. Movies featuring World War II battle scenes would obviously involve a dearth of women. Or a movie like Gravity, where there's a dearth of earth itself. (Sorry but this juxtaposition was unlikely to be available to me again.)
However, there are other movies that fail which really make you wonder, for example, Avatar or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The latter is especially disturbing since it's specifically aimed at kids. Some of whom are girls! Girls like Zoe! Who may herself be sexist! But is it nature or nurture?!

Fails Bechdel test because Tammy is instructing
Midge on how best to shoot her husband.

If a camera followed Zoe around all day at school, the film that resulted would almost certainly fail the Bechdel test. Since Zoe learned to speak, she's been telling me about the boys in her class. When I ask who her friends are, ten out of ten times she gives me a boy's name. When there's a new boy in her class, the next day he is her best friend. There are girls in her class, but I don't think Zoe interacts with them. If I ask about a girl, she'll maybe acknowledge her, but only if pressed, much like a Hollywood producer.
As for her likes and dislikes, right now her favorite cartoon is Paw Patrol. This show fails the Canine Bechdel test. Six rescue pups and only one is female. When Zoe plays pretend, she is never Skye (the female). Often she claims to be Ryder, the human male in charge of the pups.
When I first watched the show with Zoe, my main issue related to anthropomorphism. I wasn't sure if the humans were understanding the pups. Episodes underwent repeated viewings, a la Sixth Sense, to gauge whether people were responding directly to what one of the pups said. Once I was satisfied on that score (they do understand them), I moved on to the sexism.

Not quite.

There are two main human female characters---Farmer Yumi and Mayor Goodway (note the position of power, undercut by the fact she calls upon a boy and his puppies to help her in any and every emergency)---and they do interact, but I think these two could easily be male without losing anything. Then again, three-dimensional cartoon characters are sort of oxymoronic.
This past weekend when Zoe and I went swimming, we played Paw Patrol. I pretended to be caught in a whirlpool and called Paw Patrol for help. Zoe pretended she was Zuma, the male chocolate Lab. Each time I called for aid, Zoe would turn from her pretend computer display, run around the pool, and then walk carefully down the stairs in her water wings saying, "Zuma to the wrecks you [rescue]."
After a few rounds I specifically called for Skye to come with her helicopter, but Zoe insisted on being Zuma. Occasionally, maybe, Ryder. I fretted inwardly, which at least lended verisimilitude to my outward displays of distress as Zoe tugged me to safety over and over again.

A broad, abroad

Later I Googled Paw Patrol. Nick Jr.'s description of Skye didn't do much to alleviate my concerns. "Skye tries everything with a back flip, grace, and a smile." Hmmm. Not how one would describe a male hero like, say, Thor. 
Then I scrolled down to read about Zuma. That's when I learned he is specifically the "water rescue" dog. Had I been so blinded by the sociopolitical landscape of Paw Patrol that I had overlooked individual character traits?
So maybe Zoe's not sexist. She's just accurate. Thus the limits of the Bechdel test.
However, while on the Nick Jr. site I also noted that all the pups are pure breeds except for one, Rocky, the recycling dog. Allow that to marinate for a bit. Rest assured I will be writing a strongly worded letter to Nick Jr.
Zoe: 58; Universe: 0


  1. Awesome babe. Especially love the picture captions on this one.

  2. The way the introduction led to your discussion of Zoe was genius, and SO so so hilarious! I love that she wants to be Ryder and your observation on how the mayor relies on a boy with his pups for all matters in need of resolution. I wouldn't be surprised if the mayor of Toronto does the same. This was brilliant, Liz.

  3. Thanks, Katia! Just to prove me wrong, the day after I posted this she decided she's obsessed with My Little Pony! A girlie show, Bronies notwithstanding.

  4. Excellent observations. Good to know a fellow cartoon deconstructionist.
    My daughter wanted to be Michael Jackson for a while, but then shifted to the Olsen Twins / Michelle from Full House. I'm undecided as to which is healthier.

  5. Thank you! Wow, didn't she need a hyperbaric chamber (much like Michael Jackson, I think) to make that switch? If there's some kind of connection between Jackson and the Olsen twins, it's probably best unexamined.