It’s A Woman’s World: Bodacious Space Pirates, Maria-sama ga Miteru and The Bechdel-Wallace Test

July 10th, 2012

Bodacious Space Pirates came to an end and I thought it delightful in every possible way. As I (over)thought how I’d approach a final season review, I started to think about the qualities that made the series stand out for me – and what, specifically, that meant in terms of storytelling. And, ultimately, I started thinking about how the series portrayed women.

Courtney Duckworth on Broad Recognition has a really excellent review of Pixar’s Brave, in which she discusses something that any woman in the corporate world knows…to be a successful woman, you have to be a man. I remember a conversation I had with a young executive who was being groomed for a CEO position in the company I worked for at the time. He was having a little crisis because, in order to be the man they wanted him to be, he had to give up his family life. It was expected, respected and demanded that he not be there to see his kids play in their first ball game, not attend recitals, because his company needed him. I watched him as he talked his way through this, as he justified letting his family drop off in importance and the company become the thing he would care about. In the end, he became a very successful CEO, and I remember this conversation as the saddest one I have ever had with another human being. For women, who are presumed to be primary caregivers, the stress of letting go of family in order to be successful as a CEO is almost insurmountable. Let someone else raise your kids? (Doesn’t matter if it’s your husband…it’s NOT YOU.) You’re heartless. Focused and driven? You’re a bitch. Want to take time off to see your kid’s recital? You’re not dedicated. There is no way to win, because you are not a man with a wife who will watch the kids in the background.

Merida, like Ermina (Paros no Ken), Safire (Princess Knight) and Lady Oscar (Rose of Versailles), excels at men’s skills, in a world that pretty much has one path to excellence – being as brave and competent as a man.

Let’s stop here and take a look at the Bechdel_Wallace Test for a second. As a reminder, the test goes like this.

1. [The media in question] has to have at least two [named] women in it.
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

In a recent email exchange with Alison Bechdel, she and I discussed the idea of “would Mo watch it?” as an unwritten, extra factor to measure if a media property follows the letter, but not the spirit of the Test (that is, it fits the criteria strictly, but it’s still not the kind of thing that Mo is looking for in entertainment). ^_^

So what does this have to do with Bodacious Space Pirates and Maria-sama ga Miteru? Everything.

Let’s start with Maria-sama ga Miteru. In the rarified and protected world of Lillian Girls’ School there are no “men’s jobs.” The leaders of the student body are women, the Principal and many of the teachers are women. The presumption with which the entire series is presented to us is that Youko or Sachiko or any of the other members of the Student Council  will move into positions with decision-making power when they graduate – if not effortlessly, then they will certainly be capable of standing up for themselves, because they have been trained to be leaders. No one ever comments that they are as good as men, or that they run the student body with masculine focus. Lillian is a woman’s world and within it, women do jobs women can do, if they are give the opportunity to do them. (This is something that research bears out – given equal opportunity to excel, women will excel equally.)

In Bodacious Space Pirates, Marika is going to school in a woman’s world, but she isn’t thinking about it that way, any more than Yumi was. It’s just…school. Then something changes and Marika is indeed sent into a world that is traditionally inhabited by men – piracy. And here, at last, we get to the point. It’s true that Marika faces some trials based on the fact that she’s y’know, a high school girl, but her gender alone is less of a problem than one might have expected in a series like this. Being a woman doing “man’s work” is pretty much never an issue, except in one or two totally valid scenes. (Two young women trawling the back alleys of a pirate hangout is a completely reasonable use of that kind of tension.)

Both these series star female characters in a relatively female-heavy cast, and so they both fly through the letter of the Bechdel-Wallace Test easily. But…there’s more to them. In neither series is there a focus on turning a sexualized male gaze on the characters. It really doesn’t matter how “strong” a female character is – when we are forced to stare continually at their crotch or chest, there’s a different story being told – “Yes, she could kick your ass, but it’s okay, you could still have sex on her, so you’re still superior to her..”

Let’s think, for a second about the inevitable “beach episode” in Bodacious Space Pirates. In any other series, if I ask you, “What was the beach episode about?” the only real answer you’d have is “It was about reducing the female characters to a series of sexualized visual images.” Now think about the beach episode of BSP. What was it about? The plot was the trial run for the dinghy race, but it was *about* Ai-chan. In any other series, would there have been an entire episode about a relatively unimportant character like Ai-chan? Would there have been a follow-up episode about her? Would she have been developed as more than a name at all?  There was no attempt to turn Marika or any of the characters into a pair of jiggling boobs.  Yes, we absolutely saw the female characters in bathing suits…but we also saw Kane in a bathing suit. He was not ripped, but he was fit. We saw his ass as many times as we saw the girls’. I don’t care about *either* the girls or Kane in a bathing suit, but the service was pleasantly even-handed and blessedly low-key. It would have been hideously easy (and hideous) to simply stare up the Yacht Club members’ skirts all the time, as anime as a genre slides into a low place in which a majority of viewers seem content to huddle – but that does not happen here.

Both these series have female-heavy casts, but not female-exclusive casts. These are not reverse harems, not reverse shounen series. There are brothers, fathers, uncles, male teachers, colleagues and crew in these worlds, just as there are in the real world. A woman’s world in these series does not mean “the exclusion of all men,” as it might in a male gaze fantasy like Strawberry Panic!  These women have society, which is, in my reading of it, the meaning of the third and final criteria of the Bechdel-Wallace Test.

Maria-sama ga Miteru and Bodacious Space Pirates are about strong women as *I* understand the concept. Women who are perfectly capable living in a world populated by men and women; women who can take command of both men and women and be respected as leaders – and who are not judged by a set of standards that are skewed so they can only ever fail. Women who can find their own solutions to issues, not to have to excel at men’s thinking or men’s skills to be considered a success.

In these series, women are shown as being as brave and competent…as a woman.

Would Mo watch these? I think she might.

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15 Responses

  1. Felix says:

    Excellent and interesting post. I wonder in your opinion what other series could pass your definition of the Bechdel Test?

    Lagrange, Last Exile:Fam, Symphogear, and the Nanoha and Strike Witches franchises spring to mind as possible candidates though I agree they don’t quite fit as well.

    Also for the fanservice in Bodacious Space Pirates, it seems to me they went out of their way to avoid fanservice for the most part. In the beach episode the members of the Yacht Club throughout that episode were always wearing something over their swimsuits (jackets, life vests).

    To me it even seemed at points the makers were going “sure we could be showing you an up skirt shot right now, but we aren’t so deal” towards the viewers. (Oddly enough I think Lagrange is doing the exact same thing, avoiding panty shots as hard as possible, even though the male gaze is much heavier in that series. I wonder if its a Sato thing?) Honestly this policy definitely made the show better because they weren’t pandering to audience and also I can share it with people who love SciFi and want series like Pirates but have gotten turned off of anime because of fanservice overload.

    Also Ai’s story arc was truly wonderful and honestly one of the reasons I hope we get another season or more because I want more development of the rest of the Yacht Club members.

  2. Felix – I’ve long said that anime and manga do much better at the Bechdel Test than most entertainment media. Even in shounen series, one can find more than one named female character who discuss something other than a man with each other. And in series with female-heavy casts, they still have to talk about the task at hand from time to time.

  3. BruceMcF says:

    Plus, irrespective of the gender of the high school student Pirate Captain, it was great fun as space opera.

  4. Mara says:

    A fantastic post and thank you so much for it. I did not understand your last addition to the test ‘would mo watch it’ but now I do.

  5. ArcaJ says:

    Great review, Erica! Your post came at an angle I hadn’t really thought about (at least not consciously). I came to this show for the great space opera and nerdgasm-inducing moments of pure science fiction goodness.

    That there’s some great Yuri (of the goggle and non-goggle varieties) just made my year.

    I’m glad we got to spend time with such a great cast of characters. I hope to see more of them in the future.


  6. Cryssoberyl says:

    Well stated. The concept of the “man’s world”, the ridiculous double standard of women being judged in ways that a man wouldn’t be, even though they’re doing the same jobs and aspiring to the same goals…despite my best efforts, I’ve never been able to wrap my head around this concept.

    By that I mean, women who are able to succeed in certain ways are often accused of “acting male”. What is “acting male”? We are all human and all carry within us the potential for the full spectrum of human behavior. I can only conclude then that “acting male” is “acting in such a way that is societally prescribed to maleness”. This idea is of course fallacious, but at least it’s a concrete criteria to go by.

    My confusion sets in when I see women that might be described by some as “acting male”, but I can detect no trace that they’re attempting to conform to any such standard. They are merely being themselves. If a woman is strong, decisive, able to make the hard, often ruthless choices that come with leadership, is she really “acting male”?

    Going by the criteria we established above, the answer for many people would be yes. From my standpoint outside those boundaries though, I often have difficulty telling whether female characters are being written to capitulate to that double standard, or to transcend it.

    As a way of attempting to solve this question, I tend to look toward the invariably related (and again fallacious) idea of “male power”, and whether or not the characters are consciously seeking to take hold of that perceived power by emulating an (often heroicized) male ideal.

    For example, there’s the stereotype of the girl who is chasing after her father’s greatness. There’s a powerful female warrior NPC in an online game I play that can smash faces with a hammer as well as anyone, but her one and only personality trait is “my father was a great man, I want to be like him”, and across hundreds of hours of content, every second sentence out of her mouth contains the words “my father”. Her entire definition as a character is wrapped up in her desire to emulate this lionized male figure.

    (This is actually one reason why I like Battle Athletes so much. In an all-too-rare reversal of the situation, Akari is attempting to catch up to the legacy of her mother as a transcendent athlete.)

    Often this even goes a step further and places women in exceptional circumstances only because their male mentor-figure passed down The Specialness to her alone, and usually for the same reason: only daughter, no available males to succeed them, etc. If it weren’t for that fact, a woman in her position – whatever it is – would be unthinkable.


  7. Cryssoberyl says:

    As much as I’ve championed the show, Mouretsu Pirates isn’t completely innocent of this. How did Marika become a pirate captain? Her father was one, and she inherited it. The only reason she’s in this situation is because there was no other candidate.

    However, Marika makes up for this in spades by totally owning the role she’s thrust into, and on her own terms. Despite the reputation her father clearly carries, she never the slightest bit preoccupied with a need to stand up to his legacy, or to emulate his style of captaincy. (Indeed, to me she actually shows an understandable element of disinterest toward the father she basically never knew.) Rather than that, she’s passionately focused on becoming the best captain she can be with her own strength, her own ideas, and in her own way.

    Another great example I can think of off the top of my head is Nanoha. Nanoha’s power comes purely from her own drive, her own will to succeed, her own desire for excellence. She is a powerful warrior, a strong and decisive leader, a diplomat, and a manager of people, and yet I’ve never heard anyone accuse her of “acting male”.

    Finally there’s Utena which, as with so much else, cleverly subverts the expectations that it initially plays along with. From the very beginning, we are fed the story that Utena’s princely ambitions devolve from a childhood meeting with a prince, in which she was so enchanted and awed by him that she wished to be just like him.

    Not only that, but she has even come to remember this as actually being the case (which to my mind is a pointed statement on society’s potent capability in train children to think in these terms). Her ultimate goal is stated to be a reunion with the said prince. The show even incorporates this into the duel scenes, with Utena taking on the visual aspect of Dios the male prince.

    In fact though, this is all a complete deception, and Utena’s memories of the event are a total self-fabrication. The “prince” that Utena met then was actually a broken and powerless spectre, and the decision Utena made to become a hero and save Anthy was born purely from her own self, her own mind and spirit.

    This is what she remembers at the precise moment of the show’s climax. Of the show’s many catharses, that is one that stands out very strongly to me: the moment Utena stops looking toward an idealized prince-figure and remembers that everything she has become, and everything she has sought to do, was in her own nature all along.

    Are these women “acting male”? No. They’re acting human. Acting themselves.

    (P.S. Sorry for the length, but you stumbled onto one of my hot topics. :P)

  8. @Cryssoberyl – “The only reason she’s in this situation is because there was no other candidate”

    That’s true, but…. Katou had no other direct descendants, but the story could have easily forced Marika into proving her right because she was a female descendant and was therefore out of the questions. That never happened. The fact that she was a daughter was never a question. That’s what I’m talking about – her *gender* was never at issue.

  9. Cryssoberyl says:

    That is certainly true, and there’s also the fact that presumably, her father came upon the position in the same way. It was inherited rather than earned, at least initially.

    That’s why it’s only a very mild example of what I was talking about, and as I’m happy to say, the show quickly chases away those reservations.

  10. Jude M says:

    This was a great post: I’m definitely going on with BSP and back to Marimite now.

    Felix: I have to say, Last Exile: Fam stopped us cold with panty shots in the first episode, so I think it falls off the list.

  11. @Jude M – there’s that pesky “letter or spirit” of the Test. A series with otherwise awesome female characters fails to fulfill the spirit of the test when we are forced to look at crotches or breasts. This seems absolutely obvious to every woman, and yet even nice fanboys are completely befuddled by this distinction.

  12. Mendhi says:

    Marika was a very good lead. Ai was the best character IMO. It’s really nice when you’re able to stop thinking of someone as male/female and instead think of them as someone with an individual passion and life first.

    I feel that’s the real crux of all gender issues. We keep trying to force people into the same male/female containers and expect them to always act in certain ways, instead of allowing them to evolve into the individuals that they actually are.

    For example, I didn’t see Marika handling her problems in a “woman’s” way or a “man’s” way. I saw her handling her problems in “Marika’s” way. That’s why I liked her so much.

    I also liked the male characters as well, which is pretty rare for me nowadays. They also were treated as individuals who also treated everyone else like one as well.

    I was dubious at first about watching something with ‘Miniskirt’ in the title, but it turned out to be pretty good :)

  13. Anonymous says:

    This is totally unrelated to Marimite or BSP, but I still get annoyed when people imply that Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is a “strong female hero”, because she isn’t. Erk.

    Anyway, great post, Erica! ^^

  14. Anonymous says:

    “@Jude M – there’s that pesky “letter or spirit” of the Test. A series with otherwise awesome female characters fails to fulfill the spirit of the test when we are forced to look at crotches or breasts.”

    …and then there’s How to Train Your Dragon, the movie version. Viewers aren’t forced to look at crotches or breasts if they want to keep watching, and the whole story still revolves around a boy and the dragon he presumes is male and his father, and one line between two of the girls still makes it technically pass the test:

    Then in the sequel short “The Gift of the Night Fury” those two girls have another brief exchange that makes it technically pass the test (this time not only not about a guy but about a dragon presumed female).

  15. Anonymous says:

    BTW, about the dragons in HTTYD being “presumed male” and “presumed female”, in “Gift” there’s this non-Bechdel exchange about one of them:

    “…barfed up some rocks!”
    “You’re such an idiot. Those aren’t rocks. Your dragon laid eggs.”
    “[a 3rd person says something else]”
    “But, boy dragons don’t lay eggs.”
    “Yeah. Your ‘boy’ dragon is a *girl* dragon.”
    “Oh- OKAY! That actually explains a few things…”

    All the *other* dragons, sure they get called “he” or “she” but we viewers don’t know if the human characters are getting that right or wrong and we don’t know which of the other dragons with babies are mommies and which of the other dragons with babies are daddies.

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