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). ^_^
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.