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30May/1211

Women in Comics: DC vs Marvel, The Bechdel Test

The lower percentage of women creators in superhero comics has been well documented, but what about the portrayal of women characters? Since Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel Test in her famous comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For, which provided an easy way to determine gender bias in films, the test has also been used for other media, including comics. While the automatic assumption of many might be that superhero comics would fail this test miserably, my results may well surprise you. DC for example not only outscore Marvel, but perform better for women than they do for men.

The Bechdel Test is very simple. To pass, a title must have two women characters appear, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. Some would argue that we can expect certain titles not to pass if they are very male dominated by story limitations, and so to counter balance I have also conducted a Reverse Bechdel Test on each of my titles. To pass, a title must have two male characters appear, who talk to each other, about something other than a woman. A team book such as X-Factor could reasonably be expected to perform equally on each test. A male dominated title such as The Mighty Thor could reasonably be expected to pass the Reverse and not the standard. And so then perhaps a female dominated title such as Batgirl could be expected to pass the standard and fail the Reverse. And all those expectations would be incorrect.

DC vs Marvel, The Bechdel Test

Given that the Bechdel Test requires reading each comic thoroughly, I have had to limit this test to my own 'big publisher' reading list (along with some borrowed from generous friends) - 8 DC titles, 8 Marvel titles, alongside Walking Dead, Chew and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So please consider this a Bechdel Test on a sample that this woman in particular likes to read (the DC picks are my regulars, alogng with the Best of the Rest titles at the bottom).

I have sampled the most recent 6 issues of each title (issue numbers detailed below) that I have to hand, all of them as recent as possible. If anyone would like me to expand my sample, I'm happy for someone else to buy them!

NB - the Bechdel Test is useful for showing overall gender bias, and a low score on any one title is not necessarily indicative of a deliberate effort to remove women, nor is it a comment on the quality of the title or the individual portrayal of women characters. By conducting the Reverse Test I hope to show that we can use these Tests together to measure overall bias, and to be fair to each individual title.

Thanks as always to Red Hot Comics for keeping up the supply, and prodding me when I always forget to order.

DC

First up is DC, comprised almost entirely of my own pull list: Action Comics, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman, Demon Knights, I Vampire, and Wonder Woman. DC have a strong showing for female led titles, and Action Comics, Catwoman, Demon Knights and I Vampire are my favourite ongoings right now. Looking at 6 recent issues of each title, the percentage that passed the Bechdel Test for DC is 64.3%. The percentage that passed the Reverse Bechdel Test is 61.9%. While the former result might indicate the bias of my own titles choice, the latter is interesting in that while the regular test performs higher, it's actually quite equal, which indicates a lack of overall gender bias. Let's break it down by title so you can see what's what.

Action ComicsAction Comics
By: Grant Morrison, Rags Morales
Publisher: DC
Issues tested: #3-8
Bechdel Test Pass: 0 (0%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 5 (83.3%)
In-depth: None of the issues tested pass the Bechdel Test. Issues 4 and 7 do not have two women characters, issues 5, 6 and 8 do but they don't speak to each other, and issue 3 has two women speaking to each other but about a man. Issue 4 does not pass the Reverse Bechdel Test as no two  male characters speak to each other. All other issues pass the Reverse Bechdel Test in full.  This result is indicative of a male dominated character, and is comparable with Catwoman which performs almost equally but opposite.

Animal ManAnimal Man
By: Jeff Lemire, Travel Foreman
Publisher: DC
Issues tested: #3-8
Bechdel Test Pass: 2 (33.3%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 2 (33.3%)
In-depth: This title performs equally in each test. While Animal Man has strong female and male characters, they tend to be split in pairs (eg Buddy and Maxine). This is a good example of how for a single title, the Bechdel Test doesn't tell the whole story. A pass rate of 2 out of 6 sounds bad, but the same score in the Reverse test shows that it is still balanced - unlike, for example, Action Comics or Catwoman.

BatgirlBatgirl
By: Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf
Publisher: DC
Issues Tested: #3-8
Bechdel Test Pass: 5 (83.3%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 3 (50%)
In-depth: Issues 4-8 pass the Bechdel Test, with only #3 not having two women characters speaking to each other. Issues 4, 5 and 7 pass the Reverse Bechdel Test. We could have expected this title to perform the same as Action Comics but in reverse, yet Batgirl passes the Reverse Bechdel Test in 50% of the issues sampled.

 

BatwomanBatwoman
By: JH Williams III, W Haden Blackman, Amy Reeder
Publisher: DC
Issues Tested: #3-8
Bechdel Test Pass: 6 (100%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 3 (83.3%)
In-depth: Almost the same result as Batgirl - despite being a female led title, it passes the Reverse Bechdel Test in 50% of the issues sampled. All issues passed the Bechdel Test.

 

 

CatwomanCatwoman
By: Judd Winick, Guillem March
Publisher: DC
Issues Tested: #3-8
Bechdel Test Pass: 6 (100%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 1 (16.6%)
In-depth: Almost equal but opposite to Action Comics, Catwoman passes the Bechdel Test completely and the Reverse Bechdel Test only once in our sample. Interestingly, in issues 4-7, two male characters do speak to each other but only ever about a woman - Catwoman of course - a reverse of the trope that usually has women only talking about a man. Issue 8 passes both tests.

 

Demon KnightsDemon Knights
By: Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves
Publisher: DC
Issues Tested: #3-8
Bechdel Test Pass: 6 (100%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: I'm not usually big on team books but I was hooked on this from the beginning, and it looks like an even better choice now! The only comic to pass both tests on every issue (and outside of the sample as well incidentally), this is pretty flawless from a gender bias point of view. (For the purposes of this test, the character Shining Knight was ignored.)

 

I, VampireI, Vampire
By: Joshua Hale Fialkov, Andrea Sorrentino
Publisher: DC
Issues Tested: #3-8
Bechdel Test Pass: 3 (50%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: Another of my favourites is this stylish title, which has a fairly varied cast gender wise though the main character is male. All issues sampled passed the Reverse Bechdel Test, and issues 6-8 passed the Bechdel Test. This title then is perhaps comparable with Batgirl and Batwoman reversed: a main male character yet it still passes the Bechdel test 50% of the time.

 

Wonder WomanWonder Woman
By: Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang
Publisher: DC
Issues Tested: #3-8
Bechdel Test Pass: 5 (83.3%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 5 (83.3%)
In-depth: Our first example now of a male or female led title that performs equally in each test (while Animal Man is arguably male led I think Maxine is treated as an equally important character to Buddy) and with a high score at that. Wonder Woman passes the Bechdel Test in every issue apart from 7, and the Reverse Bechdel Test in every issue apart from 3. This is in contrast to the male led Action Comics and, as we'll see below, to the male led Marvel titles.

DC: Bechdel Test

The simple graph above helps demonstrate the balance in these titles - while a couple perform hugely better in the Reverse Bechdel Test there are others that have the opposite result, and most notably, two titles that are perfectly balanced. The fact that my sample performs better in the standard Bechdel Test reflects my choice of titles: 3 female led books. Interestingly though, while two of these (Batgirl and Batwoman) achieve 50% results in the Reverse Bechdel Test, the same is not true of the most popular male led title, Action Comics. Catwoman provides a nice foil however!

Perhaps if more titles were to be tested, this balance would become undone, but it is important to note that with DC I did have a choice of female led titles, as well as team books that are well balanced. Sadly this was not the case with other big publishers.

Marvel

To Marvel next, and 8 titles picked from the bestseller list and recommended by friends: Avengers, Journey into Mystery, Mighty Thor, Moon Knight, New Avengers, Ultimate Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, and X-Factor. Had this been last year I could have included many a title with women characters or creators (Daken, X-23, Ghost Rider, Generation Hope, etc), but alas I had to turn to team books instead. There were no non-cancelled female lead books to choose.

Looking at 6 recent issues of each (that have been going that long), the percentage that passed the Bechdel Test for Marvel is 41.7%. The percentage that passed the Reverse Bechdel Test is 95.8%, and in fact only 2 issues altogether failed this latter test. The Bechdel Test figure is far lower for Marvel than for DC with a difference of a whopping 22.6%. The Reverse Bechdel Test figure is far higher for Marvel than DC with an even larger gap of 33.9%. The two tests results are wildly different, unlike the DC results. This would indicate a very large overall gender bias. Let's break it down by title.

AvengersAvengers
By: Brian Michael Bendis, Daniel Acuña
Publisher: Marvel
Issues Tested: #20-25
Bechdel Test Pass: 4 (66.6%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: Avengers performs reasonably well here with only two issues (20 and 21) failing the Bechdel Test. A little bit of margin can always be given for team titles, but it is telling that the margin is never needed in the Reverse Bechdel Test. In short, team books could be expected to be more equal but whenever there is a bias, it is always against the women characters, as we will see below.

 

Journey Into MysteryJourney Into Mystery
By:  Kieron Gillen, Mitch Breitweiser
Publisher: Marvel
Issues Tested: #633-638
Bechdel Test Pass: 3 (50%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 5 (83.3%)
In-depth: This title has a large cast of characters and a lot of internal monologuing. Issues 636-638 pass the Bechdel Test, with issue 634 not having two women characters at all. With a male main character (Loki) and 50% pass rate on the Bechdel Test is pretty good - similar to I, Vampire and equal but opposite to Batgirl and Batwoman.

 

Mighty ThorTitle: Mighty Thor
By: Matt Fraction, Pasqual Ferry
Publisher: Marvel
Issues Tested: #8-13
Bechdel Test Pass: 5 (83.3%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: Full disclosure, I adore this title. And once again the statistics back me up! This title comes second overall behind Demon Knights with only one issue (13) not passing one of the tests. For a male led title, this is a wonderful example of how any comic can easily have women characters talking to each other in a book as well as male characters talking to each other, and have it all be natural and flowing, and most importantly of all, be a bloody good read.

Moon KnightMoon Knight
By: Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev
Publisher: Marvel
Issues Tested: #7-12
Bechdel Test Pass: 1 (16.6%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: Issue 7 passes the Bechdel Test but the others do not have two women who talk to each other, and in the case of issue 9, a lack of more than one woman. Easily passing the Reverse Bechdel Test, this is comparable with Action Comics and the equal but opposite Catwoman.

 

New AvengersNew Avengers
By: Brian Michael Bendis, Mike Deodato
Publisher: Marvel
Issues Tested: #21-26
Bechdel Test Pass: 3 (50%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: For a team book we're getting a little disappointing here as it easily passes the Reverse Bechdel Test but struggles with 50% on the Bechdel Test - issues 21, 22 and 24 pass, while 25-26 do not have more than one woman in them. This is comparable with I, Vampire and the equal but opposite Batwoman, but neither of those are team books. I should note that the team does include more than one woman.

Ultimate Spider-ManUltimate Spider-Man
By: Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Samnee
Publisher: Marvel
Issues Tested: #4-9
Bechdel Test Pass: 0 (0%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: This is the result we might expect from a male led title, though as others have shown (I Vampire, Mighty Thor etc) it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. This doesn't however mean that Ultimate Spider-Man is gender biased, but unfortunately there are no equal but opposite books in the Marvel sample to balance it out. Action Comics had Catwoman, but there is no female led Marvel title to match.

Uncanny X-MenUncanny X-Men
By: Kieron Gillen, Carlos Pacheco
Publisher: Marvel
Issues Tested: #6-11
Bechdel Test Pass: 3 (50%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 5 (83.3%)
In-depth: Nearly identical to the New Avengers score but for issue 11 which fails both tests as no one speaks to anyone!  Again this is a little disappointing due to it being a team book, and perhaps particularly for it being an X-Men book - there are many great women characters to draw on. Issues 6, 9 and 10 pass the Bechdel Test, the others do not have women talking to each other.

 
X-FactorX-Factor
By: Peter David, Emanuela Lupacchino
Publisher: Marvel
Issues Tested: #231-236
Bechdel Test Pass: 1 (16.6%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: An identical result to Moon Knight, but for a team book rather than male led. Again disappointing as this is an X-Men spin-off. There is more than one woman here but they rarely talk to each other.

 

Marvel: Bechdel Test

A lot of the individual Marvel results are comparable with DC but the overall picture is very different. While DC do have titles like Action Comics that favour male characters, there are titles like Catwoman to counter balance. Marvel have the stand out Mighty Thor and the solid Avengers but alone they cannot pull the bias back. No title performs better in the Bechdel Test than the Reverse Bechdel Test, which points to the lack of female led titles, but none other than Mighty Thor come close to being equal.

Marvel do have a lot of fantastic strong women characters, but they appear far less than their male counterparts. In one or two titles this doesn't stand out as particularly unusual but when looking across the board at the entire picture, it becomes a tad worrying.

Best of the Rest

My left over titles then are Dark Horse's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Image's Chew and Walking Dead. Unsurprisingly the female led Buffy has a 100% pass rate on the Bechdel Test while the latter two struggle but pass 100% on the Reverse Bechdel Test.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9
By: Joss Whedon, Andrew Chamblis
Publisher: Dark Horse
Issues Tested: #1-6
Bechdel Test Pass: 6 (100%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 2 (33.3%)
In-depth: Buffy has a lot of strong female characters interacting, but while it has numerous male characters they seldom interact with each other. Comparable with Catwoman or the near equal but opposite I, Vampire. Unlike Catwoman the men aren't talking to each other but they are also stronger characters in their own right.

 

ChewChew
By: John Layman, Rob Guillory
Publisher: Image
Issues Tested: #21-26
Bechdel Test Pass: 3 (50%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: Pretty fairly balanced here for a male led title, issues 24-26 pass the Bechdel Test. An identical result to I, Vampire but where it does fail it is down to lack of women characters rather than lack of interaction.

 

The Walking DeadWalking Dead
By: Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard
Publisher: Image
Issues Tested: #91-96
Bechdel Test Pass: 1 (16.6%)
Reverse Bechdel Pass: 6 (100%)
In-depth: Very unbalanced for what is, for lack of a better word, a team book, this result is identical to X-Factor. There are women here but they are not interacting, while the Reverse Bechdel Test gets a 100% pass rate.

 

 

The Walking Dead is, of course, Image's topselling title, and the regular highest selling comic that isn't by DC or Marvel. Chew is a particular favourite of mine while Buffy is Dark Horse's topselling title with a varied readership. The Walking Dead is a prime example of a book that does have a handful of women characters but they are rarely portrayed together, usually singly amongst the men. Chew is a male-led title but despite that surprisingly does pass the Bechdel Test in it's more recent story arcs. It's not a huge pass but it's about what we could realistically expect for a male led title - good stuff!

 

Wrapping it Up

Buffy passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours and somewhat surprisingly doesn't pass the Reverse Bechdel Test that often. But why should this be surprising? Buffy is a female led book, and while she might have a team behind her, we wouldn't use that reasoning on a Batman title. The reality is that when a male led title fails to pass the Bechdel Test we are not surprised. It's about men after all. But when a female led title fails to pass the Reverse Bechdel Test it seems unusual. No men talking to each other about something other than a woman? What the hell?! Which is no different from all the male led titles that have no women talking to each other about something other than a man. The latter we have come to regard as normal, the former is seen as an aberration.

As for team books, realistically we should expect them to perform as well as Demon Knights. But instead, like in The Walking Dead, the women rarely talk to each other despite being as strong characters as the men. If a male led title like The Mighty Thor can manage it, surely Avengers and the various X-teams should as well?

I am hopeful that the Reverse Bechdel Test helps illustrate how straightforward the Bechdel Test really is. When we flip the genders it starts to look absurd. The gender bias that exists in the medium is no different to film and television, but that's why fans of film and TV are writing similar articles to this.

Happily, my test results came up much more positive than anyone anticipated, and I'm pretty chuffed that not only is my pull list compiled of kick-ass titles that are fun to read, they also happen to be pretty damn woman friendly. Huzzah!

Comments (11) Trackbacks (0)
  1. PS, y’all know that I love all my comics – DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, Avatar, Dynamite, etc :)

    • It’s interesting to see what this random sample shows, though I’m not surprised with the results, unfortunately. Good article.

  2. Great piece. [Typical gripe about sample size goes here.]

    I suspect using # of issues rather than % of dialogue might be a weakness too.

    I feel snobbily special for not expecting a female-led book to bomb the reverse bechdel.

  3. An amazing article, that it take me a little by surprise in some titles. This a great way to remove some prejudices that one can have about a series. Thank you for your work, i’m thinking of doing the same in chilean graphic novels.

  4. This was an interesting experiment. I’m pretty surprised by X-Factor’s scoring. I haven’t read the title in a few years, but PAD is usually known for having pretty strong female characters, and I seem to remember that being the case for X-Factor, too. Honestly, I think the titles did better than I expected them to considering the industry is so male dominated (both by characters and creators).

    In regards to Ultimate Spider-Man failing the regular test so spectactularly, that doesn’t really surprise me. The difference between this and a title like Thor is that the focus is and has always been on Peter’s (or in this case Miles’) internal conflict. “Gotta pick up a cake for Aunt May!” “Gotta save MJ!” “Gotta get some money for rent!” The focus has never been about Spidey’s supporting cast (strong though it may be). Thor on the other hand is really a title about this group of cosmic beings. If it were to just focus on Thor, it would get really boring. No one wants to read about Thor not making it to the party because he had to stop Loki from robbing the liquor store. It’s more about epic battles and the interaction between these larger than life characters (ie external) rather than inner turmoil of the main character (ie internal). Focus too much on the supporting cast in a Spider-Man title, and you run the risk of losing the feel of the title that has made it so popular.

    • X-Factor varies from arc to arc. The arc previous to the one shown here would have scored a lot higher; the arc following the one tested is showing on the solicits as kinda a Thelma and Louise cover. I think X-Factor should get a gold star or the like for it’s approach to non-traditional gender concerns.

  5. I think I would have proffered if the Marvel side was done with some female lead titles (since four of your DC comics were) so we could really see the comparison on that side. But I don’t think Marvel even has any going on right now and that says something right there.

  6. I’m surprised X-Factor didn’t do better, but sadly not surprised by the Avengers titles doing so badly.

    It’s hard to pass the bechdel test on an Avengers title when you’ve already fridged half the Marvel verse’s significant female Avengers characters. Maybe the gender imbalance in the titles would improve if Marvel pulled superheroines like the Wasp back out of the refrigerator. Or gave Ms. Marvel or She Hulk or Black Widow on-going solo titles again.

  7. I’m shocked by some of the Marvel scores. I find many of the female characters in Marvel universe strong and good female representation. I think there should’ve been female lead titles in the Mavel one.

    Then again, I am biased as I prefer Marvel over DC by a lot.

  8. This is great! I stumbled across your site when searching for “bechdel test” and “comic books.” I’m planning to use the test as part of a content analysis scheme for coding comic books and had not thought of using a reverse test to detect disparities. Thanks for sharing this research!

  9. Being a selective DC reader since the reboot, and out of touch with Marvel since the mid-nineties, I must admit I was shocked to discover that the latter has a total of zero female lead series.

    It’s also sad to see the X-titles doing so poorly, since they’ve hosted the very first female superheroes I’d ever encountered.

    Oh, and that Wonder Woman cover is ridiculous. So now I’m going to have to read the comic. Well played.

    Fascinating article, all in all.


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