Alison Bechdel, Bechdel Test, Book Review, Comics, Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Faith, Fan Culture, Fans, Feminism, Ghostbusters, graphic novel, Harbinger Vol. 1, Kate McKinnon, Kristin Wiig, Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Narratives, Sandman, story, Stranger Things, Valiant, Watchmen, Zephyr
The other day a friend of mine wanted to know my feelings about the new Ghostbusters film, specifically if I wanted to see it because I was a feminist. I explained in my first response that the reason I wanted to see the film was not solely because I was a feminist, but because I love the Ghostbusters franchise period. Anything that mixes working-class mentalities with science fiction have always fascinated me, and while the characters in the original film were mostly college professors their work ethic, coupled with a desire to make a little bit of money along the way, reminded me a lot of my mom and dad who operated their own business. The film was one of a handful of Robin Williams and Bill Murry VHS tapes my parents seemed to have an unlimited supply of, and Ghostbusters was fun to watch because both Mom and Dad had memories connected to the film, and when I was younger I wanted to be like them. The film was also, let’s be fair, really fun to watch(except for the scene where Sigourney Weaver gets groped by the hands in the chair before the dog pops up, that scene freaked me out).
Looking at the new Ghostbusters movie I was compelled to see the film because, the awful looking CGI aside, the film was a Ghostbusters movie and it also sported four actresses who’s work I appreciated immensely: Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and best of all Leslie Jones. My friend understood my qualms, but argued, at length, that the film wasn’t really helping feminism. There were still other issues like wage inequality and workplace harassment, and having a lousy movie with an all-woman cast wasn’t going to actually contribute any real solutions to the problems women face.
To this I didn’t have any objections because there wasn’t anything to object to. The only argument I could make in favor of the film having an all-female cast was not so much about economic feminism, but rather cultural feminism.
The reader at some point may have heard, or come across in something they read, of something called “The Bechdel Test.” I could write out the explanation of the test, but since I adore Alison Bechdel (obsession is probably a different and far more applicable term) and relish every opportunity to show off her work I thought I would just cite the actual comic that created the test in the first place. It’s a panel from her comic series Dykes to Watch Out For:
This ten panel comic has had a tremendous impact upon film criticism, much to the annoyance of some film experts and fan boys online. The usual attack against the Bechdel Test is that it is designed to create a gynocentric film industry that seeks to eliminate men from film, and the other is that several great films fail this test while other lousy films win it. Looking at the first criticism of the test I can only laugh due to the sheer absurdity of the premise. Looking at the second complaint I’m a little more sympathetic. The problem with the Bechdel Test is that it can quickly create an eschewed perspective that if a film fails the test that it is faulty, but looking at a few films this becomes absurd: The King’s Speech, All the President’s Men, Pulp Fiction, Duck Soup, Reservoir Dogs. All of these films share the common characteristics of having largely all male or mostly male casts, but looking at the first film it won best picture in 2010. A film like Planet Terror in direct contrast, a film which involves zombies and a Go-Go dancer with a machine gun for a leg, actually passes the Bechdel test and this is the point.
I offered up an assessment to a friend of mine who works at the library and who was helping me find some books, that the Bechdel Test is not designed, or should not be designed, to shame films or suggest certain films are crap. The test is designed to challenge the individual who tries the test against most of the films they watch to see how well women are represented in said films. The test tries to help show that often the largest problem with women in cinema is not a lack of presence, it’s a lack of real representation.
Looking back to my friend and Ghostbusters this was the argument I offered up to her as to why a film like Ghostbusters did offer a vital feminist statement. It doesn’t matter if the cast is all women, what matters is that this all women cast offers up the chance to widen the representation of women in film which is often lacking. Thinking of this I thought of a book I’ve been reading lately that offers up a similar avenue of discussion, for like film, the medium of comics sometimes lacks in accurate and honest representation of female characters, particularly in the form of real body types.
I became aware of the character of Faith when my friend Michael lobbied for a Valiant book to be the book of the week of the Graphic Novel Appreciation Society. This would eventually become a joke in the group since every week his “Happy Thing” usually has something to do with Valiant, and whenever we do a Valiant book he wears a t-shirt of one of the characters from the universe. Faith appeared in Harbinger Vol 1., a book that I enjoyed but didn’t love, and it’s a testament to her character and the writing that she remains the brightest part of that graphic novel. Valiant recently got around to giving her her own book and so I finally bought it actually exited to dig into the material.
Faith is a psiot, an individual capable to manipulated the space and natural laws around her with her mind. In the case of Faith, superhero name Zephyr, secret identity name Summer, she is able to fly, create psionic shield barriers and even push people as if manipulating the wind. Think sort of a Mrs. Fantastic from Fantastic 4, only, well, interesting and interested in Dr. Who, STAR WARS, and Star Trek. The book Faith is about her settling into a journalism job in Los Angeles, where she actually works on Click Bait reviewing reality shows and celebrity scandals, where she uncovers a plot by an ancient race of aliens who despise humanity for their bland and wanton destruction of the natural environment. Did I mention the aliens were plants? Because that’s kind of important, but not really.
Much like the graphic novel Flashpoint, which I reviewed for my own site a while back, my ultimate assessment of Faith is that, while it may not be an artistic effort in the same caliber as Watchmen or The Sandman series, it is a good story that doesn’t feel weak after reading it. The metaphor a few of my friends will use is “popcorn movie” in honor of films like Star Wars and Jaws, both films that, while they may not be in the same vein as their contemporary periods greats (Taxi Driver, Deliverance, Network, Easy Rider, etc.) they do a damn good job of entertaining the audience and occasionally giving the viewer something to think about. Faith is about being a superhero, but throughout her book her love of nerd culture is the central defining character trait she possesses.
Faith is not Batman in terms of genius, Flash in terms of super speed, or even Wonder Woman in terms of making you wish there was more of Wonder Woman in Batman Vs. Superman, instead she’s just a woman who enjoys watching science fiction shows on television and trying to be a good person. Best of all the fact that she doesn’t look like Wonder Woman or Scarlet Witch or Catwoman or Harley Quinn isn’t even discussed.
There’s one page however that offers a beautiful moment, not just for Faith personally, but for the reader experiencing her story:
Faith lost both of her parents as a child, so perhaps she’s not that different from Batman, but before they passed they shared with her their love of comics, science fiction, and general nerdity, and as the last panel demonstrates that love of stories kept their memory alive in her. Growing up my parents watched Ghost Busters and Star Wars with me, and while I would watch the movies (and memorize them to impress friends and family later) I would ask my parents what a movie was like in theatres, or if they enjoyed the movie when it came out, and so these stories would assume surrounding or satellite stories that connected more emotion and meaning to me personally.
With that in hand I look back to Ghostbusters and my friend’s comments. I didn’t get a chance to see Ghostbusters in theatres (my wife adopted a puppy and my best friend started up a YouTube channel he wanted me to help him develop) but even after the film comes out and I’m disappointed or pleasantly surprised by it, I’ll stand by my argument. A lot of young men grew up watching the Ghostbuster’s movie with their mom and dads and created nostalgia around it, but so did plenty of young women who have grown up now and would like to share the film franchise with their own little girls.
A book like Faith doesn’t solve the nuanced problems facing millions of women in the workplace, nor does it resolve the amount of sexual assault that takes place in the United States Armed Services, nor does it provide a blueprint for fixing the fact that only around 50 women in the United States congress have to represent half of the nation’s population, but begin your pardon no book could do that. What Faith does is present a real woman, without gimmick or hype, who is in fact one of us: a nerd, a dork, a geek. For girls who grew up and weren’t cheerleaders, or beauty queens, or star athletes, for girls who simply wanted to hang out, play some D&D or watch Star Trek, Faith is a real hero because she does something more important than trying to solve all the problems in the world: she just tries to be a good person and have a little fun watching Stranger Things with her boyfriend.
A hero can’t save everything or everyone, but they can, in their own way, represent us in ways so that we realize we may not need heroes. We may find out we’re the hero we always wanted to be already.
While Stranger Things isn’t actually brought up in the graphic novel, in fact Faith was written at least a year before that show came out, I could still see Faith watching it because how could you not that show is amazing. Seriously. Watch it….Why aren’t you watching it? Stephen King likes it and he’s freaking Stephen King!