labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
janvier / juin 2013  -janeiro / junho 2013


It's a Woman's World

Erica Friedman




In 1985, as part of her "Dykes to Watch Out For" cartoon series, cartoonist Alison Bechdel proposed a 3-step rule for identifying whether women in a movie were fully fleshed out characters ore merely props for the male characters. In this article, two popular Japanese animation series based on novels are held up to the "Bechdel Test." By doing so, we can identify the qualities of plot and character development that makes these series stand out as positive media representatives of "strong woman" that are completely unlike the "strong women" portrayed in mainstream media.


Key-words: cartoon, women, japanese animation



Recently, I was able to watch a Japanese animated series that was delightful in every possible way. As I thought it over as I was to write a final review of it on Okazu[1], a blog on which I discuss Japanese animation, I started to think about the qualities that made this series stand out for me - and what, specifically, that meant in terms of storytelling.  Ultimately, I started thinking about how this series, and others, portrayed women.

The series , known in Japanese as Mouretsu Space Pirates , is taken from a series of Light Novels titled "Miniskirt Pirates"   [2]  and in English, is known as Bodacious Space Pirates .  [3]

To begin with, I had read, Broad Recognition's a really excellent review of Pixar's movie Brave  [4], in which they discuss something that any woman in the corporate world 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'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, Brave's heroine, like other heroine's portrayed in Japanese manga and anime, Ermina from Paros no Ken    [5], Safire from Princess Knight  [6] and Lady Oscar from Rose of Versailles   [7], excels at men's skills, in a world that pretty much has one path to excellence - being as brave and competent as a man.

In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel  created a comic strip titled "the Rule" in which her character, Mo, proposes a three-part test for whether she would watch a movie. These criteria are no known generally as  Bechdel Test   [8]  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    [9], 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 anime series, Bodacious Space Pirates and Maria-sama ga Miteru10   [10]?


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 any of the 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 given the opportunity to do them.

In Bodacious Space Pirates, protagonist 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 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 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 Bechdel 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 anime series, if I were to ask, "What was the beach episode about?" the only real answer would be is "It was about reducing the female characters to a series of sexualized visual images."

When we think about the episode in question, the plot was the trial run for the dinghy race, but it was truly about a minor character, Ai-chan. In any other series, it would have been unlikely to have an entire episode focus on a relatively unimportant character like Ai-chan.

She might neverhave been developed as more than a name at all. In that same episode, there was no attempt to turn Marika or any of the characters into a pair of jiggling boobs.  Yes, we saw the female characters in bathing suits...but we also saw the one male character in that episode, 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'. It would have been hideously easy (and hideous) to simply stare up the characters' 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 in question 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!   [11]These women have society12     [12], which is, in my reading of it, the meaning of the third and final criteria of the Bechdel 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 a woman.

Would Bechdel's Mo watch these? I think she might.



Erica Friedman is the President and Founder of Yuricon & ALC Publishing( see details) She is also President of Yurikon LLC for Social Media Without Delusion. LGBT and Geek Marketing Consultant. Proud to be a Master of Library Service. She writes the world's oldest and most comprehensive blog on lesbian-themed Japanese cartoon, comics and related media at Okazu. She writes about Social Media Marketing at SocialOptimized.



[2] Miniskirt Pirates, Written by Yūichi Sasamoto, illustrated by Noriyuki Matsumoto, Asahi  Shimbun, 2008-present.

[3] Bodacious Space Pirates, Satelight, Sentai Filmworks, 2012, 2013

[5] Written by Kaoru Kurimoto, Illustrated by Yumiko Igarashi, Published by Kadokawa Shoten, Chuokoron-Shinsha, 1986-7.

[6] Osamu Tezuka, Published by  Kodansha, 1953 6.

[7] Riyoko Ikeda, Published by Shueisha, 1972-3.

[9] Private correspondence, July 23-24, 2010.

[10] 10 Konno Oyuki, Published by Shueisha, 1998-present. Studio Deen,  Nozomi Entertainment. 2004-2010

[11] Written by Sakurako Kimino, Illustrated by Chitose Maki, Published by MediaWorks, 2003-2005. Madhouse, Media Blasters, 2006, 2008.

[12], February 12, 2012.



labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
janvier / juin 2013  -janeiro / junho 2013