I had my first crush when I was in the first grade. He was older than I, with wavy brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and pecs of steel. He wore a red cape with a big “S” on his chest. I first laid eyes on him one night at the Holiday Theater in downtown San Marcos in December of 1978. He was Superman—the hot Christopher Reeve Superman—and he swept me off my feet. In my daydreams, I was Lois Lane, and he would fly me through the clouds and past the moon, just without that creepy/cheesy Margot Kidder voiceover (“Can you read my mind? Do you know what it is that you do to me? I don’t know who you are. Just a friend from another star.”) Shudder.
“Superman” was my first crush, but it’s also where my love affair with superhero movies started. I never read comics, but I devoured these stories when they were delivered to me in film format. I’m especially passionate about the back stories: the hero’s journey from mere mortal to having super powers, the transition from flawed human being to flawed being with amazing abilities and the grave responsibilities that come with having tremendous power.
My family and I watched several superhero movies last year, and I enjoyed them all. Our summer started with a family outing to The Rialto to see X-Men: Days of Future Past and ended there with the fantastic Guardians of the Galaxy. We rented Captain America: Winter Soldier via Red Box. For Eleanor’s 11th birthday we hosted an Avengers watching party on a giant screen in our living room, complete with popcorn and movie candy. My daughters and I recently sat slack-jawed at Big Hero 6. Imagine my giddiness when I realized that this robot movie was, in fact, a superhero robot movie!
But my mind was recently blown by something I saw on Facebook that challenged my passion for the genre. It is called “An Illustrated Guide to Superhero Movies that Pass the Bechdel Test.” I’d never heard of the Bechdel Test, and I was intrigued. The Bechdel Test asks a simple question: does a particular work of fiction (in this case, a film) feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man? A staggering number of films (not just superhero moves) fail this basic test. Of the five superhero movies I mention above, only ONE of them passed the Bechdel Test, and it wasn’t the PG-rated Big Hero 6. And all this concerns me, because TV and movies are powerful stuff, and I’m raising four kids (two teenage twin stepsons and two tweenage daughters) in a world where women and the complexities of their personalities are vastly underrepresented in the stories they consume.
My daughters and I have been watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix for the past couple of months, and I think it appeals to us so much because it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. We are only into the second season, and the most recent episode we watched centered, in part, on a big fight between 30-something Lorelai and her dear friend, Sookie (played by the adorable Melissa McCarthy, before she got so famous). The fight was not about a guy, but about their plans to open a business together.
Gilmore Girls first aired in October 2000 on the WB and ran for seven seasons. I missed it the first time around, but I love experiencing it with my daughters. The female characters are multi-faceted, and the show’s story lines orbit around a solid mother-daughter relationship (more like a best friendship than a traditional mother-daughter bond) between Lorelai and her 16-year-old daughter, Rory. It also explores the generational bonds between Lorelai and her mother, Emily, as well as Rory’s relationship with her grandmother. Rory is a bright and motivated teenager who strikes me as a healthy role model for any teenager today. Rory’s best friend, Lane, is Korean-American, and Lorelai’s best friend is a successful chef. Smart women of various ages, races, national origins, shapes, and sizes are all represented in non-stereotypical ways. Teenage pregnancy, peer pressure, cliques, alcohol and drug use, class issues, and other similar coming-of-age themes are featured in the show, giving my daughters and me a springboard to safely and organically discuss topics that might ordinarily be difficult or contrived to raise.
I’m not going to swear off my superhero movies. I’m crazy about them, and I’ll continue to take my kids to them. But I’m hopeful that more and more of them will feature at least one female heroine of substance, because the more female superheroes there are in movies, the more opportunities there are for these women to reveal themselves as complex and remarkable characters that girls can relate to or aspire to be. And I’m also going to continue to think critically about the stuff our kids watch and try to be with them when they are watching it so that we can talk about it together. I want to be mindful of whether the stuff my kids are consuming passes the Bechdel Test and to encourage my family to be responsible consumers of films and TV shows that challenge our notions of what men and women should and can be.