There are some pretty great things happening in the land of female-centric cartoons these days; MLP:FiM is a hit with both men and women, and The Legend of Korra promises to deliver the ultimate in badass feminine archetypes. That being said, I’ll always have a soft spot for the heroines of my favorite 80′s cartoons, in particular She-Ra:Princess of Power (1985), Rainbow Brite (1984), and Jem (1985). However, I am well aware that the quality of such things is not always seen clearly when viewed through the lens of childhood nostalgia.
I decided to take a closer look at exactly how progressive these cartoons were, and whether that led to the construction of strong characters built to stand the test of time. As a focal point, I started with one question: Would any of these cartoons pass The Bechdel Test?
The Bechdel Test, designed to be used on movies, is simple. All it requires is a scene with two female characters in it talking about something other than a guy. It doesn’t matter if they are speaking of the male character in a non-romantic way; if what they are discussing concerns a male, it fails. It’s not a true indicator of the level of feminism in a movie; strong, female-driven movies have failed. Rather, The Bechdel Test is just one tool of many used to determine the narrative presence of female characters outside the context of men.
To test the cartoons, I took the cheerfully unacademic approach of choosing four episodes of each series at random.
She-Ra was my favorite show of the three, and I had strong expectations that it would pass for several reasons–it features a bevy of female superheroes living in a castle together, after all. Princess Adora, She-Ra’s alter ego, has the hardcore profession of being a leader of rebel forces. Her main male nemesis, Hordak, often steps aside to let his evil female minions Catra, Scorpia and Shadow Weaver do the dirty work of thwarting She-Ra. However, despite these strengths, only one of the four episodes passed.
Two of those four episodes, “Sea Hawk” and “Return of Sea Hawk,” concern She-Ra’s budding romance with a pirate (the Sea Hawk in question). Those were destined to fail as so much of the content revolves around Princess Adora/She-Ra trying to convince him to join her in fighting against the Horde, whilst also broadcasting her romantic availability.
The third episode I watched, “Into the Dark Dimension,” failed because She-Ra and Hordak spend most of it trapped in an alternate dimension, with only each other and a judgmental demon to talk to. Finally, in the episode that passed, “The Anxious Apprentice,” a female apprentice of Castaspella’s steals the Book of Spells so she can gallivant around Etheria practicing her magic. This allows for several male-free interactions between Castaspella, She-Ra, Scorpia, and the apprentice.
Despite its fail rate, She-Ra seemed to be a positive role model for girls. Even in the two episodes flavored with hints of romance, She-Ra is presented as being fairly self-sufficient, rescuing others more than she needs rescuing. The creators endeavored to have her battle enemies through means other than melee combat, and that’s certainly the case for the episodes I watched. While it’s a little odd that she is endowed with super strength (and a magic sword!) but never lays a hand of her enemies, utilizing the objects around her instead, she still gets the job done. One other thing I feel needs to be pointed out; unless ethnic variation is marked solely by hair color, Etheria is a white, white place.
I had even foggier memories of Rainbow Brite, so very little expectation. As a protagonist, Rainbow Brite shares some similarities with She-Ra in that they both occupy the leadership role of a kingdom, live in castles, and have talking horse sidekicks. However, all four episodes I selected (“Peril in the Pits,” “Beginning of Rainbowland,” “Mom,” and “The Queen of the Sprites.”) of Rainbow Brite failed.
There are several reasons for this, and the aforementioned horse issue is a big one. Starlite is a pretty awesome talking horse as talking horses go, but he and Rainbow Brite are inseparable.
Also, the color kids seem to be somewhat useless most of the time, not fully developed characters, so there are less opportunities for any two of the female ones to interact.It doesn’t help that, unlike She-Ra and Jem which featured at least some prominent female antagonists, the two main villains in Rainbow Brite are male.
Still, Rainbow Brite had better production values than I remembered, at least in comparison to She-Ra. The animation seems smoother and the writing appropriately whimsical. Rainbow Brite herself is spunky, and a natural leader who is very concerned with doing the right thing for Rainbowland. The color kids, while underdeveloped, at least actually mix it up a bit in terms of represented ethnicities.
Jem ended up surprising me the most. Three out of the four episodes passed. For those of you who don’t remember the premise, Jerrica Benton is a young woman whose father dies, leaving her with half of his record label, a derelict halfway house for girls, and a hologram named Synergy who has the ability to ‘transform’ Jerrica and her friends into the truly outrageous musical group “Jem and the Holograms.” (Yup, that’s a premise if I ever heard one.)
I watched the first three episodes, “The Beginning,” “Disaster,” and “Kimber’s Rebellion,” in order, then skipped to an episode, “The Middle of Nowhere,” in the second season that took the girls to Alaska.
A couple of things worked in Jem’s favor as far as the test was concerned; first, there’s just an abundance of female characters, and Jem is not paired with a sidekick that is male. Second, while Eric (the greedy suit trying to wrest control of the company from Jem’s hands) is technically the main villain, Jem has a lot of interaction with the Misfits (her catty musical group rivals) when Eric is not around.
But in general, Jem is an odd mixture. There are some good things; the episode that takes place in Alaska is very anti-environmental destruction. (Eric intends to develop the land in a way that will affect the local seal population and that is BAD because the seals are awesome and save people from imminent death…seriously.)
However, there is arguably the most awkward romantic content in Jem. Jerrica is dating Rio, who is unaware that Jem and Jerrica are the same person. Rio is then plagued by feelings of guilt over his strange almost-cheating dalliances with Jem, who somehow never gets around to telling him that she is really Jerrica. So that’s lame. And despite being reasonably capable and willful, Jem does find herself in positions where Rio has to rescue her from physical danger quite often (at least at the beginning of the series).
As far as inclusiveness goes, two out of the four holograms are minorities. There is a weird moment in one of the episodes where the drummer, Shana, seems to get automatically paired off with the only other black character they decided to draw that week, but thankfully it’s not the focus of the show.
Overall, despite the success or fail rate of the shows, I found them to be less cringe-worthy than I anticipated. The heroines all possess a certain strength of character that will keep them in the collective pop culture consciousness for a long time to come.
By today’s standards, they are certainly cheesy, but they are imbued with some of the necessary attributes that led to the present triumph of the Rainbow Dashes and Korras of the animated world today.