I struggled to immediately think of any shows which would pass every test simultaneously (except perhaps The Great British Baking Show). Upon reflection, I was struck by how many of the shows I enjoy on a regular basis, and consider feminist, wouldn’t pass all of the tests.
A few of the suggestions offered on the thread left me skeptical, including a more recent show I have enjoyed watching – The Good Place. The conversation which ensued got me thinking about the #MeToo movement and all of the sexual assault allegations which have been surfacing in the past few months, and how misogyny and rape culture shape the types of narratives and representation which exist in popular culture.
I will begin by admitting that I have never seen Pacific Rim – I had to Google the name Mako Mori to learn the origin of this particular test for female representation. My argument against The Good Place passing the Mako Mori test is that the only reason Eleanor (or any of the other female characters) are in the Good Place to begin with is because of Michael. One could argue that Season 1 passes the test, but in Season 2, with the reveal of Michael’s plan and the expansion of his character development, the show has shifted tone. Now, a lot of the emphasis of the series is on Michael’s developing morals and the rest of the characters helping to keep up the ruse of the Good Place in order to cover up his mistakes and save him from punishment. In many ways, Eleanor’s own development is now taking a backseat to using her blossoming morality in order to teach (and protect) Michael. Eleanor’s narrative arc is supporting Michael’s now in many ways, and she is doing a lot of emotional labor for him.
I have a similar argument regarding other shows I greatly enjoy and whether they pass the Mako Mori test. Take Lost Girl – another suggestion in the original thread. The plot arc about The Wanderer shifts the narrative focus away from Bo in a similar way to how Michael’s arc is shifting the focus away from Eleanor in The Good Place. In Parks & Recreation – another suggestion – Ann’s character is originally mostly a prop serving Andy’s character development, and April similarly props up Ron. Most of the female characters outside of Leslie’s wouldn’t even pass the “Strength is Relative” test until midway through the series. Then, I started thinking about other shows I enjoy. The plot of Grace & Frankie revolves in many important ways around the relationship between Sol and Robert. The plot of Jessica Jones revolves around her relationship with Kilgrave. That isn’t to say that none of these shows have strong female characters, who are well developed. They do. And all of these shows are in their own ways feminist.
There are definitely moments in all of these shows which would pass each and every of the tests listed. So what is the bar we set? How does a show or a film pass? If one scene passes? One episode? One season? If a show grows and develops over time, do we forgive its past mistakes? If it backslides, like Lost Girl, or doesn’t take things far enough, does it still pass? If the show is self-reflective about not passing a test (like Lady Dynamite or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) what do we make of that? I don’t pretend to offer any answers, but I think a show or film could pass all of these tests and still be problematic and perpetuating misogyny in some ways.
There’s one more issue I have with The Good Place before I leave this topic, and it is what brought me to the connection to the #MeToo movement. That is the character of Janet. I argued that The Good Place doesn’t pass the Anti-Freeze test because Janet is rebooted (read: killed) so many times. I was told that it doesn’t matter because a) she isn’t a real woman, b) she doesn’t feel pain, and c) all the rebooting made her smarter. All of those reasons are based in rape culture. What makes Janet real? She isn’t human, but she’s definitely an advanced enough AI even at the beginning of the series to count as sentient. Moreover, the characters on the show grapple with their decision to reboot her initially. Even Eleanor, with her burgeoning sense of morality, knows its wrong.
Even if you wanted to argue that Janet isn’t technically a woman because she isn’t human, she looks that way. (Just like Data is an android not a man but everyone on Star Trek: TNG would know erasing his memory is wrong). She reads as a female character for the sake of representation. So, if hurting Janet doesn’t make The Good Place fail a test, then any amount of real or symbolic violence against femininity is okay as long as the subject isn’t technically a woman? That’s not something I’m comfortable saying, especially since TERFs would argue that about anti-trans violence. Plus, saying that all the reboots made Janet smarter doesn’t actually make them okay. They were still done without her consent in order to further the agenda of first Eleanor, and then Michael. That would be like saying the trauma of rape survivors isn’t relevant because now they are more resilient, or in a loving relationship, or whatever.
Arguing that Janet’s suffering is inconsequential can only be the product of internalized misogyny. Janet was made to forget that she loved and married Jason, for God’s sake. If that isn’t emotional abuse bordering on gaslighting, then I don’t know what is. The fact that Michael eventually decided that Janet was evolved enough to not deserve to have violence enacted against her in order to meet his needs… it doesn’t excuse his actions any more than an apology from any number of men who are now known to be perpetrators of sexual assault excuses them. We can’t keep forgiving men for their inexcusable behavior just because they finally managed to understand what they did was wrong. We need female characters who are strong for reasons other than overcoming the terrible things that happen to them directly because of the actions of other (especially male) characters. Can that be a test? I don’t know what we would call it.
And furthermore, forget “at least one.” We can do better than “at least one.” This new test would be that “EVERY female character has her own narrative arc which isn’t the direct result of having to grapple with and overcome an act of intentional violence/abuse (physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual; real or symbolic) or neglect by another character.”
Is there a show or movie which could pass that test, in addition to all the others?
If all of these countless women in the arts had not been sexually assaulted and had their lives and careers destroyed, maybe there might be.