Saturday, September 08, 2007

Because I'm a Numbers Kind of Person

So, I have a lot to say about Heroes, but for now I'm just going to give you some raw stats, inspired by the Mo Movie Measure/Bechdel Test

(because I'm that much of a dork) I kept track of the number of conversations between different characters throughout some early episodes. The raw data is below, use the following as a key:

O - female hero

o - female character with name (Non-Hero)

X - male Hero

x - male character with name (Non-Hero)

A note about classifications/terms before we get going: The idea is to separate main characters and supporting characters. Since the title of the show is Heroes, all Heroes are main characters, most Non-Heroes are supporting. Ando may have more lines than Sylar, but the story is ultimately about Sylar and the other Heroes, not Ando. For this same reason, the Man With the Glasses counts as a Hero even though he isn't one at all because we know his actions are fundamental to the overall plot (not just Claire's) even before we know who he is.

Several Eventual Heroes were classified as Non-Heroes because they are not yet known as Heroes. We may guess that there's more going on than we know for sure, but until we know for sure, they count as Non-Heroes because their story-lines are really all about the Heroes in their lives.

Conversation means that the two people must either both speak or interact. The Haitian has yet to speak, but he interacts in ways that require a response and his obvious Hero status makes him more than just a tool even if he has yet to act like more than a tool. Niki never talks to Hiro and Ando, though, although we know it's her on the other side of the door. Likewise, in one scene Claire's mother calls her, but Claire doesn't respond to her.

Conversations that include more than one person got counted more than once. For example, when Peter and Isaac are talking, and then Peter also talks to Hiro on the phone, who is talking to Ando as well - that's four conversations. If the Non-Hero isn't named by the end of the episode, they weren't counted for that episode, even if they get a name in later episodes. (ie, Linderman's rep doesn't have a name when she talks to Niki, but she does when she talks to Nathan.) I also kept record of when Heros had a scene by themselves, such as Claire waking up in the morgue. Scenes that lasted over episodes were counted twice only if significantly more time was added to the scene. Again, such as Claire waking up in the morgue.

I used just "men and women" instead of men and boys and women and girls" for brevity. Characters that don't have names don't get counted at all, because their role is closer to that of a prop. Such as all of Nathan's aides, who exist just to as window dressing to show that he really is running for something. Tina counts as a name (no matter how much I dislike her), Mother-in-Law or Police Officer or Coach or High Roller doesn't. (Although I think I may have accidentally counted a few of those, so feel free to correct my counts as needed.)

"One Giant Leap"

total conversations: 38

OO: none

XX: 8

OX: 1

Oo: 3

Xx: 4

Ox: 5

Xo: 13

oo: none

xx: 1

ox: 1

O: 1

X: 2

o: none

x: none

Total conversations with women: 23

Total conversations without women: 15

Total conversations with men: 25

Total conversations without men: 4

Total conversations with female Heroes: 10

Total conversations without female Heroes: 29

Total conversations with male Heroes: 33

Total conversations without male Heroes: 11


total conversations 39

OO: none

XX: 14

OX: 4

Oo: 3

Xx: 1

Ox: 5

Xo: 7

oo: none

xx: none

ox: none

O: 3

X: 2

o: none

x: none

Total conversations with women: 22

Total conversations without women: 17

Total conversations with men: 33

Total conversations without men: 6

Total conversations with female Heroes: 15

Total conversations without female Heroes: 24

Total conversations with male Heroes: 28

Total conversations without male Heroes: 11


31 total conversations

OO: none

XX: 13

OX: 2

Oo: 3

Xx: 2

Ox: 4

Xo: 5

oo: none

xx: none

ox: none

O: none

X: 2

o: none

x: none

Total conversations with women: 14

Total conversations without women: 17

Total conversations with men: 28

Total conversations without men: 3

Total conversations with female Heroes: 9

Total conversations without female Heroes: 22

Total conversations with male Heroes: 24

Total conversations without male Heroes: 7

Just to highlight what I think often gets missed in the blur of debating storylines:

There are on average (based on these three episodes) only about 4 conversations per episode that don't include men but about 16 conversations that don't include women. Out of 36 total. And that's before we start talking about topic of conversation, length, etc. The really scary thing is I strongly suspect that's better than average, especially considering the genre and medium.

Let me repeat, only one tenth of the conversations are without men, but nearly half of the conversations didn't include any women at all.

How can that not be shocking? I had to keep checking my basic addition to make sure it was right.

There are never more conversations with female Heroes than there are without them.

There are never fewer conversations with male Heroes than there are without them.

We aren't talking about a small difference, but an average of twice as many conversations without female Heroes as with, and three times as many conversation with male Heroes as without. While women overall are slightly better represented, that means that a significant number of the conversations that women participate in are not even about them.* After all, did we ever learn anything about Simone at all before she died, except the ways in which she was related to the Heroes?

When the numbers are as stark as they are, how can people question how this affects what women and girls believe they are capable of doing? For a show whose hook ultimately lies in it's ability to inspire us dream about being a Hero ourselves (made explicitly clear in the scene where the little boy in the cape watches Peter try to fly) lack of diversity is a huge drawback. I find Niki's storyline insanely annoying from start to finish. It bugs me even more than it should because the fact that she is only one of two female Heroes to choose from means that there are fewer female characters written in ways to make us identify with them.

And can you honestly say that the men of this world would not notice if those numbers reversed? That they would still argue that we should identify with only with characteristics, never with gender? In my experience, they tend to label such stories "chick" lit/movies, etc. even before knowing what it's about.

I love Heroes, but I hate it too. I didn't do this just to complain about it, but to figure out why I such a great show annoys me so often. This is one of the reasons: I don't exist for half the conversations and only half of those are actually about me. It would be one thing if this were Numbers (which I strongly suspect does better when it comes to women overall) but it's not, it's an ensemble show, not a show about two brothers. There's no thematic reason for it to be the way it is; the only reason is sexism.

*Do not try to argue - for example - that the (early) scenes with Nathan and Peter's Mom are about her rather than them. Nathan makes it pretty clear that it's all about him and, as I said before, the name of the show implies that he's at least half right.


Just to clarify. The idea of this project was to try to quantity the quality of characters, not the quantity (which is pretty obvious). Thus, when I talk about conversation not including men/women, that doesn't mean that men/women are not in that scene, or even that they don't have named, speaking part in that scene. Claire and her parents talking gets counted as Oo, OX, and Xo. So a lot of the conversations that only include men/women, really include the other as well. However, when there are so few interactions between female characters, and most of the conversations include male main characters in some way, it's not a giant leap to realize that there does end up being a lot of scenes where women are completely absent (the four way phone conversation or some of the Nathan/Peter scenes) and not many where men are completely absent. Most Oo conversations actually at some point included at least one man - usually a named, speaking part. Claire and her mother talking in the first episode make a notable exception that isn't counted here.

Mostly, I did this in response to the fact that it seems obvious to me that the creators/writers were actually trying to to not exclude women, but weren't completely getting that adding secondary female characters that converse with male main characters doesn't even come close to cutting it. Especially when they they can't seem to imagine women existing without men. At least not together, anyway. Women get a lot of screen time, but they are rarely the focus of the plot and even when they are they have to share the focus with men more then men have to share it with them.


Melanie S. said...

Did you keep track of the numbers of male and female characters in each episode? That in itself is a problem, but there are (IIRC) more male characters than female, so we'd expect numbers--not quite this bad, but similar, were every Hero and every supporting character given equal screen time.

And just checking in that you knew about the mini-comics that were published on the NBC Heroes site. They're canon, as far as I can tell, and mostly give backstory/missing scenes. Some are better than others. The site crashes my browser so I can't check if they're still up, but you might enjoy them.

Anon, A Mouse said...

One problem I have with dissecting things with numbers like this, is that there's no connection with the way things operate in the real world. The assumption seems to be that out in normal-land, conversations are equally divided amongst different types of pairings. This may be, but then again, maybe not. There's no study on the subject I know of.

Mickle said...


No. The idea was to try to measure the quality of characters more than the number of characters. It's really easy to count the number of female characters and pretend that makes things equal - or at least approaching it. But that's not always the case.

The idea of the Mo Movie Measure is that if a show doesn't have two named female characters who converse with each other about something other than their relationships with men, then it's really all about men no matter how many women have speaking parts.

However, trying to keep track of what their conversations were about was too complicated. Partly because I couldn't figure out how to quantify the fact that Matt's conversations with his wife are all about him or his relationship with her (we get, like, one line about what she does - which is made because it pertains to how he feels) but Niki's conversations with Micah and D. L. are more likely to include information about their lives outside of her (D. L.'s job and troubles with the law, Micah's schooling). Since the mindset that causes this also tends to impact things like the number of conversations in which women participate, the number of conversations among women, and the number of conversations between female main characters, the idea is to use those numbers as a starting point to later talk about, for example, why Niki's storyline sucks so much - and what can be done in the future to avoid such obvious problems.


There have been studies, and the real studies show that in mixed gender conversations men talk more - because women get talked over more and people perceive anything approaching equality in such situations as favoring women.

In non-mixed conversations, why the hell would there be a difference? Especially such a huge difference? To the point where women pretty much never talk to each other? How does that jive with anyone's real life experiences? Much less the stereotypes that get referred to as "common knowledge"?

Again, we aren't talking about small differences, we are talking about 1/3 of the conversations are between male Heroes and none are between female Heroes. Women rarely converse with each other on the show, and when they do it's never about more than one of them.

I can see nitpicking the idea if the ratios weren't so stark because it isn't a very exact way of measuring anything. But the idea that, just because we don't have a study showing that women actually talk to each other on occasion, we shouldn't pay attention to such a huge imbalance on quality of characters and plot focus - please. This was a half-assed project I threw together in couple of days. There's got to be more substantial complaints you can throw at it than that.

Mickle said...

ps - melanie, I didn't know about the mini-comics, thanks. I'll go check them out soon.

Anon, A Mouse said...

"There's got to be more substantial complaints you can throw at it than that."

That would be assuming I was really all that interested in picking it apart. Actually, if you'd explained it in the first place like you did in your reply, I probably wouldn't have said anything at all.

My only caveat is that I don't see writing as something that always lends itself to breaking down and measuring stats. A story doesn't always need an equal balance (of whatever) to serve the story's purpose. But this is where I add the disclaimer that I've never actually seen Heroes and I don't have any opinion on that matter.

Mickle said...

"A story doesn't always need an equal balance (of whatever) to serve the story's purpose."

Of course not. And apparently you didn't see fit to read what I wrote in the first place either, so whatever.

"But this is where I add the disclaimer that I've never actually seen Heroes and I don't have any opinion on that matter."

For someone without an opinion on the matter, you have a lot to say about it.

Lyle said...

I'll probably have more to say later, but you've found a nice way to quantify the significance of male vs. female characters on HEROES.

Honestly, I'm a bit worried about the upcoming season since Bryan Fuller has moved on to his own show. Fuller created some of my favorite female characters in the past and, reportedly, was responsible for the initial planning on Claire's story, so I worry some of that quality will go away.

Anna said...

This is why I don't watch Heroes.

Anon, A Mouse said...

"Of course not. And apparently you didn't see fit to read what I wrote in the first place either, so whatever."

Aaah, whatever yourself. I found this through When Fangirls Attack, read it, and my first impression was that you were mostly saying "OMG more men then women say stuff!" Which, frankly, big deal. Imbalances of that sort happen all the time even in ensemble pieces, and it isn't all sexism.

However, I do find it more significant that two female characters talking aren't talking about anything nearly as significant as male characters talk about. Maybe I missed that part in your original post, maybe you could have written it better.

"For someone without an opinion on the matter, you have a lot to say about it."

Welcome to the Internet.

Mickle said...

lyle, thanks. I'm glad it makes sense to someone. :)

ps - I have two more drafts of posts about Heroes and I think you may appreciate my "This is Ali, this is Ali on Heroes/This is Milo, this is Milo on Heroes." post. For the pictures, if nothing else. Unless Milo isn't your type.

anna, I hear ya.

As another post I have (that is waiting for me to insert links) explains, part of why I did this was because I kept getting caught in conversations about Heroes with guys who know I like comics and scifi and fantasy. They would ask me if I watched Heroes as if the answer was a given. And then when I tried to explain why I couldn't stand it, they would either completely disregard my feelings (as if, what, I was lying or something?), tell me I was wrong, or - my favorite - explain that it's a show for guys, usually in response to specific complaints. (Then why are you so insulted that I hate parts of it? Shouldn't you have expected that?) The arguments always ended up being insanely circular, so when I finally did watch Heroes, I started messing around with better ways to concretely explain why TV in general, and Heroes in particular, sucks more than they realize does.


I get that people who don't normally read my blog are going to read my stuff sometimes, especially when the topic is comics/tv/etc. But while I do tend to ramble and my writing could always use improvement, I really don't think that I'm out of line for expecting that people who get to me from WFA have heard of

1) the Mo Movie Measure

2) stats like these

3) WiR

and have also consequently thought about how they are all connected.

Or, at the very least, I tend to think less of people whose initial response is something along the lines of "well that's life!" no matter how incoherent my argument (and if that isn't what you meant, take your own advice about writing better).

You are welcome to question feminism - elsewhere. Debates as to the relevance and need for equality are hosted here only so long as I'm entertained by the trolls - or I feel in good enough humor to to coddle people who are genuinely confused as to the need for feminism.

By the by, I discussed the the quality of the conversation from the very beginning to the very end. It may not have been clear that this was my main intent, but when the first several and the last several paragraphs all mention things like the Mo Movie Measure, conversations between supporting and main characters versus conversations among main characters, and the fact that women almost never talk to each other I would think that it would be pretty clear that quality is at least on my mind.

It's not that I'm adverse to discussing this with people who disagree with me, it that, since my real intent is to come up with better arguments for when the conversation happens irl, arguments that have nothing to do with where I get stuck in those conversations tend to bore me. (And "I misunderstood you" and "this is a stupid conversation to begin with" are both easily corrected. The first by clarifying and the second by walking away.)