Listen up ladies and lovers of ladies, have I got the show for you! It’s called “Bomb Girls” (airing on the ReelzChannel) and it’s about plucky gals working in a munitions plant in Toronto, in WWII! But before we get started how many of y’all out there know about the Bechdel Test? If you are indeed familiar don’t get offended while I explain it here real quick:
Alison Bechdel wrote an awesome graphic novel called “Fun Home.” Before that, she devised the ultimate test of pop culture feminism called the Bechdel Test. It’s very simple. Every time you see a movie ask yourself these three questions: 1. Are there more than two women in the cast? 2. Do they talk to each other? a. About something other than a man?
You’d be surprised how hard it is. Now, this is great for movies but it’s harder to apply to television. With ensemble casts and indeterminate series, women have all kinds of things to talk about; although they do spend most of that time talking about men and it’s totally fucking boring. For the record soaps flunk the Bechdel Test every minute of every day.
“Bomb Girls” isn’t a soap in the traditional form of the word, it is instead Canadian and it passes the Bechdel Test in spades. Each of the women is an actual believable character who does things for reasons other than “because the script says so.”
The Canadian-ness takes a bit of getting used to. It’s like a cake that’s sweetened with fruit juice rather than sugar. It doesn’t taste bad, just different. It lacks the wallop of real sugar, yet subtly reminds you that you’re kind of an asshole for wanting real sugar all the time when fruit juice cake is just as delicious.
Let me introduce you to the girls: Marion has run away from her street preacher father and changed her name to Kate (Charlotte Hegele). Her consumptive mother’s dying wish was to see her daughter free of his tyranny.
Using her heady connections in the street-preaching underground Kate’s Mom procured a new identity for her daughter. Kate has an angelic singing voice and I really hope Hegele does her own singing, though I’m not entirely convinced that she is. Real or fake, Kate’s voice gives her strength on her first day working at Victory Munitions (Vic Mu).
Right away she catches the eye of Betty (Ali Liebert). She is the true star of “Bomb Girls.” I haven’t had a girl crush this strong since…OK, it hasn’t been that long, but Betty is special. She is straight-up combustible in her snug white coveralls.
When she saw Kate for the first time Betty’s tummy turned to Dream Whip. Her tough swagger hides a tender heart as Betty dreams of owning her own house one day but is constantly being reminded that she needs to get married instead. Hell no! says Betty.
Even though she has to hide her love away she’s going to live life on her own terms. No wonder she got a job at Vic Mu. There she can boss all the girls around, then go to the locker room where they’re all hanging around in their knickers.
Since all the guys are either at war or feebs, there’s nothing to do after work then go back to the rooming house. That place is also full of chicks who do nothing but drink brown liquor and dance with each other while dressed in satiny robes. Frankly, I’m surprised Betty’s had such a hard time finding a girlfriend, as WWII appears to be THE place to meet girls.
Working alongside Betty is Vera (Anastasia Phillips). She’s what you’d call an unusual beauty, but don’t tell her that. Vera is the It Girl and she knows it. Sure, things went to shit when she got her hair caught on the stencil line and tore off a chunk of her scalp. She was in the hospital for a while but that didn’t stop her from glamming it up in her pink satin night robe and Veronica Lake wig.
But – like Betty – Vera’s heart is also tender. After hearing one of the guys in the hospital say that she looked like she got caught making out with a cheese grater, Vera found she was unable to face the world after her gruesome accident.
She started hoarding her sleeping pills, intent on never making it out alive. Fortunately, she never got a chance to use them as a guy from Vic Mu got jacked up from testing a bad bomb and his wounds went septic. Vera tenderly fed her sleeping pills to him so he could die with dignity, rather than disintegrating into a pool of bloody infection. It wasn’t until Betty came to the hospital and kicked her ass that Vera decided to come back to work at Vic Mu.
Finally, there’s Gladys (Jodi Balfour). She’s the poor little rich girl who wants to get her hands dirty for the war. Her father owns a chain of grocery stores, yet swans around the place like he doesn’t have to go to work every day. Gladys calls him “Daddy” and my skin crawls every time.
She’s a gal who is yearning to break free of her gilded cage. At least I think that’s what she thinks she wants. Initially, when she goes to work at Vic Mu it’s in the office because “Daddy” is worried about her safety there on the line. He never once pauses to consider that if the bomb factory were going to explode the secretaries’ office will not be protected by an invisible wall of money.
Gladys is engaged to an American, James (Sebastian Pigott), who indulges her working at Vic Mu at least until she’s married. She’s always talking about how much she loves him but it doesn’t ring true at all, probably because he’s constantly giving her shit about something or another.
Like when Gladys discovered the rations “Daddy” was manufacturing had faulty seals so the pork meat product was spoiled before it even reached the front. In order to get her point across Gladys serves this swill at dinner, outraging everyone; then James tells her to shut up because not fixing the problem is so much cheaper. She gets her way eventually but really, what a dick.
Wait, he gets dickier. Gladys caught James trying it on with that roundheels Hazel McDougal (Brittany Allen), who gave him the clap. When Gladys confronts him he gets all puffed up because he only did it so that he’d be experienced for their wedding night. I fucked Hazel for you, baby! Nul points, Gladys. Nul. Why would you spend time with that guy when you could be drinking Sazeracs with Betty at the rooming house?
The only decent guy around is Marco (Antonio Cupo), the fiery Italian who can’t enlist because he’s so Italian, and also because his dad ran a fireworks company and is now in an internment camp. Marco is frustrated because he loves Canada and wants to fight. He also loves his mother and has eyelashes so thick that it looks like he’s wearing eyeliner all the time. He fills out his Italian wife-beater like a pro. Marco is so passionate that he can see the passion within Lorna (Meg Tilly), the shift matron and wise mentor to the girls at Vic Mu.
Lorna got married young, had her kids then said goodbye to her husband when he went off to fight in WWI. He came back bitter and crippled and now he hates it that Lorna is the breadwinner and he’s useless. He spends his time drinking and painting lead soldiers. No wonder Lorna let Marco seduce her atop a pile of morality code fliers she was printing up. Nice try Lorna. Rules against hand-holding will do nothing to stanch the Marco passion.
Being pre-menopausal and not so concerned about birth control, Lorna gets pregnant. In a moment of weakness, she lets it slip to Vera that “one of the girls” at Vic Mu is pregnant and is asking questions about Cedar Street. Vera, having had a “friend” like that, knows exactly what she’s talking about and says they can go together.
Here’s where the show aced the Bechdel Test and blew the curve for every other show on television. We see Vera and Lorna walking down a seedy alley as Vera holds Lorna’s hand and tells her not to be afraid. Indigent men stand around trashcan fires. Rats scuttle in the darkness.
Lorna nervously knocks on the door, a kindly woman answers and invites the two women into her warm, comfortable kitchen. There are bundles of herbs drying on racks and Lorna tries the “my friend” bit again. Lady Abortionist may believe her, may not, but she staunchly insists that she will not send any tansy/pennyroyal flux tea home without seeing the patient first.
“I will not risk a woman’s health!”
When Lorna finally goes back on her own, Kind Lady Abortionist, who would probably be burned as a witch some 150 years ago, examines Lorna without once lecturing or shaming her. What is this? A woman having a safe and private, though illegal abortion at the hands of another woman who clearly knows what she’s doing and has been doing it for years. Can you imagine? A Canadian-style abortion is the next best thing to a spa day.
When Lady Abortionist gives Lorna the tea she takes hold of Lorna’s hand and gives it a caring and concerned squeeze. Right then I knew that those two would exchange Christmas cards for the rest of their lives
When I watch “Bomb Girls” or think about it, which is pretty much all day, I get strange and uncomfortable feelings, very much like the ones I had the first time I saw the “Legs” video by ZZ Top.
“Bomb Girls” makes me feel empowered, giddy, and sometimes anxious. I’m having a difficult time reconciling to the fact that the women on this show genuinely care and support one another without any kind of ulterior motive. No doubt this has everything to do with my mixed and tumultuous feelings about women in general. It’s fantastic to see the girls in the show get along so well, yet somehow odd and threatening, like I can’t really trust them. I’m constantly waiting for backstabs and catfights and when they don’t come it’s disconcerting.
I have a shit track record when it comes to female friendship having had no fewer than three “best friends” turn on me for reasons I can’t begin to understand much less explain. In my mind, you can’t trust other women not because they’ll steal your man but because they’ll show up one day and hate you for no reason. Thankfully I have an amazing older sister who taught me that dumb bitches get what they deserve. I have found this to be entirely true.
“Bomb Girls” gives me a vision of aspirational friendship made all the sweeter by the prevailing “shoulder to the wheel” attitude of WWII nostalgia. It’s difficult not to get all doom and gloom knowing what we do know of post-war attitudes toward women and the herculean push to get them all back into the house so that men could have their jobs.
But I’ve got a feeling that the girls working at Vic Mu will come out fighting because the only way they would fail was if there was a Bechdel Test for men.
Erin Byrne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org