DC Comics has had an interesting week. Only three issues into their run, the new Batgirl creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr, which was, just two months ago, receiving rave reviews for its refreshing take on the character, has come under fire for its portrayal of transgender issues. The story came to our attention via twitter and an editorial by blogger Mey at Autostraddle, self-described as a "progressively feminist online community for a new generation of kickass lesbian, bisexual & otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends)." Here's Mey's take on what happened in Batgirl #37:
In this issue, there's a fake Batgirl going around town, wearing an amazing bedazzled costume, helping criminals rob from celebrities (á la Pretty Wildor The Bling Ring) and posing for art exhibits. Of course, Barbara Gordon herself, the real Batgirl, wants to put an end to this. She goes to an art exhibit featuring photographs of this new Batgirl set up by the artist Dagger Type and finds a message in them telling her to go to the Burnside Bridge that night. Once there, during her battle with this impostor, she manages to pull of fake-Batgirl's mask, and also their wig. In what ends up being a fairly disturbing scene, Batgirl sees that the impostor is in fact, Dagger Type himself. Batgirl freezes and her jaw drops as she yells "Dagger Type? But you're a —" clearly about to say "a man" before she has to dodge a bullet from Dagger's gun.
Of course, a picture's worth a thousand words, so let's see the scene play out exactly as the creative team produced it:
A little bit later, we see Dagger Type go into a full meltdown on stage after the dramatic reveal doesn't go as planned:
So what's wrong with this? Batgirl was expecting a female, and she was surprised. Further, we don't know if Dagger Type is even meant to be transgender, or just a guy being paid to dress up as Batgirl as part of some nefarious plot to destroy her. Well, it's a little more complicated than that. Let's hear from Rachel Stevens at Women Write About Comics (name self-explanatory), who Buzzfeed credits as being the first to write about the issue, and explains what's got people so upset:
Murderous or deceptive men disguising themselves as women has been a trope in fiction long before the creation of cinema, and it's shown up too many times to list or even count. The trope isn't even subverted here, which is the hell of it.Batgirl has been praised for being a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of DC's material, both visually and in its writing. It's been celebrated as feminist and gotten plenty of people interested in comics. The fact that it used a tired transphobic trope in the new creative team's third issue shows that it isn't nearly as groundbreaking as many hoped and believed. Its fans are going to miss that or defend the book anyway.
A transphobic comic book was scripted, drawn, colored, lettered, printed, and distributed. Honestly, it's business as usual, all things considered. Something that's half joke, half rule of thumb: trans women look for art and media that's less transphobic than others, not content that isn't transphobic. You might as well be talking about petting a fucking unicorn in the latter case.
The praise she's talking about, of course, is the book's much lauded introduction of (mainstream comics' first?) openly transgender character back in Batgirl #19, when the book was written by Gail Simone with Daniel Sampere on art. Back in April of 2013, DC Comics and Batgirl receieved a ton of praise for their handling of this reveal, which they deserved:
With all of the positive attention that moment receieved, I find it hard to believe that the new creative team was not aware of it. Alyshia has been appearing in the book in their run, though she's no longer Barbara's roommate, so they must have at least researched the character and known about the book's history with these issues and the additional responsiblity that carries.
(Note: the following three paragraphs have been updated for clarity)
In addition, a Twitter exchange from Stewart last week certainly has added fuel to the fire, leading many reports to include it as part of the narrative:
Many reports, including this one at first, assumed that this was referring to a recent controversy kicked up by an episode of the popular HBO show involving rape victims. I don't watch the show, so I'm going to go to The AV Club for explanation:
In a country with hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits languishing in evidence lockers, there is no true justice for victims of sexual assault. Even Aaron Sorkin knows that. He said as much in this week's episode of The Newsroom. He's sorry that rape victims aren't given their due by police or campus authorities or district attorneys. But since they aren't, he'd really prefer they shut up about it.
At least that's the conclusion one draws from an episode that features Don meeting with a rape victim (rape accuser) Mary and telling her that her grassroots website, built so that victims of both sexual assault and institutional neglect can trade information and construct a safer world for each other, was really no different from pornography fueled entirely by jealous exes seeking revenge. And that, because there was the potential for someone to misuse said website, she shouldn't encourage such behavior. You can't get justice from the courts. You shouldn't get justice from the court of public opinion. As such, please stop talking.
Aaron Sorkin doesn't understand who the victim is. He doesn't understand how empathy works. And he, as a rich, powerful, white man in the United States, doesn't understand that he is among the most privileged people in the world. "Oh Shenandoah" tries to assuage our ill-feelings about rape by rampantly defending the rights of famous people from paparazzi, because the complaints of Erin Andrews demand to be heard and validated. This wouldn't be so troubling if we hadn't just seen an anonymous college student tracked to her dorm room through rudimentary journalistic stalking and questioned about her rape before being told she shouldn't tell the world who violated her. Sorkin thinks that women need protecting, especially if they have a target on their back. What he fails to realize is that every woman has a target on her back.
This part of this story that didn't really fit in with the eventual response from the creative team. That tweet made it seem like the book was intentionally designed to stir up controversy. But there's actually nothing to indicate that Stewart had any knowledge of the Newsroom episode or intended to link Batgirl #37 to it in any way. Rather, it seems like an unfortunate coincidence that looks damning in hindsight but, in light of the larger narrative and subsequent response of the creative team, was probably unrelated.
(Note: the previous three paragraphs were updated for clarity)
Anyway, after a few days, the creative team decided to issue an apology, and it certainly seems to be heartfelt and remorseful:
Stewart elaborated further on Twitter:
Yes, Cameron Stewart has now found himself embroiled in the Culture Wars, where there are only two extreme sides to every issue. There are now people who are offended that the team apologized, because inclusiveness is considered an attack on the persecuted white male cisgender minority. As ridiculous as that sounds, it's a very real and even popular position. If you don't believe me, just scroll below and look for the comments that will instantly appear on this article calling me a "social justice warrior" for pointing it out (spoiler: it's actually about ethics in game journalism ), ad the inevitable responses dismissing this as no big deal.
In fact, the topic already has some discussion on our forums, with the usual complaints about the plight of the poor white man in full effect. And while listening to oppressed white guys cry about the injustice of political correctness is always a depressing endeavor, this does allow me to use Outhouse forum poster Victorian Squid's perfect response to those who feel transgendered people are blowing this out of proportion:
This is a group of people who have literally just won their fight not to be considered mentally ill across the board by the AMA and our health care systemtwo years ago, and the rest of society is still catching up to that. That's something people fought for, not something just bestowed upon them, just like gay men did before that was declassified as a mental illness in 1973. And what they see here is another depiction that says "you're batshit crazy and just want to be someone else" rather than who they are.
I don't feel like I'm qualified to preach about these issues specifically, which is why I've tried to present it to you in quotes and links. Instead of reacting defensively, I would recommend people check out the links to the articles above and listen to what people are really saying instead of trying to prove them wrong. It's what the creative team did, and I think that was the only correct thing to do in this situation.
They screwed up. They listened to criticism. They acknowledged it. They said it was unintentional. They apologized. They learned from it. At no stage of it did they get defensive. What more could you ask for? The world is, as Squid said, still catching up. We all are, all the time.
But, while I do believe the creative team's apology is 100% sincere, and I do believe that people make mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance, I can't help but view DC's aptitude for unwittingly finding itself the recipient of negative attention as self destructive and, of course, stupid in exactly the manner which has led to the Has DC Done Something Stupid Today counter being reset so many times before.
With all the company has been through in the past few years, someone should be looking out for this kind of thing before it's published. But DC stupidly finds itself in this exact same position over and over again. When it's enough to get DC Comics featured in a negative article on Buzzfeed, that stupidity is amplified in front of a mainstream audience, most of which was probably unaware that a Batgirl comic even existed before this, and now knows it solely in relation to this screw-up. It squanders the progress that this comic has made. And that's a shame, because, this aside, it's been a good book. And DC in general has been having a good year.
But this isn't the only Culture Wars controversy DC's batbooks have found themselves embroiled in of late. The other comes from Batwoman, which has been slowly building an ongoing storyline featuring rapey vampires. Of course, vampires are, by nature, kind of rapey, since one of their traditional powers is to enthrall men and woman to sexually desire them. They're kind of like Marvel Comics superhero Starfox, who ran around as a member of the Avengers for several decades before people realized that, oh yeah, he basically had rape powers. He actually had to have his powers shut off a few years ago after a She-Hulk story arc revolved around putting him on trial for sexual assault. In addition to that passive sexual attraction power, vampires also traditionally have the ability to hypnotize people into doing whatever they want.
So, with that in mind, let's go to Alan Kistler at The Mary Sue and find out what's been going on with Batwoman, whose old creative team, you may remember, walked off the book in 2013 after they were not allowed to have Kate Kane marry her long-time girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. Kistler writers:
For a while, Maggie has been in a custody battle with her homophobic ex-husband James over their daughter Jamie (a similar custody battle was part of Maggie's backstory when she was introduced in Superman comics in the 80s). James tells Kate he'll stop fighting if she breaks up with Maggie, so her lesbian relationship doesn't "endanger" little Jamie. Kate gives in and in issue #34 she breaks up with Maggie, saying it's best they're apart because now Maggie can devote her time to being a mother to Jamie rather than splitting her time between that and a relationship.
Kate's therapist applauds the decision, though Kate is still, understandably, torn up about it. Then the next night, the vampire villain Nocturna, once a love interest to Batman, comes into our hero's home. Nocturna saw Batwoman without a mask on during an earlier rooftop fight and recognized the famous Gotham socialite from the tabloids. Entering the apartment, she hypnotizes Kate/Batwoman to not fight back. Believing this is Maggie, Kate gives in and they embrace in a sexual way as Nocturna bites her neck. The issue ends.
Nocturna and Batwoman are now involved in an ongoing relationship that includes Kate experiencing lost time and memory lapses.
Kistler points out that he understands that this is what vampires do, and honestly, you could pretty much make similar accusations about a large portion of fiction involving vampires, and yet, they still manage to make up a massively successful genre of romantic fiction. I'm not going to even try to get into that. Vampires will be vampires. And vampires are rapey. You can form your own opinions on that.
In any case, fans reached out to Batwoman writer Marc Andreyko for comment, and he responded by dismissing the claims:
So, according to Andreyko, this will all be explained as not-rape in future story developments. Will it do that, or will it lead to a counter reset in the future? We'll have to wait and see what happens, I guess.
But the fact remains that DC Comics, after having a much better 2014 than 2013, seems to be working overtime to get itself in trouble over issues like this as we approach the end of the year. Are they trying to make up for lost time? Has the publicity firm we're pretty sure they hired this year to prevent these exact sorts of situations gone on extended holiday vacation?
Maybe they've just gotten a little too complacent and need a wake up call. Well, we're happy to oblige. It has been 0 days since DC Comics did something stupid.