Single Ladies (Put a Utility Belt on it)

Posted: 10/06/2010 in Comics, Girl Stuff, Queer
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Ever since I started the 30 Day DC Meme, I’ve been trying to look (even) deeper into sex and gender in superhero comics so it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that I’m launching a series investigating the gender identity and presentation of the female members of the modern Batfamily; Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown, Barbara Gordon, and Katherine Kane. I came back to the latter three again and again over the course of the meme, which really surprised me in the case of Steph and Babs. Collecting my thoughts made me re-evaluate not only how much comics shaped my views on femininity, but what stories and characters I hold in the highest esteem. One of my first difficult tasks as a budding feminist was reconciling my love of comics with the (second wave) feminist viewpoint that the female superhero is little more than a male manufactured sex object and thus by definition cannot be an expression of feminism. Obviously a lot has changed in feminist thought since then and I’m now confident that isn’t the case, but in order to close the book on the topic once and for all I want to put forward the contention that becoming a female superhero is by definition a feminist act.

Notice that I say becoming one and not creating one. It’s my belief that the discussion around the state of womens’ narratives in comics and the merits of the female superhero as a concept revolve far too much around metafictional concerns like authorial intent, the biographical details of the author, editorial interference, and even what title the character debuted in instead of how the character acts within the narrative which is something that I find kind of odd. In general, we spend a great deal of time filling in the gaps left by the narratives to build sometimes shockingly complete gestalts through fan art, fan fiction, vidding, and roleplaying. To many fans, their day to day experience of a favourite character is far more expansive than the collection of stories that they’ve appeared in and they take on a depth and detail that is impossible to convey or experience as two dimensional drawings on a page. Despite a reticence to acknowledge it in discussions on issues including feminism, to dedicated fans those drawings on a page are simply slices through time, slivers of something much larger.

During the creative rush of the 1980s, iconoclastic figures like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore began approaching the shared worlds of Marvel and DC as macrocosms of that concept. Rather than being simply a setting that efficiently grouped together a given company’s intellectual property in one place, they began to treat the setting as a character and an organism in it’s own right. Moore introduced the concept of the multiverse (culled from Michael Moorcock) to mainstream superhero comics in Captain Britain, and has most likely been explored to the most depth by Grant Morrison in his nearly three decades of work at DC. When he stepped in to begin his run on Batman, he took the position that if all of Bruce Wayne’s published stories were considered to have happened to the same man irrespective of Crisis on Infinite Earths or Infinite Crisis and compressed into a reasonable timeline, the shifts in characterization he endured over the years made perfect sense as different phases of his adult life, which defined his run on the title from Batman and Son through to R.I.P. and continues to inform The Return of Bruce Wayne as well as Batman and Robin.

Thus over the course of this series, I want to see what it does to our understanding of gender identity and presentation in superhero comics when we adopt the same perspective on these four women. The idea struck me when I was casting around for an umbrella term for the four of them after I decided that I wanted to zero in on them as a specific fandom much like a friend does all things Supergirl (including Matrix, Cir-El, Power Girl and other such iterations). At first I considered “Batfemme” as a means of including both the “woman” and “girl” suffixes, but I was quickly struck not only by how it does not do justice to Katherine Kane’s complex and fluid gender identity, but the question of Cassandra Cain who I will be investigating first. After some careful consideration I realized that she’s a far richer and unique character than the ninja assassin who never learned to speak or write she tends to be characterized as. Of course exploring the impact of being a young adult who was raised without exposure to socialized gender roles or presentation isn’t something that there’s much room for in superhero comics, but that’s the killer app of fandom. Picking up where the official material leaves off and exploring the tangents that matter most to us can be one of the most rewarding and empowering acts available to us as fans, especially in issues affecting traditionally neglected or marginalized groups.

If all goes according to plan, if you don’t already think these four ladies are the most compelling women in comics today you will when I’m done and if you already do then maybe you’ll find some new reasons to love them! Stay tuned for the first entry on Cassandra Cain, which with a little luck and a lot of caffeine will be completed and in your paws by the end of the week.

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