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Posts Tagged ‘sexual politics’

Yes, I know, regular readers are probably just used to me coming here and writing about films; and yes, I know, I should really be revising for the final exam of my diploma course. As far as the latter goes, thank you for your concern; and as far as the former goes – well, there should end up being a good deal more new non-movie material on here soon, so consider this an attempt to ease you into this gently, because I’ve been moved to write about something different tonight.

Normally I wouldn’t bother, but there are so many angles on this story I feel I’m going to need some space to address them all, to do with social attitudes and the nature of comic-book storytelling and the way they (often clumsily) intersect. As surely everyone is aware at the moment, the issue of sexual orientation is a bit of a live topic in the US currently, most prominently with Mr O coming out in favour of same-sex marriage. I don’t pay much attention to American social politics but it seems to me that Obama’s declaration seems to have raised a standard of sorts, which progressive media types are hustling to gather round.

That this movement had reached the comic book industry was indicated when it was announced that so-incredibly-obscure-he’s-never-been-in-a-movie gay member of the X-Men Northstar was to marry his boyfriend. I’m not really going to talk about this, except to say that if you’re going to use comics characters to comment on serious real-world issues, then a) you might want to think about using characters the average person has actually heard of, b) the whole ‘serious real world issue’ thing is kind of undercut when the character involved has previously come back from the dead at least once, and c) Northstar always seems to me to be an example of the worst kind of token character, required to personify the whole of the gay experience at the expense of depth and credibility (back in the 1980s, when AIDS was widely-perceived as the major gay-related issue, plans were afoot to have Northstar die of the condition – now that same-sex marriage is the hot topic, who else but the same guy should come racing forward at Mach 10 (oh yes, I’ve done my research) to help the publisher generate some topical publicity?).

Anyway, where Marvel lead, DC inevitably follow, and whispers have been doing the rounds for a bit that one of DC’s big-name capes was about to be retconned as secretly gay (I choose to use the word retconned rather than outed to reflect the rather cheap and shallow nature of this exercise in treating characters like playdough, to be mashed about and remoulded on a whim).

I feel obliged to point out, even though it should ideally go without saying, that I am not against diversity amongst superheroes (or indeed any other group of fictional characters), whether we’re talking gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or whatever. I think the treatment of sexuality going on here has a lot in common with the handling of race in the 1980s, for reasons I will expand upon in a bit.

No one seriously expected it to be Superman, but there was a surprising, and arguably quite naive, belief in some quarters that it was going to turn out to be Batman. Personally I thought Steel might fit the bill rather well. But no: recently the word came out: DC’s gay superhero was going to be… Green Lantern!

Except it isn’t, quite. Well, it is and it isn’t. DC’s fictional world is not what you’d call metaphysically simple and contains a number of parallel realities. In the main one of these, where Clark Kent is Superman and Bruce Wayne is Batman in the present day (at least I assume they still are, I haven’t checked this week and DC does enjoy fiddling with these things), the Green Lantern is Hal Jordan and still pretty enthusiastically hetero, so far as I can make out. In one of DC’s alternate worlds, the Green Lantern is a guy called Alan Scott, and it’s this version of the character who’s been retconned.

There have been several major Green Lanterns in the character’s 70+ year history, and Alan Scott was the original, created by Bill Finger and Martin Nodell. He’s not an absolute favourite of mine, but he was always a likable, solid character, despite the hoops writers seemed intent on putting him through in the 90s and early 2000s. This is a character with a long and respectable history.

Except… the Alan Scott who’s gay isn’t strictly speaking the same one. The original Alan Scott fought in the second world war, was heroically active for well over half a century due to various kinds of magical intervention, had a wife and a couple of kids who were minor heroes in their own right. The Alan Scott in the news has a sort of vague similarity to this guy in all sorts of ways, but it’s clearly not actually the same character in any meaningful way: he’s a reboot in the same way the version of Captain Kirk in the most recent Star Trek movie, or Professor X in X-Men – First Class, were not the same people as the originals.

So, for ‘one of DC’s big-name characters is going to be revealed as gay’, read ‘an alternate version of one of DC’s big-name characters, who’s actually an essentially brand new reimagining of that character, is gay’. Not quite the bold step it’s being advertised as.

Then again, in terms of DC’s major characters, who were they going to choose? If they’d chosen a really big name character like Batman or Wonder Woman, that would have a serious impact on potential media uses of that character in future – you couldn’t have Batman gay in the comics and straight in the movies without drawing an absolute hurricane of flak from people rightly seeing the character’s sexual orientation in any given medium being dictated by commercial concerns. And, to be perfectly honest – and putting aside issues of continuity with the character’s previous relationships and behaviour – I think it would just be a tacky and insulting thing to do anyway – it would imply that sexuality somehow exists in its own compartment, the contents of which can be swapped out at any time with no impact on the rest of someone’s personality. Batman’s straight! Oh, look – now he’s gay! Don’t worry, it doesn’t make any difference to who he is! What, none whatsoever?

If only life were so simple. Well, it probably is if you’re written with the depth of some comic-book characters, but once again we’re talking about serious real-world issues here which deserve a little more contemplation.

As I said, I’m reminded of how racial equality was handled in comics in the 1980s. The big companies gradually became aware that their non-white readership was not as well-served for characters as it might be, and the result was to – ever so subtly – make some superheroes a bit more black. Dubious as it is to reveal a character has been gay, astounding revelations that a character is not of the ethnic group everyone believed are a complete non-starter, and so the preferred route was to create a new black character and palm an existing superhero role off on them. So, for Marvel, we had James Rhodes’ stint as Iron Man, while for DC it was once again Green Lantern’s role to fill diversity quotas – the existing character of John Stewart had his role in the book considerably bumped up. (There was also a black, female version of Captain Marvel in the Avengers for a bit.)

The 1980s exercise in tokenism seems to me to have primarily been driven by the profit motive, and I wonder if the same is true of its present day equivalent. One might wonder why they’re bothering at all, except perhaps on commendable ideological grounds, or if not that, then why they don’t just create some brand-new gay characters to show their solidarity with the cause. Well, think about it this way – which of the following press releases is going to get the most attention – Green Lantern is Gay or Brandnewcharacterman is Gay?

And the fact remains that the most recently-created comics hero to achieve any kind of traction and recognition-value with the general public as an individual is Wolverine, dating back to late 1974. Most new characters of any kind fail to make much impression even with the comics-buying audience – anyone else remember Xero, Aztek, or the Sovereign Seven? Brand new characters come and go like mayflies: the industry is dependent firstly on big names like Green Lantern, as they’re the only books that consistently sell, and secondly on profile-raising stunts like announcing a venerable and much-loved character is gay, because there is no bad publicity. DC’s support for equality may very well be commendable – but both this and the form it takes are both very firmly motivated by solid commercial reasons.

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