It’s a bit on the tail-end of the uproar, but DC is eating a shitstorm sandwich in terms of its PR lately. Don’t worry, there’s something here to offend everybody, so prepare to be amazed by epic miscalculations in the most recent spate of news to come out of our pals at Big Comics.
First on deck is the news that JH Williams III and W Haden Blackmore, the lead writers of Batwoman, quit DC. In an announcement posted on Williams' blog on September 4, entitled “With a Heavy Heart…,” the writers jointly announced their resignation from DC based on what you might call “creative differences” or “editorial totalitarianism” (take your pick). In the post, Williams and Blackmore claim that DC:
“asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series.We were told to ditch plans for Killer Croc’s origins; forced to drastically alter the original ending of our current arc, which would have defined Batwoman’s heroic future in bold new ways; and, most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married. All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end.”
Days later, at Baltimore Comic-Con, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio responded to the furor over what had been interpreted as DC's anti-gay marriage stance during the DC Nation panel, explaining that:
“Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives. They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests. … People in the Bat family their personal lives basically suck. … It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand.”
There are some who are willing to swallow DiDio/DC’s explanation for nixing the marriage storyline. There are many others who are not, going so far as to call it “nonsense.” The impending marriage of Batwoman to her girlfriend, police officer Maggie Sawyer, after one seriously hot proposal, was seen by some as a vehicle to deflect the LGBT ire incurred when DC announced that notorious homophobe Orson Scott Card, something of an arch-villain here at Geeks OUT, would be writing “The Adventures of Superman” (that story has since been shelved). Given that the lesbian marriage many fans were looking to use to cleanse their palates after the OSC news is now similarly nixed, DC’s queer fans may be picking up their toys (and doillars) and headed elsewhere. “What’s going on at Marvel?” is a commonly heard refrain in the wake of this debacle.
Not to rest on mere potentially homophobic laurels, however, DC Comics makes sure to show off some blatant sexism, too. In their “Break Into Comics” contest, fans were invited to draw Harley Quinn in a four-panel, single page sequence that can only be described as a series of “happy suicides”:
Harley is on top of a building, holding a large DETACHED cellphone tower in her hands as lightning is striking just about everywhere except her tower. She is looking at us like she cannot believe what she is doing. Beside herself. Not happy.
Harley is sitting in an alligator pond, on a little island with a suit of raw chicken on, rolling her eyes like once again, she cannot believe where she has found herself. We see the alligators ignoring her.
Harley is sitting in an open whale mouth, tickling the inside of the whale’s mouth with a feather. She is ecstatic and happy, like this is the most fun ever.
Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of “oh well, guess that’s it for me” and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen.
Now there are those of you whose jaws are already dropped in horror and disbelief. But I can hear the sputtering “but, but, buts” of others of you out there, too. But Harley’s a member of the Suicide Squad! But, it makes sense to ask fans to give her the clowny suicide treatment! But, but, can’t you feminists take a fracking joke?
Trust, I’m happy to call out sexism and misogyny in comics and the larger geekiverse all day long. But to be honest, that can tend to be as easy (and as boring) as shooting those proverbial fish in a barrel. The bigger issue of ire that this stirs in me, as a fierce comic lover, is that this idea is STUPID and LAZY and (prepare for full GEEK OUT mode) DOESN’T MAKE SENSE FOR THE CHARACTER!!!
Breaking it down - Harley’s batshit crazy. You kind of have to be to be Joker’s paramour. Batshit crazy, however, does not equal suicidal. Being mentally ill does not make you suicidal - that is a false equivalent. It could be argued that people who commit suicide are mentally ill, but the opposite is not always true. Harley does not have a history of jokingly trying to kill herself in numerous situations - she’s a murdering psychopath. She likes killing other people, not herself. If she kills herself, she can’t kill other people, and where’s the fun in that? Asking fans to draw Harley like this would make sense if perpetually trying to commit suicide was part of her shtick. But it’s not. She's a murderer, not a constantly thwarted suicide. Homocide ≠ suicide. Capice?
This is where the laziness comes in. Get ready for a little crash course in gender studies. Culturally, suicide is seen as a weakness, a failing, like mental illness in general, but also specific to the act itself. Femininity, as opposed to masculinity, is also seen as weak (the opposite of strong). Therefore, suicide can be seen as a kind of feminized act (even though the reality, is, in fact the opposite). Adrienne Rich wrote a beautiful poem that included reference to suicide in female/feminized terms in response to poet Anne Sexton’s suicide:
“We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women….
Her poetry is a guide to the ruins, from which we learn what women have lived and what we must refuse to live any longer. Her death is an arrest: In its moment we have all been held, momentarily, in the grip of a policeman who tells us we are guilty of being female, and powerless.”
Rich’s poem was an expression of angry frustration at the penchant to romanticize a female poet’s suicide (she’d been at Radcliffe when Sylvia Plath committed suicide), leading to “an imaginative obsession with victimization and death, unfair to Plath herself and her own struggle for survival.” It was a call to arms to LIVE, not a glorification, and certainly not a sexualization, of suicide.
Much like the seriously ill-conceived Vice Magazine photo shoot that re-created famous female authors’ suicides, DC’s decision to use slapstick suicide vignettes as the basis for its contest is as insulting to the character as it is to DC’s audience, to say nothing of using a horrific mental health catastrophe that literally ruins lives in a light-hearted, unengaging and (I’ll say it again) STUPID way. The contest demands that fans engage with DC by using women's bodies as vehicles for sex and violence in a way that is dehmanizing and pretty much as misogynist as it gets. Harley as a character is erased in favor of some titillating T&A tinged with sexy violence. That my friends, is the very definition of lazy.
And stupid. And lame. And sexist. It’s a lot of definitions.
DC's latest snafu recalls the boring, misogynist “women in refrigerators” trope that Gail Simon first decried all the way back in 1999. DC continues to make these kind of myopic, culturally stupid, anachronistic decisions at its own peril. Please feel free to use the comments to suggest better places to spend our queer geek dollars.
DC apologizes for the suicide drawing contest, kind of, sort of, not really. From a statement sent to The Huffington Post, via The Mary Sue:
"DC Entertainment sincerely apologizes to anyone who may have found the page synopsis offensive and for not clearly providing the entire context of the scene within the full scope of the story.”
Is this enough for you? I really don't like the "sorry you were offended" vs. "sorry we were stupid and offensive, we're going to work on that" tact. Taking the approach they did is probably the result of not wanting to admit any kind of legal liability, given our litigious society, but that doesn't stop it from being douchey.
Gail Simone weighs in on the Batwoman marriage controversy. She's pretty guarded and vague in her reaction, the gist of which seems to be subtly questioning whether a same sex marriage at DC really would have been a deal-breaker, given her recollection of past story ideas. What's really juicy is the revelation that Simone had proposed (see what I did there?) WONDER WOMAN'S MOM as DC's first lesbian marriage. Read her blog for more: