A few days ago, Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr, creators of the highly acclaimed relaunch of DC Comics’ Batgirl, took to social media to apologize to a storyline that offended many readers - particularly transgender readers.
In the storyline, Batgirl does battle with a glammed-up, sequinned doppelganger of herself committing robberies throughout her neighborhood of Burnside. In a plot twist, the doppelganger is revealed to be Dagger Type (presumably a play on “daguerrotype”), a male hipster performance artist.
The reveal and subsequent apology
Why did so many readers find this storyline offensive? Why did the creative team feel it necessary to apologize? Rather than attempting to explain it from the perspective of a cisgender gay male, I thought I would share with you a few of the excellent trans and female critics who have pointed out how the Dagger Type storyline reinforced, albeit unintentionally, decades of transphobic tropes in media.
Batgirl’s reaction: not only offensive... but out of character
As Mey at Autostraddle writes, Barbara’s shocked reaction is offensive in itself:
Now, at this moment, Batgirl had no way of knowing Dagger Type’s gender. She’s seen one picture of him and an artist’s bio once and then she’s seen him dressed up as Batgirl multiple times. So she’s seen Dagger Type presenting as a woman way more than presenting as a man. Why does she assume he’s not trans? If you pull the wig off of someone who you thought was a woman, it is 100% transmisogynistic to yell in shocked horror that they are a man. If Barbara didn’t know any trans people or have a shown history of being a great trans ally, this behavior might make sense (although it would still be offensive). However, that’s the exact opposite of what the case is. I mean, just imagine if Alysia Yeoh had seen Barbara react this way. She would have sat her down and called her on her bullshit.
...but also inconsistent with her characterization under prior Batgirl writer Gail Simone, where she embraced her transgender roommate Alysia Yeoh.
(Note: Alysia appears briefly in this issue, and in the previous issues of the current creative team’s run.)
Batgirl’s now-former roommate comes out as transgender, in an issue from prior writer Gail Simone's run.
Barbara Gordon was one of the few characters I love who I didn’t have to imagine as being trans positive. I knew she was. It was canon. Her roommate and one of her best friends was Alysia Yeoh, a queer trans woman of color like me. If you’ve read Batgirl #19, you know that Barbara reacts pretty much perfectly when Alysia comes out as trans to her. She reacts pretty much the opposite way she does in this comic, and it’s one of the best moments in all of comics in the past five years. While she does seem a bit surprised at first, she immediately segues that into a hug and an “I love you.” So in Batgirl #37, we see Barbara turned from an ally who had a great reaction to Alysia coming out into someone who sees someone else, who based on what she sees, is very likely a trans woman, and reacts with surprise and even disgust. What if this had happened between Alysia and Barbara before Alysia came out? Would Barbara have accidentally pulled off Alysia’s wig (if she wore one) and shouted “you’re a man!”? I really don’t think so. That’s not the Barbara Gordon we’ve come to know and love, and so this issue seems like a total betrayal of her character.
Barbara has never met Dagger, has only interacted with ‘him’ as a female, so why is her immediate reaction ‘that’s a man’ rather than ‘Dagger’s trans’? Here’s some honesty on my part, I started going bald in my teens, I have to wear a wig. As a trans woman if someone were to pull my hair off and immediately react with shock and yell ‘but you’re a man’ it would be horribly destructive and hurtful. To assume that someone is a man dressed up rather than trans when you have no evidence of either is a massive assumption, and one that can do a lot of damage. Especially for a character that is supposed to be such a big ally to the trans community through her close friendship with Alysia.
At best this makes Barbara look massively ignorant and unintentionally hurtful, at worst it makes her look like a transphobe acting like an ally, something that I myself have had experience with. A supposed friend, well acquaintance who was a partner of a friend really, chose to go on the attack one day stating that because I wasn’t full time in my transition at that point that I was ashamed of who I was, that if I wasn’t ashamed I’d not be pretending to be male at work. Add on to this the horrid comment of ‘women’s clothes at night and pictures on Facebook do not a transgender make’ and you’ve go the worst kind of hypocrite who claims to believe in trans rights and support those going through transition, but will immediately attack you if you do not conform with their very narrow minded view on what a trans person is. This is definitely not who Barbara Gordon should be.
The imposter Batgirl prior to her reveal as Dagger Type. Quite a contrast.
It plays to the stereotype of the duplicitous, depraved cross-dresser
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 The problem with Batgirl #37 is that it felt lazy. What could have been an incredibly intriguing arc about stolen identities and the complexities of trying to establish yourself had been reduced to a tired, harmful trope which (unsurprisingly) stung many people within the community. While we don’t know how Dagger Type identifies, or even where exactly the team is going with the story, this presentation of the character paints an awful picture of drag queens, trans women, and non-binary people alike. It props up the trope of the “crazy, unstable drag queen / trans woman.”
The other main problem with this issue is that comics are once again uses the villainous trans woman stereotype so often used by the media. It seems like there are only a handful of roles TV, film and comics let trans women play, liars and villains, sex workers, victims of violence and very, very occasionaly real trans people. I could write an entire article just on the subject of how misrepresented trans people are, how we’re used as the butts of jokes when characters throw up when they realise a character is trans or call us ‘its’, but I really want to stick to this one issue of Batgirl for now.
And Sarah Horrocks notes disturbing echoes in the issue’s grotesque depiction of the unmasked villain, an extreme contrast to the glamorous, feminine version of Dagger-as-Batgirl that appears on the cover:
The best thing here is that not only do they drop a “But you’re a—” shocker, they also do the monstrous shapeshift that happens once a transperson’s “true” identity is revealed. Crazy hair and makeup, crazy eyes, danger to women—it’s a story as old as Psycho.
It’s also one that is hugely destructive to transkids because this is how they are taught to think others see them. Stuff like this IS why the suicide rate amongst trans people is so high. We’re all on some level aware of the reality in which we’re monstrous grotesque and inhuman
Perhaps the best commentary I’ve seen along these lines comes from J. Skyler at Comics Alliance, who eloquently puts these tropes into historical and cultural context:
Is Batgirl’s doppelganger transgender? From my understanding, the answer is no; but as any trans person will attest, a character does not have to be explicitly labeled as transgender to perpetuate transphobia.
Although the term [transgender] was also met with controversy, since it originally excluded those who did wish to undergo medical transition, it is now used as an umbrella term to describe any identity that is gender variant, whether the individual is seeking medical intervention or not. Modern activists also use the term trans without the use of a suffix to avoid alienating members of the community. Our convoluted history of terminology illustrates our being at odds with a medical community that has historically demonized gender outside of cisnormativity, much in the same way any sexual orientation outside of heteronormativity was pathologized as a mental disorder. Aided by the medical community, our society’s strict adherence to gender conformity is what has fueled the portrayals of gender variant killers throughout the history of the American entertainment industry.
The impostor Batgirl, Dagger Type, is reminiscent of Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) as well as Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Not unlike Dagger Type, in both instances we have characters who are assigned male at birth who assume the identities of women and commit heinous acts of murder as part of their modus operandi.
As stated in Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (2011), by Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock, “[b]oth Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill are emblematic of the archetype of the lethal gender bender, which emphasizes male gender anguish, deception, disguise, and the homicidal destruction of normal others as essential to a twisted gender transgression.” In both films, other characters portraying medical professionals take the time to explicitly state that neither Bates nor Bill are actually trans women, presumably because that’s exactly how any viewer uninitiated into the complexities of gender identity would interpret them.
We’re stuck with the same scenario in Batgirl, and like the critical commentary surrounding Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill, no amount of explanation concerning Dagger Type will dilute how unnerving this portrayal of “gender non-conformity as a prelude to murder” is.
Finally, I would like to add a word to the readers who have accused Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr of caving in to demands for censorship:
No one forced them to apologize. No one forced them to respond. They chose to take responsibility, as authors, for the genuine pain experienced by many of their readers. Because an artist’s intentions matter - but so do their readers’ reactions, particularly when many of those readers are part of a minority group that experiences horrific discrimination on a regular basis.. And the artist is free to decide which is more important.
This isn’t about censorship, in short. This is about compassion.