Thursday, Batwoman co-authors J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman released a joint statement announcing their departure from the title due to conflicts with DC editorial staff. One of the most significant revelations out of this statement was the fact that Batwoman (Kate Kane) and girlfriend Detective Maggie Sawyer would not be allowed to marry, despite their widely publicized engagement which took place in February earlier this year.
“DC has 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.” – J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman
A firestorm of controversy erupted online, with everyone from The Huffington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, The Independent and more covering the story. Unsurprisingly, much of the commentary surrounding the issue raises the question as to whether DC Comics is homophobic, or more specifically, against same-sex marriage… and I for one am glad it has.
To be clear, Williams, Blackman and DC Comics have all stated and reiterated that the company has decided to halt or dissolve nearly all marriages in the continuity of The New 52, which launched in September, 2011. As such, DC editorial has emphatically denied their decision to prohibit the wedding of Kane and Sawyer from ever taking place has anything to do with the characters’ sexual orientation. Duly noted, DC Comics. In my opinion, it’s a half-truth.
As an academic, an intersectional feminist and a general seeker of knowledge, I consistently analyze, interpret, scrutinize and criticize the depictions of race, gender, class, sexuality and [dis]ability in media—every television and movie script, every commercial, every news story, every song lyric, and every radio sound bite—in regards to whether or not the politics and realities of privilege and oppression are accurately portrayed. I’ll be the first to admit, this usually sucks all the fun out of enjoying everyday entertainment, but media representation is a vital form of agency that has more power to shape the minds, opinions and actions of individuals than most people realize.
In Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society (2007), authors Margaret L. Andersen and Howard Francis Taylor wrote:
“Recently, there has been increased representation of gays and lesbians in the media—after years of being virtually invisible or only the subject of ridicule. In 2002, the staid New York Times began showing lesbian and gay couples in wedding announcements. Now as advertisers have sought to expand their commercial markets, there are more gay and lesbian characters being shown on television. This makes gays and lesbians more visible, although critics point out that they are still cast in narrow and stereotypical terms, showing little about real life for gays and lesbians. Nonetheless, cultural visibility for any group is important because it validates people and can influence the public’s acceptance and generate support for equal rights protection.”
Speaking on the subject of same-sex marriage in particular, Issues in Advertising, Mass Communication, and Public Relations (2011) documents that during the national same-sex marriage debates between 2003 and 2004, “[a]nalysis of sourcing patterns and sound bite length indicate the debate was dominated by conventionally ‘straight’ perspectives. While gay and lesbian couples were visually prevalent in news stories, they were largely seen and not heard.” In a similar vein, the decision to bar Batwoman from marrying has everything to do with her sexual orientation, because the situation is framed within a heteronormative context by a group composed almost exclusively of heterosexual men. That because heterosexual marriages are seen as unnecessary by DC Comics, same-sex marriages should be held to that same standard. Unlike our heterosexual counterparts, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people have been railing hard against media misrepresentation since the beginning of the 20th century. We have been depicted as sociopaths, deviants, [child] rapists, mentally ill, morally bankrupt, pitiful and—at best—as comic relief within the confines of heteronormative storytelling. Therefore, it is counterintuitive for a company which claims to aim for the best possible representations in diversity to not give greater consideration to the sociological implications of same-sex marriage in their publications.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be able to analyze Batwoman’s characterization exclusively on its own merit, free of the greater sociological and political implications her portrayal may exert on the community, but the reality is we do not have that luxury. We can’t afford to fool ourselves into thinking we do. For all intents and purposes, Batwoman is the LGBT poster-child for the comic book industry. Among all LGBT characters in print, she is without a doubt the single most recognizable and highly-cited, not to mention the only one to headline her own solo monthly title. This, in and of itself, is problematic of a much bigger problem of under-representationc — that a single lesbian can (or should) shoulder the burden of positive portrayal of not only lesbians, but gay men as well as bisexual and transgender men and women, since other characters like the Alan Scott Green Lantern (Earth 2), Bunker (Teen Titans) and Shining Knight (Demon Knights) are all a part of group titles, limiting their influence as the central focus of each arc must rotate from character to character. As the reigning household name among LGBT characters, Batwoman inherently possesses the greatest agency for advocating social issues relevant to LGBT Civil Rights, something Greg Rucka, Williams and Blackman have demonstrated throughout her narrative since her re-introduction in 2006. DC Comics (or more correctly, a group of predominately heterosexual white men who will never know the pain of cultural misrepresentation) specifically chose Batwoman to fill this role and as such, bore the all responsibility that came with it.
“When we introduced Batwoman back in 2006, we took a huge risk at DC Comics, we went and did something unprecedented: we made one of our major characters gay… When we did it, we knew there would be controversy and complaints and there were… We got hit with so many different letters and so many nasty emails. We stood behind that character 100 percent, so much so that we made her the lead in ‘Detective Comics’ and then we gave her her own book. That was back in 2006 and we continue to support that character to this day. Simple as that.” –DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan DiDio
Once again, I’ll say: duly noted. To quote Janet Jackson, “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” As Williams himself once stated, LGBT themes in comics are often done in a way simply to have the lip service to say “we did it” and then fail to follow through. To DC Comics’ credit, Greg Rucka exceeded expectations in Batwoman’s pre-New 52 stories. His depiction of Kane’s painful path out of the closet, her unjustified discharge from the military under the now-repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and her desire to find meaning in life once again through her Batwoman persona, all rang as true as an autobiography. However, as DC Comics placed Batwoman at the forefront of The New 52 in her own title (with Detective Sawyer in tow), they also wiped Renee Montoya and Holly Robinson from continuity, essentially cutting their number of prominent LGBT characters in half. Giving Batwoman her own title was indeed unprecedented, but gratitude is not eternal, particularly when the number of LGBT characters is actively reduced and watershed moments like the industry’s first lesbian wedding are intentionally obstructed. Due to the fact that DC Comics had full knowledge that Williams and Blackman had every intention of developing a long-term, marital relationship between Kane and Sawyer, backpedaling on that event — especially after such a widely publicized engagement — is reprehensible. Not taking her sexual orientation into account is actually indicative of heterosexism, not proof of absolution. By being complacent in riding the coattails of their previous successes with Batwoman’s character, DC Comics is in effect, telling us to expect less from them in the future, not more. Such a business model is not a recipe for growth, in any context.
To be fair, I realize there are a variety of counter-positions to my perspective.
Which characters though? The teenage Bunker from Teen Titans? Green Lantern from Earth 2 (You know, the one whose fiancé was killed off in his origin story)? Or maybe the archaic Shinning Knight from Demon Knights, who’s gender identity is readily dismissed by nearly everyone around them? Each of these scenarios brings the potential for much more disaster than the evolving relationship between Kane and Sawyer ever could. Kane and Sawyer had the best possible set-up for a marital relationship in DC Comics’ current continuity.
Why continue to focus exclusively on Batwoman? DC Comics should create more LGBT characters that are more amicable to a marriage.
Yes, they should, but they haven’t. More importantly, their position clearly indicates they have no interest in developing any marital relationships, period. This is a highly specific problem for LGBT representation. Moreover, according to DiDio, none of the members of the Batman Family are allowed to be happy. It’s not only poor storytelling to recreate every single member of the Family as a psychological extension of Batman himself, it’s also disturbing to convey the idea that Batwoman — as a lesbian — can never be emotionally fulfilled. Among all the pre-existing relationships that have been dissolved, none could ever have the devastating cultural implications as the prevention of Kane and Sawyer’s wedding taking place. If there is one marriage that could be permitted to break with the new status quo, it should have been theirs by virtue of necessity.
I agree. However, DC Comics made this a pressing issue within their own company of their own free will. In the same way black readers were outraged after Marvel Comics annulled the marriage between Storm and Black Panther after establishing them as the company’s sole black power couple, LGBT readers have every right to point the finger, however accusatorily, at DC Comics for prohibiting what would have been the first lesbian marriage in comic book history after allowing their engagement to take place. Someone on Twitter (and for the life of me I can’t find the original tweets) made an analogy some time ago that if you hit someone with a car, your intent (whether or not you did so on purpose) is of little consequence to the injuries the victim sustains. The fact remains that you’ve inflicted pain. One way or another, you are responsible for it.
Thus, I say emphatically: NO, DC Comics is not absolved of guilt or heterosexism simply because their decision did not factor in Batwoman’s sexual orientation in derailing her marriage—the damage is done.