Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sex in the DC Universe Reboot

There's been a lot of talk lately about the portrayal of women in the DC Universe reboot. The controversy is centering around Catwoman, who sleeps with Batman in Catwoman #1, and Starfire, who hooks up with both of her male teammates in Red Hood and the Outlaws #1.

The objection, of course, is that these characters are not behaving like real sexually empowered women, but like male fantasies of women. Laura Hudson makes this argument very eloquently in her post at Comics Alliance. She hilariously points out (with illustrations) that we are shown two pages of Catwoman's breasts before we ever see her face, and that Starfire constantly strikes swimsuit model poses, apparently for nobody. In an article for her That's My Cape column at Newsarama, Jill Pantozzi goes farther, saying that DC's relaunch is supposed to attract new fans, but instead of trying to expand their audience to women and younger readers DC is apparently making a play for the audience they already have -- men, ages 18-35.

Here's my two cents: I think that Catwoman and Red Hood are not sexist comic books, per se -- I think they're just BAD comic books. DC has 52 new ongoing series -- some of them are good and some of them suck. These two comics are just not worth reading. Their lousy characterization of women has less to do with the fact the the writers are sexist and more to do with the fact that they're awful writers and realistic characterization is simply beyond them. Jill Pantozzi is right that these comics are unlikely to attract new young or female readers. But more to the point, they're not likely to attract any new readers at all. Because they're bad. And because readers who are not familiar with comics start with Batman and Superman, not Red Hood and the Outlaws.

It's unfortunate that these two titles have created bad publicity for the DC's new initiative, because there are plenty of good comics in the relaunch and a lot of them have very positive portrayals of female heroes. The relaunch of Wonder Woman is the only take on that character that has interested me since the original Golden Age version, which was empowering and delightfully naughty and subversive at the same time. Meanwhile, DC is starting a Batwoman series about a former US Marine who was kicked out of the Corp because she refused to dishonor herself by lying about being a lesbian. There has been some controversy about the new Batgirl series but it has all centered around the publisher's decision to heal the title character from a physical disability -- no one denies that she's a strong and realistic female character, before or after her miraculous recovery. And personally, I laughed outloud at the scene in Demon Knights that reveals that Madame Xanadu (a long-running hero in DC's lesser known magical world) is cuckolding her boyfriend Jason Blood with his alter-ego, Etrigan the Demon, because Jason is just too vanilla for her.

The first issues of the new DC titles have plenty to offer, whether you're looking for good storytelling, realistic portrayals of women, or romance and sex that won't insult your intelligence. Unfortunately, there's also Catwoman and Red Hood. You can't win 'em all.