One Muslim Batman, One Lesbian Batwoman, and a Shot of Insomnia Driven Self-Reflection

30 Dec

R. K. Milholland, the man behind the webcomic Something*Positive, recently did a guest strip for the comic Shortpacked!. I can’t claim that I’m particularly familiar with the series in question, but Mr. Milholland’s strip deals with the recent brouhaha surrounding the fact that one of the members of Batman, Inc. is going to be a Muslim. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with this. Despite the fact that Muslim terrorists have become the flavor of the zeitgeist in that since the events of September 11th, 2001 they’ve become the pop culture go-to villains that everyone in the West can hate, I’m pretty sure Muslims are still people.  That means that just like everyone else they may fall broad, socially constructed and determined categories, but just because one Muslim, or a given group of Muslims does something doesn’t automatically mean that all Muslims hate the West, and think it is best brought down with high explosives. You’d think that would be self-apparent, eh?

As frustrating as the kind of bullshit that has cropped up around DC’s ann0uncement, that’s not what I’m here to talk about right now. This is my blog, so I’m going to talk about me, my reaction to Mr. Milholland’s comic, and a DC announcement from a few years ago. Back in the days of the dinosaurs I wrote for a now-defunct website called Comic Avalanche… all right, it was only a few years ago, but there have been several miles of bad road since then, so it feels like longer. Regardless, at the time DC was announcing the imminent arrival of their new “lipstick lesbian” Batwoman.

I admit that within the space of one of my columns I raised something of a fuss about this. My problem wasn’t that they were introducing a lesbian Batwoman, my problem was with DC’s use of the word “lipstick” in their promo announcements. Among the gay community the phrase lipstick lesbian seems like it generally has negative connotations, and outside of that community it seems to be used most frequently as a way to advertise female-on-female porn to an audience of straight men. So this struck me as less of a move toward diversity, and more as a marketing ploy to draw in the undersexed fanboys.

Since then I’ve had a chance to read some of the Batwoman stories. In particular I’ve read the “Elegy” arc by Greg Rucka and J. H. Williams III that ran in Detective Comics. I enjoyed reading it. While I won’t say it was the best comic I ever read, I had no particular objections to the way Kate Kane was portrayed. That said, I still like to think that I had a valid objection to the way in which DC was hyping the character’s introduction. After all, I didn’t have that kind of negative reaction upon hearing about Grant Morrison’s hermaphroditic Negative Man or Danny the Transvestite Street. I wasn’t particularly bothered by Northstar finally coming out of the closet. And yet…

… and ask why it is everytime a hero shows up who isn’t white, male, hetero, or possibly Christian, it’s a P.C. stunt?

On the other hand, when I read quotes like this (taken from the comic by Mr. Milholland that inspired this post), I have to wonder. Was my objection a valid one, or was I simply engaging in the kind of xenophobia and bigotry for which I condemn the people whining about a black actor in the upcoming Thor film, or the nonsense that has cropped up in relation to a Muslim Batman?

I would like to think that the answer is no. However, because I am a staunch believer that living philosophically means to engage in a constant critical and reflective engagement in the world, I can’t let it go at that. Is there a part of me that objected to the new Batwoman simply because the character is a lesbian? Did I really have a valid objection, even if that objection would have perhaps been better focused on DC’s marketing department rather than on editors and creators? Or maybe, just maybe, is there still some baggage I’m carrying around, some social conditioning that is implanted so deep that I’ve never even thought to question it?

I had many of the same questions when I was working through the challenges raised by George Yancy’s* Black Bodies, White Gazes. In both his own words, and the words of others, he articulates the idea of the race traitor as someone who doesn’t behave as a “good” white person “should.” I would like to think I am one of those people, and that it extends beyond race. I would like to think that I do not behave as a good hetero should, or as a good person of my economic class should. Yet at the end of the day, the only honest answer I can give to any of these questions, including the question raised by Mr. Milholland, is “I don’t think I’m that person, but I just don’t know.”

Yes, I would like to think I’m a better person than the unwashed hordes and whores who live uncaring, unreflective lives. I would like to be able to say “Yes, I live every moment of every day in philosophical engagement, and at no point is my thinking influenced by an unconsidered opinion.” I’d like to be able to settle for that, but sometimes saying “I don’t know,” isn’t a bad thing, just so long as we follow it up with, “but I’m not going to stop asking the question.”


Posted by on December 30, 2010 in Comics, Philosophy


Tags: , , , , , ,

6 responses to “One Muslim Batman, One Lesbian Batwoman, and a Shot of Insomnia Driven Self-Reflection

  1. Yautja

    January 3, 2011 at 4:52 am

    “… and ask why it is everytime a hero shows up who isn’t white, male, hetero, or possibly Christian, it’s a P.C. stunt?”

    Because it is. (Even though he’s exaggerating by saying any new female character is a PC stunt, too).

    If it wasn’t, DC wouldn’t make the character’s sexuality and/or religion the very first thing you know about them. You don’t meet somebody new in real-life, to have the first thing come out of their mouths is “I’m Jewish”. Can’t we learn something about who they are as a character before we learn about that? Most people don’t define themselves solely by sexuality or religion.

    Designing a character beyond the “WASP” doesn’t necessarily make them dynamic or interesting; I don’t know anything about lesbian Batwoman or this Muslim Batman as a character, I just know how they’re sexually/religiously different from the “standard” hetero christian.

    Northstar was around for almost 15 years before he was revealed as gay. But you can’t sell extra issues based solely on controversy by doing that. I would assume that the Batman from Japan is either Shintoist or Buddhist; has DC mentioned anything about that? That’s why I’m calling BS on DC for doing this–they did so to create controversy. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have mentioned it right out of the gate.

    I could argue this on the webcomic’s site, but I’m not creating an account to discuss my views when everyone else will not only make fun, but also become viciously closed-minded about it. Check out for yourself; someone tried to argue the flipside and got lambasted–everything from the common internet strategy of saying “you’ve never touched a girl” to worse.

    I guess it’s ok to be a jerk if your views agree with the majority of posters.

    • Josh Benton

      January 3, 2011 at 8:55 pm

      For the record, while I haven’t looked today I did keep up with the comments over at Shortpacked! for the first day or two the strip was up. Were some of them out of line? Certainly, but most of the comments I read were simply pointing out how the “counter arguments” didn’t actually have a leg to stand on. Moreover, had you read the communication page you would realize that while I might hold a higher standard than the average interblogz, I do not shy away from insult and ridicule if I think the recipient is deserving.

      That aside, let us start with the fact that your claim doesn’t have a leg to stand on. You claim that people don’t just come up and announce things like, “I’m Jewish.” Except that some people do exactly that. More common, even, and perhaps especially in casual conversation is “I do X for a living,” or “I went to Y school.” Not only is it generally considered acceptable to interject this information, but it is frequently considered to be a part of the social rituals of getting to know someone. And how often do we, when talking about a third part, say, “Oh, she’s a Z”? The reason information such as religious belief or sexuality aren’t as common are because we assume these things based on the society we’re brought up in. In the stereotypical West the presumption is that the person we are talking to is heterosexual and Christian. People tend to act startled, at best, if we give them information about ourselves that violates these basic assumptions.

      We also make assumptions about people when we’re given absolutely no information on them. We presume things based on skin color, the way someone dresses, the way they walk. I mentioned George Yancy’s work in my post, he talks about this a lot. In particular he uses the example of how despite the fact that he holds a PhD in philosophy, and works in a university, at least some white women clutch their purses closer to their bodies when alone on a elevator with him, or with most other black males. These women might well have never had an overt racist thought in their lives. I can also tell you that having met Dr. Yancy he does not dress or otherwise comport himself in a manner that could be deemed hostile or threatening. Yet women clutch their purses tighter, and people lock their car doors when he walks past. How many Indians, or folks from certain areas of the Mediterranean have been singled out for additional security screening at airports since the events of September 11th, 2001, solely because someone presumed they were Middle Eastern?

      Thus far we have seen that we do say exactly those sort of things in introductory conversations, and we make assumptions about people based solely on visual information. Already your claim of political correctness run amok falls apart. However, there’s more.

      Can’t we learn something about who they are as a character before we learn about that?

      What if we did? Would it really stop the whining if DC told us nothing about Nightrunner (aka Muslim Batman) or Kate Kane beyond the standard assumptions discussed above? Or would there be even more whining the instant Nightrunner preyed to Mecca, or Ms. Kane kissed another woman? I suspect that fanboys would throw an even bigger fit, particularly in the case of Nightrunner, because they had been tricked into thinking he was a “normal” superhero, and not one of those dirty, evil, Muslims.

      Then again, why shouldn’t we know these things up front? Both religion and sexuality, as well as socioeconomic status, education and a host of other factors play a role in determining who we are, and how we present ourselves to the world. Sure, religion and/or sexuality may not be the sole determining factor, but they can still be pretty fucking important. Kate Kane was run out of the military because she chose not to lie about her sexuality. This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s a pretty big part of who she is, and why she does what she does. Being a Muslim is also going to affect the way one engages with the world, particularly if one is trying to not only balance that religious commitment with being the Batman of Paris, but deal with the fact that France (among other places) isn’t always a friendly place in which to be a Muslim at the moment. These examples are also different than the example of one being a Shinto or Buddhist in Japan precisely because they violate the norms of what we would expect. Our assumptions would not necessarily be that the Batman of Paris is a Muslim, or that Kate Kane is a lesbian; whereas it is not an unsafe bet to assume that a member of Batman, Inc. operating in Japan might well not be a Christian. However, if he or she was in fact a Christian I would expect to be told that information for precisely the above reasons. While any of these things might not automatically make these characters dynamic or interesting, it also does absolutely nothing to hinder them from being either of those things.

      Your example of Northstar is also, quite frankly, bullshit. It was planned from pretty early on to have Northstar come out of the closet, and to subsequently die of AIDS. If they planned it from the beginning then why did it only happen in recent years? Because a dictate came down from Marvel editorial that there were no gay characters in the Marvel universe. That’s right, the only reason we didn’t know it 15 years ago is because of bigotry.

      As for claims that you can’t sell extra issues based solely on controversy? Death of Superman. ‘Nuff said.

      Does DC’s marketing department have some issues and engage in some bullshit? Why yes, yes they do. Do you have the slightest ground from which to actually be calling them on it this time around? Why no, no you do not. You can of course fire back by claiming I’m close-minded or simply being politically correct. I certainly won’t stop you from doing so. However, if I was either one of those things I would have simply moderated your comment out of existence, or spent time doing something other than showing how your claims are wrong.

      Ultimately, simply saying that person X is Y is no more, and no less, troubling than when we use that to describe actual persons. If people want to know more about the characters beyond that they can read the fucking book, just like in real life we can meet the person. It’s when DC, or any other company’s marketing department, uses descriptors like “lipstick” added to lesbian in what seems to be nothing more than a ploy that I’ll back stepping up to the plate and saying something about it.

  2. Yautja

    January 4, 2011 at 4:34 am

    I was thinking of replying, but ultimately you posted “You can of course fire back by claiming I’m close-minded or simply being politically correct. I certainly won’t stop you from doing so”.

    That pretty much sets the tone that if I DO reply, I would automatically label you as such. It doesn’t matter if I would or not, because that seed is already planted in the minds of anyone who would read any future posts. That’s a common debate tactic of “Call me an X if you will”. I won’t call you an “X”, but everybody’s assuming I will.

    Therefore I won’t be posting further. I would gather you’d chalk that up as a “win”. That’ll teach me to try to have an opinion.

    • Josh Benton

      January 4, 2011 at 7:54 am

      I’m willing to give anyone a fair listen, but they better be prepared to bring their A game. You didn’t, and rather than step up to the plate you switch to claiming that I’m poisoning the well. You tried a variation of the same thing within your initial comment: “I could argue this on the webcomic’s site, but I’m not creating an account to discuss my views when everyone else will not only make fun, but also become viciously closed-minded about it.”

      Socrates drank that old hemlock right down, so I don’t have much pity for folks who aren’t willing to express their opinion because they might be ridiculed. Your claims had all the force of a fart in a whirlwind. You want to convince people your point has merit then back it up with proper argumentation. Presuming you don’t won’t to convince anyone you actually have a leg to stand on you can keep up your current tactics. That is of course a false dichotomy in that there are certainly other options. I’m just not going to bother articulating them if all you’re going to do is play the persecution card every time your claims fall flat.

    • Josh Benton

      January 25, 2011 at 7:41 am

      Apparently linking to one’s own blog causes a pingback. Slightly annoying, that.


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