What I Learned From Batwoman

Content Note: Spoilers for Batwoman, discussions of homophobia, heterosexism, Bury Your Gays

I just moved into a new place (Stressful! Fun! Exciting! Terrifying!), and I’m trying to be more organized. Instead of putting ALL the books on my desk, most of them are going on a bookshelf. Radical, I know!

I’ve decided that only my most important reference books should live on my desk.

Oh, and I also put two comic books on my desk, to accompany the big serious boys of literary criticism, gender studies and racial deconstruction.

Batwoman: Elegy

Batwoman: Elegy, JH Williams III, Greg  Rucka, Batwoman, Kate Kane
and

Batwoman: Hydrology

Batwoman: Hydrology, JH Williams III, W. Haden Blackman, Batwoman, Kate Kane

They were expensive – twenty dollars apiece. I bought them as gifts to myself.

… That’s a lie. I bought them as protection, not as gifts. I bought them the day after Amanda Todd, a victim of cyberbullying and slut-shaming, committed suicide. I’d just spent an hour on the internet, reading the horrible things people said about her both before and after her death, and I was devastated. Just – devastated. That Amanda Todd had to grow up in this world, where people treat women so despicably. That so many people would say such vile things to, and about, a child. That Todd was just one of many girls who experience this level of cruelty and bullying.

I needed something – someone – to remind that there is hope, and power, and possibility .

Batwoman, JH Williams, W.H. Blackman, DC Comics, Kate Kane,

So I bought Batwoman.

****

Last week, Batwoman co-writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman announced that, due to DC’s editorial interferences, they would be leaving the comic after issue 26.  J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman are largely responsible for Batwoman’s success over the last two years (with Greg Rucka, who wrote the initial Elegy storyline, and whose departure I still mourn). J. H. Williams III’s art defines Batwoman – he’s been with the comic since the beginning, and his work is so superb and distinct that I still find myself flipping through my trade books to look at the art. His artistic vision of Kate Kane  made her an instant superhero.

Williams and Blackman cite several instances where DC overruled long-outlined plot events at the eleventh hour. But the one that is receiving the most attention – and that angered Williams and Blackman the most – was DC’s edict that Kate Kane (Batwoman) could never marry her fiancee Maggie Sawyer.

Batwoman is a lesbian superhero. She’s the only one in the DC or Marvel universe, as far as I know, to have her own book. She was kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, she’s had several girlfriends (including my favorite, Renee Montoya), and she’s now engaged to marry a woman.

Kate Kane, Batwoman, Renee Montoya, Batwoman, JH Williams III, Greg Rucka, DC Comics,

DC and Williams/Blackman all say that the marriage prohibition was due to creative reasons, not to Kate Kane’s sexual orientation. And I believe them – I think Dan Didio and the higher-ups at DC honestly didn’t want one of their superheroes to be married. They have a bizarre anti-marriage policy for their protagonists.

But creative decisions cannot be separated from their cultural context. And preventing a queer couple from getting married has a very different context from preventing a straight couple from getting married. As Susana Polo from The Mary Sue explains, gay characters have “a history of being disproportionately depicted in either no relationships, failed relationships, prematurely ended relationships, or terrible relationships.” Moreover, queer people in comics, movies and literature are rarely allowed to have happy endings – think Ennis/Jack from Brokeback Mountain, Willow/Tara from Buffy and Jack/Ianto from Torchwood.

Hell, DC made the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, gay – and then promptly killed off Alan’s boyfriend WHILE ALAN WAS PROPOSING.

The  “Bury Your Gays” trope isn’t an old narrative we’ve all outgrown. It’s well and alive. And harmful.

Yes, it sucks when straight couples can’t get married in the DC Universe. And yes, in my opinion, it’s shitty storytelling. But straight people can look out into a world where their relationships are validated, are legitimized and are common. They can go to literally any medium and find straight couples living happy lives and getting married. They will not find a whole pile of narratives where straight people die because of their sexuality.

Queer people, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. They don’t get to shrug off the Batwoman marriage ban and say “okay, well, we’ve got so many other examples of happy queer couples in real life and in fiction, we’ll be fine.”

And it’s a fucked-up, oppressive and harmful trope. It makes queer people believe they have no chance at happiness – that their sexuality dooms them to failed relationships and death. It reinforces the idea that queerness is fundamentally tragic: it’s not something you want for your children, or your friends, or yourself.

Maggie Sawyer, Kate Kane, BAtwoman, JH Williams III, W Haden Blackman

There are many places in the USA where you can be fired for your sexual orientation (29 states, in fact). There are few places where you can get married to a same-sex partner. Yes, the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned this summer. But the end of DOMA didn’t magically solve the marriage problem. Charlie Morgan, an officer in the National Guard, died of breast cancer before she could see DOMA overturned. Her wife and daughter will not receive the federal benefits to which military spouses and children are entitled. Charlie Morgan spent the last few years of her life fighting to make sure her wife and child were recognized as her family. She had to fight – while dying of breast cancer – for that basic right. And she lost.

She’s not alone.

Queer children – and children who “seem” queer – are bullied, sometimes to death (MASSIVE trigger warning for that link – the stories of bullying are horrific). Some states have tried to pass anti-bullying laws, only to see them vetoed by conservative governors. Because apparently, children killing themselves due to bullying isn’t problem. Sometimes, teachers are barred by law from helping gay kids or talking about gay issues. Kids at my brother’s school still throw around the word “gay” as an insult. His gay friends are afraid to come out in Madison, one of the more progressive cities in the USA. In Russia, same-sex couples are facing a law that could take their children away from them. Their children could get taken away because of their sexuality.

So that’s the context in which Dan Didio and the DC executives decided that Kate Kane couldn’t marry her girlfriend.

That’s… not a neutral context. And that’s not a neutral choice. Even if it was well-intentioned. You can’t avoid playing into anti-queer tropes when you bar the queer protagonist of the only queer-headlined book in DC from getting married.

You just can’t avoid playing straight into those tropes. Your intentions do not matter. The tropes you are playing into reinforce the oppression that queer people have to navigate on a daily basis. I do not care about your intentions. You are now part of a long and proud tradition of grossness. Congratulations.

***

Now would be a good time to explain why Batwoman is the only trade I’ve ever bought. And why it’s the only piece of fiction on my desk. And why my computer background is a picture of Batwoman. And why this blog’s icon is Batwoman.

About a year ago, I announced on this blog that I would start a new project: I would read as many comics as I could so I could  find some that were non-oppressive and female-friendly. My friend immediately recommended Batwoman: Elegy. And since I trusted her. I immediately ordered it from the library.

That summer we had a massive heatwave in Wisconsin. No rain at all, and sweltering temperatures every day – it was pretty miserable. And I’d volunteered to take care of my family friends’ garden, which was enormous and intricate and required an extraordinary amount of water. So I had to bike there every day around five (when it started to cool down), water for about three or four hours, and then bike home. In epic heat.

By the time I got home, I very rarely had energy to read. So I kept putting Batwoman off.

One night, I brought all the comics I’d ordered from the library with me to the garden. As the sun dropped slowly towards the west, I listened to Adele and and watered the roses, the tomato plants, the lilies. I put the sprinkler on, sat on the porch and pulled out Batwoman. The garden was lit with the orange-pink light of sunset.

I read for a long time.

I’m a fast reader – a trade comic usually takes me twenty minutes to read.

But I was in that garden for at least two hours.

I read until it was dark, and I had to turn the floodlights on – and then I kept reading. And reading. And reading.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had an experience with comics as absorbing as I did that night with Batwoman. I  read pages over and over again, looking carefully at JH Williams’ artwork, flipping pages back to check relevant bits of dialogue, marveling at Kate Kane’s character and admiring Batwoman’s costume.

When I got home, I reread the entire comic.

I loved Batwoman. I love Batwoman. The art is incredible. The storytelling is engrossing and powerful and painful. Greg Rucka gives us information exactly when we least expect it, complicating our understandings of the characters and their motivations. When we feel like we can’t handle anymore, he pushes again, shattering our impressions and forcing us to reconsider everything we believed. Meanwhile, Williams’ artwork is such a perfect interpretation of Rucka’s plot: it’s arresting and beautiful and thematically resonant and disturbing all at once.

Batwoman, Batwoman: Elegy, Comics, Greg Rucka, JH Williams III

Batwoman: Elegy is a stunning, superb piece of work. I love it for many reasons, and I re-read it for many reasons.

But there’s one sequence that kept drawing me in. At this point in the story, Kate Kane is a military cadet at West Point. She’s called into her Colonel’s office and told that she’s been accused her of homosexual conduct. The Colonel tells her that if she apologizes – if she says it’s a mistake, a joke – she’ll face a disciplinary action, but she’ll stay in the army. The Colonel believes she’ll make a great officer, so he’s willing to bend the rules a little and let her stay on.

The next few panels are worth seeing in their entirety:

Batwoman Greg Rucka JH Williams III Batwoman Elegy

Kate Kane Greg Rucka JH Williams Batwoman,

[Transcript: Kate Kane, a white woman wearing a cadet's uniform, stands in the Colonel's office. He's a white man wearing a military uniform.
Kate: "Sir, all I've ever wanted since my mother and sister were murdered is to serve." 
Colonel: "Then it seems to me your choice is clear. You know what I need you to say." 
Kate: "A cadet shall not lie, cheat or steal, or suffer others to do so. I'm sorry sir, I can't." 
Kate: "I'm gay." 
Kate removes her cadet's ring and places it on the Colonel's table.]

That sequence, for me, was Batwoman. Honor. Integrity. And a desire to serve without having to compromise herself.

That’s what Kate Kane achieved when she remade herself into Batwoman after being barred from military service. She could still serve, even if her country did not want her service. She could still protect her city and her people, even if her sexuality kept her out of the military. She could serve by her own code.

It was a message I needed to hear.

For the next few days, I was in turmoil. Was I living by my own code? Was I being honest about myself? Was I even being honest to myself?

I’d identified as straight for my entire life. My only relationship was with a man. I talked about crushes on boys all the time, and I certainly never mentioned crushes on girls. Sure, I always said I wasn’t 100% positive about my sexuality. Anything could change, and it was entirely possible that I could also be attracted to women. But I wasn’t attracted to women now. And I hadn’t been at any point in the past.

I acted like I wasn’t hiding anything.

But I was. I was lying, even to myself. I was deeply attracted to women. I’d had crushes on women – only I didn’t *call* them crushes, even in my mind, even when I thought about what it would be like to kiss them, to touch the and  to hold their hands. I’d flirted with women. I’d wanted women.

Those crushes were so vivid in my mind. The incredible actress I met in high school. A friend I admired. Another friend I admired. A girl who flirted with me. I remembered them all perfectly, remembered the way they’d made me feel, the way I stared at them, and desired them. And the way I didn’t think of it as attraction at all.

The longest crush I ever had was on a woman.

And the most instant attraction I’ve ever had was to a woman. I sat down next to her in class, glanced over at her face, and it hit me right in the gut. My lips and my fingertips were tingling

Whoa.

I sat next to her all that semester. We became friends. My crush dissipated when she talked about her boyfriend, though my attraction never did.

But these weren’t crushes, even though I’d had them for just as long as I’d had crushes to men. This wasn’t attraction. I was still straight, to everyone else, and to myself.

I was scared to admit my desire towards women. Scared, because yes, queerness is dangerous. Scared of how my friends would react and what my family would think. And what it would mean for me to identify as queer, to openly admit to liking women. But I was also hopeful. I saw something in that comic – in Kate Kane’s strength, in her honesty, in the normalcy of her life as a gay woman and a gay superhero. The strength of my reaction to Batwoman – the way I kept reading and rereading it, the emotional force with which it gripped me – made me reconsider my identity. I questioned myself, questioned those memories, questioned my feelings.

A few days after reading Batwoman, I came out on my social networks as bisexual.

I told my brother when we took a trip to New Orleans. “Oh, cool,” he said, and we started talking about Octavia Butler. I’ve never really told my parents, although I’ve mentioned it on the blog, and at least one of them reads it. But even if I haven’t formally “come out” to everyone, I’ve exited that strange place of dissonance where I could be attracted to women on one level, and completely straight on the other.

And I feel… better. Much better. Much happier, and more comfortable with myself.

There’s a reason Batwoman is my avatar, and my icon.

There’s a reason the Feminist Batwoman lives on this blog.

Batwoman

***

Batwoman means a lot ot me. And part of the reason she means so much to me is because of the way she – and her writers – handle her sexuality. With honesty, integrity and simplicity.

Even though I’m a Renee/Kate shipper, I was excited for Kate’s marriage to Maggie. I knew it was a major milestone. It meant something to me, a bisexual woman, to see a queer relationship treated with so much respect. To see that Kate’s sexuality was still an integral part of her storyline , without the writers ever turning it into a token social justice commentary.

Kate Kane’s creators respected her.

I respected her.

Now we’ve got the DC executives nixing storylines at the last minute. We have them kicking off the creative team two issues earlier than they planned to go (JH Williams and W. Haden Blackman both planned to stay until Issue 26, but DC’s decided to put the book under new management starting on Issue 24). You have Dan Didio saying the company stands behind the character – while calling her Kathy Kane the whole time.

Hint, Mr. Didio: Kathy Kane is a totally different character. And Kate *never* goes by Kathy, which you would know if you’d read BatwomanElegy.

And the execs are acting like nixing Kate’s marriage isn’t problematic. At all.

Which shows how little they understand about their own creations.

This is not respect.

Batwoman inspired me to be honest about my sexual orientation. Her bravery gave me courage. Her relationships with women filled me with joy. I felt safe within the pages of those comics. I felt hopeful within the pages of those comics.

I will keep my Batwoman trades on my desk.

But I will not be buying any Batwoman comics after Issue 24.

***

Quick note:

I asked the Feminist Batwoman, who sometimes takes over my blog, what she thought of DC’s handling of Batwoman.

This was her response:

Photo on 9-7-13 at 8.14 PM

Not very mature, but what are you going to do? She’s a vigilante who sometimes steals my computer to write on my blog. She’s not exactly polite.

***

Second Note: DC is also responsible for the Harley Quinn debacle, which combines stereotyping of mental illness, casual use of suicide, mental illness/suicide as a pinup etc. DC comics is doing GREAT right now.

Comment note: please do not try to defend DC’s stance as “neutral” or non-oppressive towards queer people.


9 Comments on “What I Learned From Batwoman”

  1. kshyama says:

    excellent article! loved the way you blended personal and political information <3

  2. Geo says:

    Great article. Something else you might want to be aware of: the same month that DC editors were telling Blackman/Williams they couldn’t let Batwoman marry, they were ditching another prominent gay character. In issue # 23 (the most recent issue) of “Teen Titans,” Bunker, a gay character, suddenly exits the title. It feels like it comes out of nowhere. Coincidence? Or was this more editorial meddling? It’s curious that while DC’s editors are swearing they’re not anti-gay, the DC Universe they say is so “gay friendly” is shrinking fast, losing GLBT characters and sabotaging ongoing GLBT storylines. Maybe the Orson Scott Card thing wasn’t a fluke. I just wish someone would publicly call DC on the Bunker/Teen Titans thing, and ask them about that in connection with their flimsy defense of the Batwoman fiasco, because it sure seems funny to me that one of the only other prominent gay characters at DC was written out of the picture at pretty much exactly the same time the editors were shutting down a lesbian wedding.

    • C.D. says:

      …*sigh*. I didn’t know that. It’s incredibly depressing. I do remember that Starling from Birds of Prey disappeared, and as I recall, she was canonically bisexual. So, you know. They’re clearly doing *such* a great job with queer characters.
      Thanks for letting me know about the Teen Titans – I’ll check it out.

  3. Eileen Young says:

    I’m crying a little – because this is an excellent post, because I hadn’t quite realized what Batwoman meant to you (despite the adoption as icon), and because those particular panels where she refuses to compromise make me tear up every time.

    I stopped buying comics because I don’t like episodic storytelling and the pervasive misogyny bothered me, but what they’re doing to Kate Kane is awful.

    • C.D. says:

      *Hugs*. Thank you so, so much for recommending Batwoman to me. I owe you all the cookies. And it worked out quite well, as you see!

      And I agree re: those panels. They always stop me in my tracks. They’re so well-paced, and well-drawn, and the emotion is perfect and… gaaaaaaaaaah

      And yeah… I don’t generally buy single-issues of comics because episodic storytelling… doesn’t work for me. I do buy trades, but I’m still like “I WANT THE FULL NARRATIVE, DAMN IT.”

      • Eileen Young says:

        *hugs* I’m really glad it has worked out so well for you!

        They just have such tremendous impact. It’s great.

        I’ve really been enjoying the whole crop of superhero movies because of the way they have the full narrative all on one place. Well, except for the latest Wolverine movie, because the Frank Miller was showing through.

  4. Gary says:

    Thank you for a great article. Here is a great role model for ALL of us, women and men, and it’s defeated by business/money, etc. I think Feminist Batwoman’s reply was totally appropriate and, more important, right to the point.

    • sunlessnick says:

      While this part is not about her sexuality, one of my favourite things about Batwoman is that she’s inspired not by Batman himself so much as the Bat Signal – that little bit of legitimacy that turns it from one guy’s private crusade into a cause worth being part of.

      On the post itself, I agree completely (including the bit about shipping Kate and Renee).

  5. T. says:

    Your post turned my anger – no, rage – over DC’s (and most other comics), misogynistic douchebaggery, into sadness and grief for the Kate Kane that was – what she meant, me, to her fans….especially her Lgbt fans….and what she could have meant to a new generation of lgbt fans.

    I too use Batwoman as my totem….and as a teacher, I use her story to explore lgbt, feminist, and many other social justice issues with teens. Although this development is a great teachable moment…..my personal sadness, grief, and rage prevents me from addressing is publicly yet.

    I will continue to read the book, although I did a lot of soul searching before reaching this decision, because I can’t bring myself to abandon Kate or Maggie at this juncture….I love them too much and feel I must see them through this crisis….hopefully- if DC comes to its senses – to an ultimately happy future.

    Thank you for this post.


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