On Flashpoint #1:

Sex, Gender, and the Superhero Crossover

We’ll talk of the value of Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert’s Flashpoint #1 solely in the context of a superhero comic at another time, but it’s worth saying in passing that it’s in many ways a far, far better book than were the appalling issues of The Flash which preceded it and set it up.

Mind you, that’s something of a shameful business in itself, because it’s obvious from the pages of Flashpoint that Mr. Johns hadn’t actually lost his ability to write a story that was anything other than a shoddy, rushed bodge-job. And so, it appears that “The Road to Flashpoint” was such a poor, shallow, consumer-cheating piece of work because Flashpoint was absorbing a disproportionate amount of its creator’s time and energy.

I’m sure that DC is even now preparing a public apology for charging the consumers of the last few issues of The Flash the outrageous sum of $2.99 a comic, while Mr. Johns was, it seems, investing most of his efforts on far more important matters elsewhere. Perhaps those of us who showed faith in both company and creator might even be offered a partial refund in return for our naive belief and dumb consumer-trust.

There’s a simple rule that applies whenever a writer is tempted to add sexual violence to a script in the name of entertainment. The rule, of course, is “don’t.”

Flash fact: sexual violence isn’t ever to be sprinkled into a comic-book just to amuse and entice the punters.

In Flashpoint #1, the sexual violence implied in the text involves two distinct but associated programs of organised and unimaginably psychotic oppression. The first is the slaughter of what’s implied to be all 32 million males in the United Kingdom by an army of women. The second is the immediate castration by said women of any male who subsequently sets foot ”in the good ol’ U.K.” The first business, those 32 million slaughtered men, is used in Flashpoint as way of creating a sense of jeopardy, the second, that terrifying business of purposeful and merciless castration, is placed to double that foreboding while adding a touch of boy’s own humor to the mix.

Castration is, after all, surely as funny as it’s scary. Isn’t that so?

Of course, in the real world, all acts of mass systematic sexual violence, including the mutilation of sexual organs, are organised by and executed by men. It’s men who undertake the beating, torturing, raping, maiming, and murdering which such policies of sexual violence involve, and the victims, now as throughout history, are mostly, although of course very much not exclusively, women. It says so much about the Common Comics Culture that when the superhero narrative finally does touch upon an issue of such genuine social and political concern, it’s women who are presented as being to blame for mass murder and sexual mutilation, while it’s the men who are portrayed as the victims.(*1) Though that’s never been true for the whole of recorded history, and while precisely the opposite stands even today, in the DCU it’s those violent sword-wielding women who viciously persecute those helpless males.

It’s not that Geoff Johns and his colleagues are in any way working to suggest that organised armies of woman are persecuting men, and indeed castrating them en masse, out here in our world. Nor is there any intimation that the gender wars of the Flashpoint DCU stand as a comment on contemporary affairs at all. No, the offense is caused by DC’s inability to grasp that all stories do, regards of how they’re intended, stand as political comment. Whether the editors and creators of Flashpoint meant to be insensitive and sexist about this aspect of their tale is irrelevant, for the fact is that insensitive and sexist is how they appear. After all, it’s so telling that the only time that the DCU chooses to touch upon such vital contemporary issues of state-directed sexual violence, the truth of such deliberate programmes of terror becomes entirely inverted, with the men being threatened and the women placed as the violent sexual destroyers. Mr. Johns and his team couldn’t have better obscured the truth of this issue if they’d tried, if they’d set out to quietly convince a largely male audience that women really are out to get men, and to remove their testicles, both literally and metaphorically, while doing so. But, no, I suspect that nobody at DC had the slightest idea that they were touching a terribly disturbing and vitally important cluster of issues in the first place.

There’s no apparent social purpose, no commitment to social justice, where the gender politics of Flashpoint and its mass-murdering, castrating Amazons are concerned. The only function of such sensitive and should-be-shocking material in Flashpoint #1 is to add a little shiver and a little chill for its mostly-male readers, which strongly suggests that issues such as mass sexual violence are thought of as nothing but entertainment at DC. It’s not that anyone meant conscious harm, it’s that no one was on deck asking questions about whether such issues should be being embedded in their stories in the first place. And that’s what’s offensive, because that’s all that sexual violence means here: entertainment in a story. Millions of dead males, the threat of female-on-male genital mutilation — it’s just a way for the heroic challenge facing Cyborg and his doubtful superheroes to appear even more intimidating, and for Citizen Cold to seem to be yet more amusingly sinister through his allusions to the removal of testicles.

It’s also telling that the only independent nation of women in the superhero mainstream is here being associated so definitively with sexual abuse, to say the very least, and — once again — organised mass violence. Indeed, it’s not so very long ago that that DC had the Amazons invade the U.S.A. Whether in an alternative DCU, where we might expect characters to be behaving atypically or not, the message does seem to be one that finds the very idea of a state ruled by women rather than mostly by men to be deeply threatening. It’s as if the very idea of women who are powerful and independent simply has to be associated with men having their testicles cut off, with the sacred symbols of Washington D.C. and London’s Westminster being trampled on by armies of Nazi-Amazons. Those nasty vicious women just won’t listen to reason, and they’re going to emasculate poor helpless men too.

Some of the most terrible aspects of the suffering of women and girls are here reduced in the superhero narrative to elements of fun, the most noble of their aspirations twisted into comic-book evidence of how dangerous and threatening their silly ideas are. Worse yet, at this point of Flashpoint at least, such vital matters are just there as side-issues, as little storytelling lures, to spice up the apparently far more important issues of changed continuities and altered superheroic identities.

Women who don't castrate in Flashpoint #1: Barry Allen's lovable mother.

The role of the Amazon women  in Flashpoint is to serve as little more than a sideshow of castration and gender-genocide. But then Flashpoint #1 is very much a book about men and the things which scare men: losing their mums, losing their wives, losing their testicles. All the lead characters of this crossover so far are men, and the world is portrayed exclusively from the perspective of a profoundly traditional male point-of-view. Cyborg, the Flash, the Batman — they carry the narrative, their opinions frame the tale. Where women do appear, in terms of supporting speaking roles, they take their place as (1) a mother, (2) an ex-wife, (3) a bitching superheroine, (4) a mad superheroine, (5) a supervillianess kicked off a rooftop, and (6) two female members of the Marvel family given one sisterly line each about working together and not squabbling. Indeed, in the gathering of superpeople which serves as the second double-page spread of Flashpoint #1, there are just four women present in comparison to the fourteen men who dominate the design.

Four women, fourteen men. How’s that for a statement of intent where representations of sex and gender are concerned? And I suppose no one will be shocked if I suggest that half of those few women are fundamentally characterised in their first appearance by their substantial breasts? Indeed, only the Enchantress, the most significantly undressed and breastful of the female super-people on show, stands at the front of the group, because, I suppose, those breasts must be seen. The other three — 3! — members of the cast are all notably standing behind their male counterparts and looking, considered as a group, rather unimpressively woeful, scared rather than defiant, nervous rather than determined.

In truth, the only women who do anything of note beyond loving or not loving Barry Allen in Flashpoint are actually those Amazons, meaning that, for this issue at least, there’s a nice sense of counterpoint between mummy / wifey / sisterly women and those radical Amazons, who’re gonna to cut it off, boys!

Honestly, DC, don’t you have anyone checking whether at least your event books are presenting essentially balanced social representations?

*1: No doubt there will have been men involved in “provoking” the Amazons, but I doubt those 32 million dead British males will be presented to us as having deserved their fate. Those women will have gone too far, I suspect, in the Flashpoint timeline as they do in the DCU proper.
*2: Four members of ethnic minorities out of these 18 characters on show isn’t too impressive either, especially considering that the entire DCU was up for reinventing in Flashpoint.

The strangest thing about the references to sexual violence in Flashpoint is how they’re quite obviously there as a deliberate part of the set-up for the coming (almost) line-wide crossover rather than as a part of any kind of ethical agenda. There’s a terrible and quite repellent irony in the idea of a narrative tease where sexual violence is concerned. The reader’s curiosity is being purposefully snared by hints and passing details about the sexual horror which these terrible Amazons both have and might have committed. We’re being nailed as future readers, or so DC seems to believe, in part on the basis that sexual violence is titillating, that it’s going to be as exciting as it’ll be tense to stand by the likes of Cyborg and Citizen Cold as they face these women who have “slaughtered” thirty-two million men and who may be removing scrotums too.

It’s that very business of the tease which disturbs this reader the most. For example, Mr. Johns has Citizen Cold make the following comment, and Cold is at this point in the narrative being positioned as a bad guy, meaning that we don’t know whether we trust him or not, which will inspire us, it seems to have been presumed, to want to come back to see if he’s right or not:

“but a guy like me, Hell, any guy sets foot on the good ol’ U.K… I heard you’re singin’ soprano.”

So, the whole purpose of this part of the text is to keep the image of those castrating women in our mind, to have us fascinated by whether they do or whether they don’t do these terrible things. Strangely enough, the matter of the murder of ”thirty two million (having been) slaughtered when the Amazons claimed the United Kingdom as New Themyscira” is stated in an unconditional sense by an apparently trustworthy source. We’re not supposed to be too worried about all those tens of millions of murders of the male Brits, but we are apparently going to be enticed by the mystery of the rebel scrotums. Castration is the interesting stuff, castration is the matter which will keep us thinking, make us wonder; castration is the question left open to keep us curious. Whether the Amazons actually are culling those essential tropes of masculinity is irrelevant to the point that one of the key unresolved refers to sexual violence.

To those who’d suggest that this is all far too much attention to be being paid to a few panels, I’d wonder whether there is in general such a thing as an acceptable minimum of sexual violence, a small enough dose of rape, a respectfully limited sprinkling of superhero gelding? I’d also point out that Flashpoint #1 is already in itself a narrative in which women operate quite on the periphery where the lead roles are concerned. We’re not talking just about two panels and a series of unresolved prurient plot-points.

Perhaps Wonder Woman herself will prove to have had nothing to do with the mass murder of men and the castration squads. Perhaps the latter are all an invention of gossip-mongers and the likes of Citizen Cold in this new DCU. Perhaps Wonder Woman is a good mass-murdering sexual fascist instead of one of those women who really enjoys her job. Maybe she and her sisters just had a bad day and couldn’t control their feelings, and with all that emotion flying around, felt that they just had to create all those mountains of dead males. Or, well, perhaps it was the bad Amazons who did it. Or, gosh, perhaps they’re being manipulated by nasty men into conforming to a pantomime stereotype of how women get when their feelings are aroused. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, but to play the snare game is to buy into the whole premise of sexual-violence-as-entertainment in the first place.

If DC really wanted to deal with the issues of sexual violence on a mass scale, and we’ll touch on the reality of that most disturbing and disgusting of social problems in a moment, then they’d not have used it to create anticipation in the minds of its readers for a summer popcorn crossover. They’d have had the whole matter center-stage from issue one, because they’d have known that to leave a humane resolution to these dubious plot threads lying open for even one more month is to be seen to use sexual violence as a component of entertainment.

There is, of course, a lurking suspicion that this whole aspect of Flashpoint hasn’t been designed to reflect the reality of sexual violence as a political weapon at all, hasn’t been set up to responsibly inform the readers of DC Comics about the significant number of countries who today use for example rape as a deliberate weapon of oppression against their citizens. Indeed, there is a worrying thought that this suggestion of women “slaughtering” millions of men, and perhaps removing their testicles too, exists because DC Comics thinks that this in itself is all rather exciting in the way of minor plot-points.

Why was the Enchantress placed at the front of the heroes?

I really do believe that it’s important that one simple fact, one absolute truth, is stated over and over again until it’s accepted as being simply true. Whenever armies have been used by a state or a cause to oppress one particular gender, the soldiers have always been male and the victims have always been female.

Flash fact: in any situation in history where a mass of one gender has organised campaigns of sexual terror against another, women have never been the aggressors. Put simply, women do not, and never have, organise themselves into armed units on any level and rape, mutilate, and murder men. The opposite has, however, forever been true. Indeed, wherever organised sexual violence has occurred, whether aimed at males or females or those defining their own gender, it’s been men who’ve taken the lead in the oppression.

Therefore, to suggest even playfully that a nation of super-women are the mass murderers of millions of poor innocent men while perpetrating a regime of sexual terror is the narrative equivalent of presenting an alternative Earth in which the Germany of the thirties and forties is ruled by a super-Jewish state sending millions of Europeans to the gas chamber. Women should no more be cast as the sole perpetrators of mass sexual violence, given that the opposite is always true, than the Jewish people should be presented as a genocidal tyranny in an alt-world take on the 1930s. Each of these fictional scenarios does nothing but insult the victim while leaving the culprit unchallenged. Both may sound like interesting ideas, as clever reversals of what is expected by an audience, but unless such concepts are (1) right at the center of the purpose of the narrative, and (2) designed solely to challenge the very prejudices which they appear to bolster, they should never be given a second thought. Yet although no one beyond a Nazi would even dream of showing a Jewish state building furnaces at Buchenwald, it seems so easy for women to be pictured murdering millions of men for no other apparent reason than the fact that it seems rather entertaining to watch them doing so.

Could it really be that the DC staff behind Flashpoint have no idea that mass, organised sexual violence as an instrument of state power is a fact of our world’s present and everyday reality, just as it has been the vilest of commonplaces throughout human history? Could it be that no one at DC actually knows that it’s men who persecute women, and sometimes other men too, in this way, as in Zimbabwe, in the Democratic Republic Of Congo, in Iran, in The Sudan, in Haiti, in Burma, in Guinea-Conakry; the list could go on and on just for the past quarter century, as Google would inform you, as organisations such as Amnesty Internationaland War-Child would inform you.

No one involved with Flashpoint #1 seems to have considered how impossibly uncaring and ignorant it is, how entirely offensive it is, to turn the only female nation in the DCU into the equivalent of the rape-states fighting for power within the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Castration and gender-specific mass murder are only not examples of sexual violence when an awareness of such is entirely absent.) No matter how entertaining it might be for an alternative history to show disruptions to the status quo of an established fictional order, to do so for its own sake in this way is simply a mark of sensationalism entirely separated from an awareness of political realities.

Oh, come on, I hear some folks spit, it’s only a joke, it’s only a comic, it’s not a serious business, as if using motifs of sexual violence and oppression could ever be anything but when events in the “real world” are considered. Just this week, the  American Journal Of Public Health has reported that “400 000 females aged 15-49 were raped over a 12-month period in 2006 and 2007″ in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 48 such sexual assaults still taking place every hour up to and including the very moment at which you’re reading this sentence. 12% of the population of women and girls there have, the American Journal Of Public Health reports, been raped at least once. The U.N. estimates that all sides in the civil war have used organised rape as a systematic instrument of policy, and that the last 15 years have seen at the very least 200,000 girls and women either raped or subjected to other forms of sexual violence.  The reader who was unaware of this conflict can rest assured that the rapes were not carried out by platoons of women.

Perhaps Mr. Johns is going to later show us that these comments by Cyborg and in particular by Citizen Cold concerning the Amazon state’s policy of formally-constituted gender-genocide and sexual terror are all hot-air. Perhaps we’ll find that the Amazons have been the victim of a bad press, and that Mr. Johns is going to use this aspect of his tale to discuss the reality of organised sexual violence. Perhaps those Amazons didn’t murder millions of boys and men, perhaps no testicles were removed. Perhaps it’s all going to be for a moral purpose! After all, the superhero narrative rarely mentions rape unless it’s to add jeopardy to a tale, to create a victim of a woman and an avenger of a man, and it’s surely time that the issue was dealt with in a mature and responsible fashion. Given the fact that the audience for superhero books is profoundly male and to a worrying degree apparently quite uninterested in sexual politics, the cape-’n'-chest-insignia sub-genre would be a perfect place to start establishing certain home truths about human sexual oppression.

But if the DCU can’t present a clearly informing portrait of how organised sexual violence occurs in the real world, especially considering how much disinformation and ignorance and naked prejudice abounds in our cultures, then the company’s creators should just shut the hell up.

I’ve never seen a male-dominated culture in superhero comics being portrayed as one which mutilates women’s reproductive organs as a matter of policy, which slaughters all of the female inhabitants of its territory as an act of state. I can’t believe that anyone would think such an idea was interesting enough to follow through on. Such a concept would be surely be considered as offensive as it is inane, unless the creators were working overtime to deal with issues in the most responsible of fashions. I’m sure, indeed, that most of those associated with the CCC would never dream that their male characters would do any such thing. After all, men commit 400,000 rapes a year in America, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, but that’s a quite different issue, obviously. I can’t imagine even the Atlanteans who’ve apparently drowned one hundred million Europeans in Flashpoint #1 being portrayed as women-slaughtering, vagina-removing brutes.

And yet a fictional state composed of women can be conceived of as being organised around the sexual mutilation of men and indeed the murder of tens of millions of them, despite statistics suggesting that 98% of rape, for example, is committed by men. By which I mean, one gender has a far, far worse record of sexual violence on both an individual and an institutional level, and, oddly enough, it’s not the one being shown killing 32 million Brits.

Still, perhaps the Amazons killed as many British females as males. After all, the text implies it’s males who’ve been killed, and the art shows only men being slaughtered, but this, as with Citizen Cold’s talk of testicle-removal, could all be a grand feint on the part of Mr. Johns. But if it is, he’s still created a story where sexual violence is being used in Flashpoint #1 solely to bring in the curious punters for the next issue. One way or another, this is an issue which is being used here for commercial gain and not ethical purposes.

Well, perhaps we’ll discover that the Amazons are being controlled by a god, or aliens, or some daft super-villain who wants the discredit the very idea that women can live free of the strictures of male-dominated culture.

In which case, the narrative’s intentions ought to have been more transparently emphasised in Flashpoint #1, so that this issue didn’t just look like another politically insensitive example of “gee-whiz-what-if” thinking. Because these matters are too important to be left unresolved for another month or three, to be left with DC Comics looking as if it doesn’t know the first thing about giving a damn about anything other than superheroes and profit.

Women who don't castrate in Flashpoint #2: Barry Allen's loving, memory-wiped wife.

For the rule is simple, and it’s so grounded in commonsense and decent-heartedness that it must surely be easy to remember: whenever sexual violence is considered being used as a component of entertainment, rather than as education, it just shouldn’t be. Rape or castration or gender-genocide isn’t funny and it shouldn’t be used for anything other than the most serious of intentions. To do otherwise will both inevitably insult the victims of organised sexual violence and distort the truth of how such horrors occur, two things which everyone involved in Flashpoint would, I’m absolutely sure, never want to do.

This article was originally published on Colin Smith’s blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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  1. Thank you, Colin, for such thought-provoking material. I love that you’re out there to catch this stuff, because it’s too easy to overlook — as I confess to have done. I did sort of do a double-take at how casually the Amazon / Atlantis decimation of Europe was dropped, since I think that would be much a bigger story (as you suggest). But I hadn’t considered the implications of the castration idea, which I thought was silly. If anything, it made me think of Brat Pack and how it’s astounding that the DCU could be smuggling in ideas from a far more intellectually aggressive series (though now over 20 years old). Which only goes to show how habituated we comics readers are to these genre conventions, to the point that it doesn’t occur to us that, yes, people are suffering from organized sexual violence around the world, as is in the news even today. Thanks for making me think deeper.

  2. Brian Dieter says:

    DC has been very oblivious about race and gender sensitivity of late, so this seems par for the course. They could really use some senisitivity training in DC and probably other comics companies as well. I was under the impression that all amazons in the DCU had been raped and murdered before being resurrected on Paradise Island by Athena, so there murdering and castrating the males was something I expected of them. Of course, I have no idea where I got this idea from, so I could be wrong. Of course, this still does not excuse DC rather blase use of such to sell its magazine. Thanks for bringing to my attention. At least with people like you pointin it out, some good may come of it. I still don’t think it was very appropriate or even necessary.

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