I’m quite certain writer Scott Lobdell, writer of Red Hood and the Outlaws, didn’t intend to make Starfire in any way diminishing of women.
I know this because it’s leaked that DC was concerned, prior to publication, about Starfire’s depiction. And from this, we know Lobdell’s take on the matter:
Yes, there were a lot of people there [prior to publication], it had become quite the conversation piece. There was a lot of discussion about Kory and her sexuality the day before this issue went to press.
There were a handful of staff, mostly other women, who believed the writer was trying to equate being a strong woman with being, frankly, a slut. No one said that the writer was misogynistic, just that perhaps he was writing from a male perspective. It was firmly suggested to him that he could accentuate the character’s past as a sex slave. And that this might be an explanation for her sexuality, that she was acting out in her new life.
However, we were told he was adamant that Kory [Starfire's real name] not be portrayed as a victim. The argument was made that if she was acting out sexually because of her past it mind that she mentally never left the prison planet.
In the end a compromise was struck and the sentence “I am a woman” was lost.
“I am a woman” was originally going to be in the third of the three seduction panel, just above where Starfire says “I am free to do what I want when I want.”
In other words, Lobdell saw Starfire’s stance as a far broader statement about female freedom and empowerment.
It’s to the immense credit of DC’s female staff that no one accused Lobdell of misogyny. Because it seems quite clear exactly what was going on, and it had everything to do with how people, especially men and women, interpret female empowerment differently.
Lobdell must have thought “I am a woman” added to the sense of female empowerment. After all, aren’t all women “free to do what [they] want when [they] want?” Well, at least as much as men. And certainly, this freedom includes their choice of sexual partners. On the surface, it’s hard to argue with that.
To the female DC staffers, however, this wasn’t an image of female empowerment. It was more like an equivocation between female empowerment and Starfire’s physical inability to have anything other than casual sex. Such an equivocation sounds like the words of a sleazy male seducer: “C’mon, ain’t you comfortable with your body? Baby, I thought you were liberated.”
Losing “I am a woman” was a poor compromise at best. Yes, it did lessen the equivocation seen by DC staffers, although that same equivocation obviously still remained clear enough, as evidenced by many of the reactions to the issue. But removing the “I am a woman” line also made the comic seem like it wasn’t as well-intentioned as it probably was, and the result is that Starfire and Lobdell and DC come off, if anything, as more thoughtless about these issues than they probably were.
Equally, the invocation of Starfire’s sex slave past was interpreted very differently by the two parties.
To Lobdell, such an invocation would have made Starfire a victim, and Lobdell didn’t want that. It’s hard to believe that Lobdell isn’t aware of Women in Refrigerators — of the sad history of women in comics being raped, turned into sexual slaves, or otherwise victimized. That’s not something Lobdell wants to perpetuate, to his credit. So he’s loathe to even reference Starfire as a recovering victim, especially in the context of her being unapologetically sexual.
After all, any such acknowledgement would imply that her attitude to sex came from a wounded place. It would suggest that a woman who enjoys sex, without any sign of guilt, must be traumatized somehow. Raped by her father, perhaps. Or a former sex slave in an alien gulag. To imply this would only perpetuate the idea that only bad girls enjoy sex. And that’s not just anti-feminist. It’s anti-women. It’s repressive in the worst possible way.
But to the DC staffers, uncomfortable with a strong woman being equivocated with such extreme promiscuity, not to mention male fantasy, Starfire’s past would have at least provided an alternative explanation for her behavior, besides simple female empowerment. It would have implied that casual sex wasn’t the only way to be a strong woman. That having sex with men you can’t remember might not be the best way to feel good about yourself as a woman.
Talk about two different perspectives. It’s virtually a case study in two very different views of female empowerment, one largely male and the other largely female.
In that debate, there’s no bad guy. No villain.
True, Lobdell clearly intended Starfire to be scantily clad and posed sexually. He even pointed out that the page that consists of little more than her emerging from from the ocean. True, he interpreted the page a bit differently, seeing her as “basking in the sunshine” rather than posing for male readers, and he focuses on her “joy.” But it’s hard to believe he didn’t intend for sexy images of Starfire to help sell the issue. Nor that DC objected, based on its including the page in miniature, in an interview run in virtually all of its comics during the week of that issue’s release. It’s another tone-deaf mistake from the publisher that announced its interest in making diversity part of its current relaunch.
Still, it must be said that Lobdell’s thinking, at least as I’ve speculated above, is quite sound and not at all ill-intended. That’s not to say that his portrayal of Starfire wasn’t potentially horrifying in its implications, as I’ve explored at some length. It was. But his thinking about how to fix or amend that portrayal is only horrifying in that it betrays a deep rift between how men and women view these depictions.
And the immense gulf there, between two very different views of female empowerment, is symptomatic of a much wider social problem.
American men generally feel that American women are empowered. American women have every right to have sex with whomever they want. Well, at least as much as men.
True, some women and men may chastise sexually promiscuous women as sluts. This is a complicated issue. In my own, anecdotal experience, the most savage comments about promiscuous women have come from other women. And it’s easy to understand why this may be the case, consciously or not: promiscuous women represent a threat. A distraction that keeps men from committing and also may encourage them to “stray.” For their part, men might enjoy the company of promiscuous women. But if men don’t see themselves as these women’s potential sexual partners, they’re likely to be jealous. More importantly and for evolutionary reasons, men are likely to treat these women more like sexual partners than life partners. From the standpoint of evolution, female promiscuity carries the risk of spending one’s life raising another man’s offspring, which might be emotionally rewarding but which is an evolutionary null zone. So there are many reasons why sexual promiscuity is frowned upon in women more than men, and they certainly aren’t all arbitrary, cultural reasons. This isn’t to excuse such condemnations, but it is to explain that they aren’t rooted in simple misogyny. And these deep roots makes changing this behavior extremely difficult.
But even if an American man himself personally mocks promiscuous women, as long as he’s not harassing anyone, that’s freedom of speech. He’s unarguably entitled to his opinion, ugly and hurtful though it may be.
And while acknowledging this ugliness and hurt, it’s actually entirely consistent to say that women have an absolute right to have as many sexual partners as they wish, while simultaneously looking down upon those who choose to exercise this right. In fact, the entire concept of democracy and religious toleration depends on being able to distinguish between one’s own opinion, about proper or smart behavior, and what one tolerates others doing. That’s what makes it okay to personally think abortion is wrong while not also shooting doctors who perform it. Rights do not guarantee that others won’t disapprove, nor express that disapproval. Sadly, this distinction has been sorely missing, throughout humanity’s blood-soaked history, in which people largely felt free to impose their own opinions upon others and couldn’t fathom the idea that a belief in how others should behave didn’t necessitate its imposition.
So from the perspective of most American men, women are already liberated, when it comes to sex.
Except that these men have the sneaking suspicion that women aren’t, at least psychologically. After all, most men would have a lot more sex, with a lot more partners, if they could. For men, sexual freedom means, well, sticking it in a lot of girls. And men have been told that one of the women would be far more sexually adventuresome, were it not for cultural inhibitions. So if women could toss off these inhibitions, women would be a lot happier. You know, the way men are, when they’re having good sex. Lots and lots of good sex.
Most American men look at Starfire in Red Hood and the Outlaws and assume she must be happy. Most men would be happy, believe it or not, having their choice of sexual partners and losing themselves in (apparently disease-free) endless casual sex with gorgeous, willing partners. Not being able to tell these partners apart wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. It might, in fact, appear blissful.
Yes, it may appear that such men want women to be more promiscuous because it would benefit these men. And that’s not untrue. Most people, including both men and women, believe what they believe less because it’s accurate and more because it’s convenient. But that doesn’t mean that men don’t believe they’re helping women to be happier, by presenting sexually promiscuous women as role models.
To make matters even more complex, American men tend to be extremely confused about what constitutes feminism. Mainstream American feminism has said often said both that women are different, when convenient to the argument (such as more nurturing or life-loving), and that all gender differences are entirely cultural in origin. It’s said that all heterosexual sex is rape and all men are rapists (no joke), but it’s also said that women need to be less sexually repressed. It’s gone from saying that a man opening a door for a woman is sexist and offensive to saying that this same behavior is charming and fine. It’s gone from saying men should be more emotionally expressive to ridiculing this as weak and unattractive. Frankly, American men have been getting so many mixed messages that they have no idea what they’re “supposed” to do anymore. Many want to be sensitive, but they don’t know what flavor of sensitive is in fashion this year.
So when we’re told that Scott Lobdell essentially wanted to make a feminist statement with Starfire, it’s totally believable. “I’m a woman” was clearly intended as an aggressive, pro-sex feminist statement, even if the character’s visual depiction was clearly designed to titillate men.
But it’s not as if that’s an odd combination. Critics praised Angelina Jolie’s character in Salt as a good feminist depiction, but it’s not like Jolie isn’t ridiculously, unattainably good-looking.
And for those who said that Starfire sounded like a man, that’s exactly what many feminist voices have asked for. Sometimes in so many words. In fact, Salt was originally written with Jolie’s character as a man.
Again, none of this is to defend Scott Lobdell’s depiction of Starfire. Nor do I think I went soft on that depiction, in saying he’d written her as the team’s live-in sex object.
But it’s not difficult to see Lobdell’s choices as symptomatic of the confusion many American men have about feminism and what constitutes female empowerment.
Many of these confused American men feel as if they’re in a Catch-22, and that’s easily illustrated by the debate between Lobdell and various, largely female DC staffers.
If he had referenced Starfire’s past as a sex slave, many would have almost certainly read the message that women can only be sexually liberated if they’re somehow traumatized. That’s a horrible message, and it’s one that’s quite clearly oppressive towards female sexuality. It’s understandable that Lobdell wanted to avoid that, at least examined in isolation.
Yet in trying to avoid that, Lobdell didn’t insulate himself from charges of sexism. And it’s situations like this, in which there doesn’t seem any right answer or way to avoid being tarred as a sexist, that have caused many American men to throw their hands up in frustration, feeling that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
To be sure, that’s not necessarily an accurate statement. The deeper problem is that Lobdell’s depiction of Starfire was already so tone-deaf to DC’s stated intentions towards diversity that he’d painted himself into a corner, in which there was no easy fix. The only real fix wasn’t to remove “I’m a woman” or to reference Starfire’s past. It was to go back and rethink the entire way Starfire was depicted.
Of course, there may not have been time for that. Because it now seems that the DC relaunch was so rushed that editors were left with these kinds of quick fixes as their only option.
I’ve now spent some considerable space trying to explain the view of American men, including their confusion about what exactly constitutes a liberated woman today. That’s in part because it’s rarely articulated. American men aren’t exactly the most forthcoming when they feel confused and helpless, especially about any topic concerning women. They’re a lot more likely to be brazen and defensive about it.
A man only sounds cocky when he says, “I thought you’d like women to be unashamed about sex?!? So which is it?” What’s underneath that exterior, designed to sound cocky and confident and masculine, is a lot of frustration and confusion and, yes, pain. Sure, some guys who say these things are just assholes. But there’s a thin line between the confrontational language above and what I read as underlying the same statement. Which goes more like, “I thought we were supposed to support women being unashamed about sex. Now I’m lost again, and I’m frustrated, and I don’t know what even constitutes being sensitive to women anymore, and now I’m angry because it sure seems like nothing’s going to please you, and any depiction of women is going to be branded sexist.”
Now, I’m not excusing the kind of hostile reactions against any charges of sexism that one finds all over internet message boards. I’m also not naive about the fact that most of these men aren’t remotely as thoughtful as I’ve been, in articulating what underlies their frustration. But I do think I’ve done that. And that, as inexcusable as some of these hostile reactions are and continue to be, once one recognizes them as part of the problem with the current comics culture, one has to go about identifying the real, underlying causes that have produced this reactionary zeal. At least, if one is serious about ending such reactions.
But there’s another reason why it’s important to articulate the American male perspective: it’s that perspective which currently dominates comics. And if we’re going to change that perspective, we’re going to have to be able to speak to it, in order to articulate where it’s incomplete or misguided or offensive, when it comes out in depictions like that of Starfire.
I hesitate to follow this with a description of the female equivalent, in part because I’m not female and in part because others, such as Laura Hudson, have already done so eloquently. But it’s fair to say that the American woman doesn’t see things remotely the same way, and it’s this gulf that produces the kinds of disconnects seen in Red Hood and the Outlaws.
For one thing, American women obviously aren’t feeling the sexual freedom men think those women have. Here, we return to the point above about how men don’t necessarily see criticism of promiscuous women as being at odds with sexual liberation. To those men, sexual liberation is primarily a legal matter: women have the right, which isn’t nearly as stigmatized as it used to be, but everyone has the right to think what they wish about how women exercise that right. But women have long had technically had the right to have sex with whom they want. For women, their sexual liberation isn’t legal but social. In other words, what good is it to have a right if one is going to be shunned for exercising it?
Why, that’s a little like saying women have the right to vote, but only a hussy would, don’t you know. It’s simply not done.
In the article I linked to above, Laura Hudson suggests exactly this:
I would like to say first and in the strongest possible terms that I absolutely support the right of women to embrace and act upon their sexual desires in whatever way seems right to them, within consensual boundaries. My sense of justice is inflamed by the double standard that tells us that every person a man sleeps with makes them more of a stud, and every person a woman sleeps with makes them a little less valuable and less respectable. I know this in particular because unlike all the guys who sent me angry messages last night defending the sexual honor of an imaginary character, that double standard is something l have had to live with and be judged by for my entire adult life.
This is heart-wrenching, raw, and honest stuff. It’s something American men need to read and try to understand, just as I’ve argued for the importance of understanding the American male perspective.
Equally, it’s important to recognize that, while Lobdell may well have found himself in a Catch-22 about referencing Starfire’s past, it was a Catch-22 of his own making. Because of the way he’d written Starfire, he was left with no good options.
But there’s something deeper at work here. Traditionally, women were seen as either virgins or whores, as either chaste mother-figures or “loose women.” The same extremes of feminism that have created the crisis of masculinity, described above, have also been damaging and confusing to women. While the right has championed the chaste mother-figure, the left has sometimes ridiculed that figure as unadventurous, boring, old-fashioned, and downright puritanical. “Soccer moms” isn’t exactly as tainted an expression as “slut,” but it’s not exactly a positive term. At the same time, “slut” hasn’t lost its taint. Women are encouraged to be more sexually liberated, but they’re still often stigmatized for acting on their desires.
The virgin / whore dichotomy may have been eroded, but it hasn’t disappeared. And now both of its poles are subject to social ridicule.
The end result is that no one, neither men nor women, have a stable position to occupy. Sensitive men are often ridiculed as “pussies,” and they very rarely find women who are sexually attracted to this sensitivity. Their only alternative seems to be being an asshole. Meanwhile, sexually adventuresome women are often ridiculed as “sluts,” and they find men more interested in them as sexual objects than emotional beings. Their only alternative seems to be going back into the sexual closet, which is not only unsatisfying but likely to be ridiculed as stuffy and repressed.
No one wins in this situation. No one’s left feeling fulfilled.
And although men and women often have opposing interests, it’s easy to see how the crisis in masculinity, described above, is related to a similar crisis in femininity.
Now, I might take issue with Laura Hudson’s use of the term “double standard,” which is something of a pet peeve of mine. Because a double standard doesn’t mean simply having two different standards for two different things. After all, we do that all the time, and life depends on it. No, a “double standard” only has meaning when there’s no significant difference between those two things, relevant to that standard. Thus, it’s not a double standard to fail a poor student paper and give a good grade to a good one — although students will sometimes claim that this is. It is a double standard to expect African-Americans not to date outside their race while tolerating the same in whites — because there’s no significant difference at play. Yet men and women are very different sexually, not only in terms of their obvious biological differences but also psycho-biologically. Some of these psychological differences are cultural, but many have deep, evolutionary roots. Our brains are not designed to judge male and female sexual choices identically, nor has any culture in our species’s evolutionary history done so.
That doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be a social goal, nor that socially rewiring of these brains isn’t possible to a large extent. Those same brains evolved to be wildly socially adaptable. It also doesn’t mean that a double standard can’t exist where sexual difference aren’t at play; it’s clearly a double standard (not to mention self-defeatist) to judge an idea differently from a woman than from a man (at least where gender bias isn’t at issue). But as we build a 21st-century outlook on gender, we desperately need to admit that the radical social constructionist outlook of the second half of the 20th century has been discredited, and this means that men and women cannot casually be compared to find “double standards” the way one can between races.
This may seem like a minor quibble, but it’s actually at the heart of the matter. Because the old, 20th-century patterns have left a massive gulf between men and women. It’s a gulf that’s perfectly visible in the dispute between Scott Lobdell and female DC staffers.
It’s a gulf so profound that the same terms mean different things on either side. And both men and women have assumptions, based on their own experience, that need to be understood and addressed, if we’re going to assemble a truly 21st-century attitude towards sex and gender. And part of the failure of the second half of the 20th century, with respect to sex and gender, has been its naivety, that gender roles were completely social and could be changed as easily as changing terminology.
To do this, we’re going to have to create a discourse. One that examines gender and sexual depictions honestly. One that tries to read the hostile, hurt, and defensive reactions of both men and women charitably.
For too long, American comics haven’t had any significant discourse about issues such as sexism. Its culture has been a boy’s club, too often with a fraternity mentality, at best occasionally countered by elite voices who put down almost all of comics, along with those comics’ excesses. People like Colin Smith have eloquently insisted upon social thoughtfulness in comics, too often greeted by fanboys screaming some variation on “You’re ruining my fun!” As if comics were such a fragile thing, such a politically incorrect boy’s club, that they could only survive in the utter absence of any scrutiny.
That culture’s changed. Because as I noted earlier, the outcry against Red Hood and the Outlaws has been both widespread and, just as importantly, reasonable. Almost every critic has pointed out that cheesecake and sexploitation have a right to exist, are appealing to men, and continue to exist for commercial reasons. That’s not a small thing. It’s a hand extended across the gender divide. It’s an important and, yes, touching gesture to male comics readers that their sexuality isn’t under attack.
It’s also a far cry from the bad old days of socially constructionism, when the fact that men liked to look at scantily-clad women could be deemed the deeper problem — a sign of patriarchal conditioning of male sexuality, as opposed to anything intrinsic in men and deserving of respect, as all sexuality should be.
That doesn’t mean that critics can’t point out the ways in which this comics culture, including sexploitation itself, hurts women and alienates female readers. It can’t mean that, if meaningful exchange is to occur.
And there’s more of that than ever before. Comics companies even seem to be listening, more than ever in the past.
This same frank and respectful debate has extended beyond sexuality. It’s also true about the restoration of Batbara Gordon’s legs, which has understandably upset many people. But there too, critics have been remarkably reasonable.
From this point, two things need to happen.
First, comics’ male readership has to take the olive branch that’s being offered, in those important and reasonable caveats. They must embrace this discussion as part of the maturation of the medium — and as good for the long-term health of that medium. If you continue shouting like a defensive maniac, in the wake of reasonable criticism, you only make yourself look like the worst stereotypes of comics readers — and you can hardly complain if that reasonable tone disappears. By all means, these male readers should respond frankly and honestly, expressing their own thoughts about these issues. But those thoughts must be respectful of the hurt and the implications being discussed, just as those critics have been frank but respectful.
It’s not too much to say that this, at this moment, is comics’ greatest challenge. Because the risk isn’t only that the lack of a respectful response from comics’ largely male audience invites critics to retreat from their conciliatory, thoughtful tone. It’s that comics are branded a sexist, restrictive community that can be easily culturally marginalized, in the same way that all “weird” subcultures can be.
And already there are rumblings, “Should feminists abandon comics?” Which would be a one-way ticket to cultural marginalization. And which is totally understandable, if the response to the very measured points about sexism that I’ve been reading is to scream back defensively as if what was being said weren’t measured but was simply “Comics are sexist! You’re a pig!” Which decidedly hasn’t been the case. Yet if we want to marginalize comics as an insular and pathetic little boys’ club, filled with awkward man-children hostile to any criticism of its tropes, one can hardly think of a faster path than refusing to seriously discuss the very reasonable, sincere objections that are now being made.
But second, we must do everything possible to ensure that this newly widespread and reasonable debate continues. That it’s not a passing reaction to the DC relaunch. That it becomes the new normal. And that comics, consequently, achieve at long last the sort of responsible, serious body of criticism which films and novels and music take for granted.
This is that moment. When the current discussion of these issues gels as part of a continuing part of a mature medium, which can have reasonable and intelligent debate, or when this discussion faces so much resistance that comics veer once more into marginalization.
This isn’t a threat to comics. It’s an opportunity.